Girls in science, sure. But what about engineering?
I got my copy of Ms. Magazine yesterday and in it, and was excited to see an article called “Girls Love Robots, Too,” about a group of girls in San Diego who started their own robotics team and have won honors in national robotics competitions. It talks about how it’s a big thing for girls to have their own team, since men outnumber women in engineering 73 to 27, and emphasizes that the girls are defying the stereotype that only boys like science and math. The story makes engineering look fun: it features photos of smiling girls with a trophy and lab goggle, and discusses how the girls have designed a trash-collecting robot to clean oil from water.
The story struck home with me because tomorrow is the last day of my six-week engineering internship. Out of the eight people in my lab, two (including me) are women. Out of the twenty or thirty high school kids in the internship program, approximately five are women. The gender imbalance has been noticeable from day one, and no matter how many times I have tried to tell myself that it doesn’t bother me, many times it has—not because I’m not used to boys (some of my best friends are male), but because on many occasions I found myself thinking, Dina, what are you doing here?
A lot of that is because no matter what my mother tells me about being smarter than all the boys, society often tells me the opposite. Not directly—there are tons of initiatives right now aimed at getting girls into science—but quietly. From the way that video and computer games and the programming and technical skills that come with them are marketed at boys, to the way that sons are often taught about cars instead of daughters, to the way that when I tell people I want to go into science they automatically assume I want to be a doctor, not an engineer, somehow the feeling has cultivated inside me (and not just me—I’ve had this conversation with a good female friend of mine that also wants to become an engineer) that engineers are supposed to be boys.
I hate that feeling more than anything. I want to be an engineer, and I know that I will be an engineer if I continue to want to—but I know that doing so will be very different for me than for my male peers. A very large part of that is because for most of my life I thought I wanted to be a doctor, or a veterinarian, or some kind of vague profession involving comparative literature, and so now I am in a continuous phase of catching-up in terms of knowledge of science and programming—something that has to do with who I am, not with my gender. But another part is caused by the fact that for my entire childhood no one (besides my mother, of course) even mentioned to me that engineering would be a cool, fun profession for a girl to go into. Until this year, when I had an amazing chemistry teacher who pushed me to explore how much I could do with my love of science, I thought that engineers were in charge of construction sites. Really.
I’m incredibly lucky to have been able to have this internship, but it’s been hard. After the first week I started to hate myself for knowing nothing about programming and being behind everyone else (read: the boys) in literally every form of useful scientific knowledge. But six weeks have gone by, and I’ve learned, and learned how to learn. Although some of the guys my age in the lab started out skeptical, to say the least, about my brainpower and actual capacity to achieve anything, they grew to accept me, help me, and appreciate what I was able to achieve, kind of. However, I can think of multiple occasions when I was overwhelmed by the feeling that I was a complete outsider among all of the people my age in the program, hating the way that the boys naturally talked to me differently about the work they were doing because I’m a girl. Not everyone was like that—I met a bunch of guys who treated me like a person, period—but there were a lot. Whenever that happened, I tried to reassure myself that there are amazing women in science today, but struggled, even though my boss (the other woman in my lab), is an incredibly smart and intelligent woman. Because the statistics are grim and most of the women I read about in the newspaper do work in bioengineering and medicine, sometimes it’s hard to convince myself that going into more technical engineering will be a good fit for me as a woman. In a way, the struggle has made me more motivated to prove to myself that I can be a successful woman engineer, and I’m glad for that, kind of. However, I’d much prefer to think of my likely choice of career as a natural one and not have to prove anything to myself.
We need women in science, including engineering, and women need to be in science, including engineering—it’s necessary for society and for womankind. But in order for that to happen, we need to push women towards science, not just by having scholarships for women engineers (although those are great, especially right now when I’m applying to college), but by pushing girls into science, especially technical science, from a young age. Society needs to help make it cool for girls to get programming experience and lab experience so that girls will feel that it is normal to confidently tell people that they are girls who think that engineering will be an amazing way to spend their lives—something that I’m struggling with today, and that girls will continue to struggle with until we do something to change it.