Is "Female Engineer" an Oxymoron?


A Controversial column

I wrote this in 1999. It attracted a lot of comments. 

By Frank Greenhalgh

In a recent article, the New York Times reported that Smith College, the nation's largest, and one of its oldest, (1875) women's colleges has announced that they will open an engineering department with classes beginning fall, 1999, and graduating the first female engineers in June, 2004. Smith, the alma mater of such distinguished women as Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, will become the first all women's college to offer engineering. That's right Smith will be the very first women's college to offer a degree in engineering after only 124 years of existence. Not only that, but Smith claims that it is doing this to attract "more immigrants, foreigners and first-generation students - the groups that are most drawn to engineering."

Doesn't it seem strange that engineering is not a high priority in US women's colleges? Even in co-ed colleges only one in six US engineering students are women and 96% of the faculty teaching them are men. Is this due to a natural difference between men and women or is it societal pressures that keep women away from pursuing an engineering career?

For years I have been of the opinion that electrical engineering is a boy's career, and girls just don't do engineering. I arrived at this conclusion using empirical data. Over the last forty years I have wandered into engineering laboratories, met with hundreds of engineers and never saw a female engineer. I have worked for German, English and Japanese companies all sans female engineers. Even when females get engineering degrees I don't think you see them sitting late at night working on a breadboard, soldering iron smoking and an oscilloscope probe in their hands. No, they generally are in the administration end of engineering. Reliability, program management and component engineering seem to fit the female engineer's aptitude better. During my years in amateur radio the only female operators had either fathers or husbands who were hams. They liked operating the stations but not setting up the equipment. I am sure that someone out there knows a female engineer that does love creating electrical designs and shares the same passions men do. I am also sure that there are not too many.

This belief has caused me problems with my family. Strong willed women have surrounded me all my life, my wife and my two daughters all have college degrees with careers in Nursing, Education and Chemical Trading. They strongly disagree with me, stating that society has been the cause of this and that more women would be engineers if only they were encouraged in their youth.

When you look at other male dominated professions, females contribute much more. Marie Curie pioneered research on radioactive materials. She won two Nobel prizes, one in Physics (1903) and one in Chemistry (1911). Augusta Ada Byron, daughter of Lord Byron is credited with creating the first ever computer program (1842) used to program the first digital computer invented by Charles Babbage. The Ada programming language is named after her. Grace Murray Hopper pioneered the use of compilers in the early 1950s. Hopper was instrumental in developing COBOL and worked on the UNIVAC computer. What I am trying to say is that women are easily as capable as men to work in scientific professions but engineering does not even make the short list of their preferences.

Is this true only in the US? Do women design and troubleshoot circuits in Israel, Korea, Russia, China or India? I am not sure but Smith seems to feel that way. Could it simply be that the foreign applicants are more realistic and want careers that pay well or do they have a burning desire to design that next piece of hardware?

Recently I mentioned this observation to some fellow engineers and they said that they had met females that were very good design engineers, "they even would curse like men" I was told. Still each could only mention one or two in their lifetimes and they talked as if they were exceptions. Maybe my daughters are correct. The Times article mentioned that women from Smith who attend EE courses at the University of Massachusetts feel that the male students do not respect them. Again is this due to their lack of engineering emotion or is it due to prejudice? I guess only time will tell.

Females seem to be naturally drawn to other hobbies and interests but not engineering. I have always thought that many countries deprive themselves of the best possible work force by not permitting females in the workplace. Are engineers in the US doing this by not encouraging females to become engineers? Could it be that male engineers are so boring that females choose not to enter the profession? Whatever the reason, the facts indicate that women do not choose engineering.