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.