A Gender-and-Science Paradox

Here’s the paradox: there are differences between men and women that manifest themselves in engineering practice, so diversity is good, except there aren’t really any differences between men and women that matter in engineering practice, so diversity doesn’t matter to the profession. Huh? Who’s making these contradictory arguments, and why?


There’s a research report on gender in technology by Wendy Faulkner (you can download it from here) which examines this remark:

Women into engineering campaigners often claim that women bring a different approach to engineering.

Do women have better people skills than men? Do men take more pleasure in technology? Faulkner reports that her ethnographic evidence says no; there are more differences among men and among women than between men and women.
But the belief persists that (all) women are different from (all) men. People skills are seen as feminine, love of technology as masculine. Engineering is perceived to be all about the technology, even though people skills are needed to succeed in a career in engineering. What effect does all this have?
It led the engineers in Faulkner’s study to downplay and/or ignore the evidence of people skills when displayed by men, and to ignore or miss women’s evident love of technology. If engineering is seen as mostly about loving the technology, and women as excelling in people skills, this would lead people (men and women) to perceive women as a bad fit for engineering. It reinforces a narrow view of masculinity as enacted in the engineering profession – the anti-social, nerdboy image.
So in this instance, people are willing to believe that there are (perhaps essential, perhaps socialized) meaningful differences between men and women that affect the ways in which they approach and/or experience careers in engineering. Boys will be boys, with their technological toys, and girls will make everyone feel better.
Now let’s consider this. The argument has been put forth (by William Wulf, among others) that opening up engineering to more diverse groups would have a positive effect on engineering. Diversity of membership leads to diversity of ideas and increased creativity and thus better engineering. Men and women, white people and people of color, people from different socioeconomic classes, experience the world differently; they draw on that differing experience in approach to engineering design solutions. A wider range of possible solutions can be considered and thus the best solution is more likely to emerge. This argument is NOT based on essentialist understandings of sex, race, or class. It does not say that all women are different from all men, but it allows that on average, women and men are likely to have different sorts of experiences because of how society is structured. On average, you might expect to get a different set of perspectives on a problem if you opened up engineering.
This argument for the existence of meaningful differences is often strenuously resisted (especially by those most invested in “protecting the standards” or defending the view of a meritocracy in engineering.) You’ll get the sarcastic response “What is this different kind of engineering that women will do? Will airplanes designed by women still fly?” Objectors may concede that men and women have different sorts of experiences but deny that it makes any difference.
Why the different response? A belief in meaningful differences that reinforces gender stereotypes is acceptable. We all know that masculinity is hard and femininity is soft, right? Women have “soft” people skills; men excel in “hard” technological skills. The argument that Wulf puts forth is subversive of this; it suggests that technological expertise can arise from many different sources, including especially those we have not traditionally identified as sources of that expertise. It decouples masculinity and whiteness from engineering.
Saying we should have more women engineers because women have such good people skills and engineering needs people skills is not radical, and calling people skills “soft” skills is not transforming. Translation: real engineering, which is hard, and masculine, has been done by men and it is just fine, but it would be nice to have some women around to make social intercourse more pleasant. Saying that increased diversity in engineering would increase creativity and improve engineering has more potential to be radical and transforming. Translation: engineering is something everyone is capable of; having an exclusive white male fraternity of engineers has impoverished the profession. It’s no wonder the latter has met with much more resistance than the former.

  1. Karen
    January 29, 2008 at 1:34 am

    As a female software engineer and manager with two decades of industry experience, I would assert that few engineers (myself included) ever become clever/intuitive/focused enough to discover a truly new way of approaching an old problem, or a truly new technology to re-interpret an old assessment of it.
    Those who have done so have been visionaries, and mostly men. Is that surprising, given the ratio of men to women in engineering? There is a true gift for properly assessing the EXISTING , and figuring out a way to convert it to the OPTIMAL . I can’t accept, after many years as a lead engineer and a manager, that there are significant differences between genders in the approach to these problems, or resistance to visionary solutions proposed by female engineers.
    However, I have seen a pervasive tendency to reject reasonable, but un-visionary, solutions from female engineers that would be considered without prejudice from their male colleagues. Since this scenario characterizes most solutions to engineering problems, is it any wonder that female engineers feel shafted, and many escape the profession on one pretext or another?
    I am an example; after two decades as a software engineer, I bailed out and am pursuing a master’s degree in a scientific discipline that has long intrigued me (and does not generally require a doctorate for most positions). I may have trouble finding a new job, but at least I can anticipate that my knowledge might at least slightly outweigh my gender in an employer’s initial assessment.

  2. Ian
    January 29, 2008 at 7:34 am

    If women are constantly forced to focus on gender disparities and how to resolve them and/or manage them, it doesn’t leave them much time and energy to focus on the visionary stuff.

  3. January 30, 2008 at 12:00 pm

    But the belief persists that (all) women are different from (all) men. People skills are seen as feminine, love of technology as masculine. Engineering is perceived to be all about the technology, even though people skills are needed to succeed in a career in engineering. What effect does all this have?
    I think people skills are needed every time you deal with people no matter what the field or situation! I have also known just as many women who are just as enthusiastic about science and technology as any men. I was talking to a friend recently about stereotypes and the we-they mentality we all seem to have inherent as human beings. I think the way to move past these problems is each person doing the best they can to disprove the stereotypes, like what you are doing with this post!
    Dave Briggs :~)

  4. January 30, 2008 at 2:55 pm

    I think the way to move past these problems is each person doing the best they can to disprove the stereotypes, like what you are doing with this post!

    This is only one part of it. Thinking this could be a route to equity is based on the misconception that gender, race, or class privilege is about nothing more than the “attitudes” of individuals. Structural features of the institutions and social networks that comprise the profession of science reinforce gender, race, and class privilege. Therefore, an essential component of any good-faith plan to achieve equity is effort by those who control the levers of power to eliminate these structural reinforcers.

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: