To celebrate National Women in Engineering Day, Make magazine launched a week of profiles on women makers . I'm really enjoying reading them. (Here are the ones posted so far: Lenore Edman, Jeri Ellsworth, Erin Kennedy, Caroly Reiley-Ng. All four of these women are amazing, and I encourage you to temporarily stop reading this post, and read these profiles. And then keep reading the ones that get posted later this week.)
This comes on the heels of the White House Maker Faire, which my daughter and I were delighted to attend and present at. I was ecstatic to see my six year old in the White House teaching adults about circuits. She met amazing role models, both women and men, and had an amazing day seeing the incredible things that people had made and were passionate about.
Then today, six days after my 6 year old daughter was in the White House explaining current flow to people double her height, I took my two daughters to a local store and saw this:
And... I've had it. What are girl's toys? Doesn't that just mean "a toy that a girl plays with?" What if my daughters want something from the "boy's toys" aisle? What if a boy wants a pink toy, or a craft kit? It was the final straw to a lot of things that have been on my mind lately.
Given that we spend so much time talking about how to get girls interested in STEM, I also think we women in STEM should share the moments that made us doubt our paths.As a female engineering professor, I'm used to being the only woman in the room (or one of a small number of women.) Heck, I was the only woman Ocean Engineering major my year at MIT. In my 9 years of engineering undergraduate and graduate work, I only had one female professor. She was amazing, and she taught Music Theory. I have never had a female STEM professor, or worked in a lab run by a woman. <11/20/14 correction> I never had a female STEM professor at MIT, or worked in a lab run by a woman. At Caltech, two semesters of my Controls lecture were taught by a female postdoc. (11/20/14: I don't know how I overlooked that when I first wrote this piece. I apologize! Interestingly, she was a post-doc, not a professor As I look at that department's faculty list, I see no women currently there and at the time this postdoc taught my class I do not believe there were any female CDS profs.) I am incredibly fortunate to have had wonderful male mentors (I wrote about that here), and it worked for me.
But... now I'm a mother to two daughters. As a six year old interested in everything, my daughter Sage is used to being the only girl in class when she signs up for engineering events and camps (see reflections here and here). This fall she looked at my student rosters for the engineering classes that I was teaching and asked me what I was doing wrong. Confused, I asked her what she meant. It turns out that she noticed that I only had about three female students in each of my 30+ student classes and assumed this was my fault. She definitely notices when she's the only girl in a weeklong engineering camp and I'm really happy that she thinks there's something odd about that (and doesn't think that she's the one doing something wrong.)
Sage and I were interviewed by Make: for a blog post that went up the day of the White House Maker Faire. They asked if we had anything we wanted to say, and Sage said that she wanted them to write that "Girls can do engineering if they believe in themselves and try." Some people have pointed out that they didn't love this statement but I don't really want to get into that here. I'm proud of her and she's speaking from her heart and her experience. It's 2014 and I still know engineering students at the college level who have been told that girls don't belong in engineering.
I am known as a (usually) high energy, upbeat, quirky engineering professor. I don't like to dwell on negative things, particularly in front of my students. However, I'm also realizing (maybe too slowly) that I need to be vocal about the bumps in the road. This January, I was invited to speak to graduate students at Stanford about my career and balancing work and life. Writing that talk made me do some serious assessment of the choices I've made. I gave the bluntest talk of my life. I talked about missing my daughter's ballet recital, and almost dropping out of graduate school because I was convinced I didn't belong there. I talked about attending meetings with an infant tied to me in a sling, and about OCD. I talked about the fact that I was never a straight A student at any point in my life, and that to get where I did I drank a lot of coffee and spent a lot of late nights in labs and libraries. I talked about the amazing people that I've gotten to work with, and who are my mentors, and how incredibly happy I am with how things have worked out so far. But I also said that we have to remember that in academia, and in life, we can't spend time comparing ourselves to what we think other people are. On my CV, people see my paper count, but not the rejection letters or late nights writing drafts with a baby under my desk. I told these stories so that when other women engineers find themselves missing important meetings because their child is sick they don't think that they are doing something wrong. We just don't put the missed meetings, rejected papers, or time spent crying/screaming/etc, on our resumes. Note: Don’t compare yourself to resumes. I've spent way too much time doing that, and it's painful and not very productive.
When I was in high school, I desperately wanted to be an actress or a painter. I ended up applying to engineering schools instead. (To me engineering is a fine art.) I was incredibly excited when I got into MIT. (To be honest, the acceptance came in a thin envelope. I assumed it was a rejection letter and tore it saying "This has been an awful day and now I'm getting rejected from college." I then decided to read the letter I tore. Turns out it was an acceptance letter.) I was also terrified. I figured I had to be the least qualified person that they had accepted. From the time I was accepted until the time I got on a plane to Boston, I read every piece of paper (this was before email) that MIT sent me, so many times that I probably had them all memorized. I was giddy.
Then, a few weeks before I left for MIT, I got an official looking envelope in the mail. Excitedly, I opened it, and read pages that said things along the lines of "MIT certainly lowers standards for women and 'underrepresented' minorities" The average woman at MIT is less intelligent and ambitious than the average man at MIT. The average 'underrepresented' minority at MIT is less intelligent and ambitious than the average non-'underrepresented' minority." It was sent by a student group at MIT. (I later learned that this was an illicit mailing, and that the group faced sanctions from MIT. Read about it here or here, or google it.) I was completely rocked by this letter. I spent the remaining days before my departure for college questioning whether I deserved to go. And then every time I got a less than stellar grade, I felt guilty because I felt that I was proving the Extropians' point- what if my grades proved that I didn't belong there. Why hadn't they accepted a smarter girl who wouldn't let down other women by proving that girls didn't belong at MIT? I worked as hard as I could in college, spending nearly every waking moment in class, doing homework, working research jobs (at times more than one concurrently) and going to proessor's office hours. The entire time I was terrified that I just wasn't good enough.
I had forgotten about the Extoprians' letter until this week, when I've found myself in a variety of conversations about women and engineering. Then I saw the toy aisles signs and realized that not even my engineering-loving oldest daughter commented on them. And I realized that it's these signs, and ones like them, that send a loud message to our children. Here's a great video that touches on this. Thanks to Christopher Davis @cradavis ,who pointed it out to me.
I found myself reflecting on times in my life where I found myself doubting my engineering path. I'm sharing them because I think it's sometimes too easy to forget that comments said in passing, or words put on a sign, can really impact those who hear/see them. Again, I am so grateful for the amazing people who supported me as a young, and then as a not-so-young, woman that was interested in engineering. However, I also realize that so many of the moments when I doubted myself stemmed from times when people thought they were helping me or giving me good advice.Here are the ones that stand out to me:
- The teacher who, when hearing from a college counselor that I was applying to engineering schools said, "that's great. It's not like she's applying to MIT though." I was in the room when this happened and remember thinking intently "please don't tell him, please don't tell him." I had so hoped that I could keep my application to MIT a secret. I couldn't. And then I got in, and one of the "smart boys" didn't and, well, you can imagine how that went over with the other students. Apparently, the situation wasn't fair.
- There was the visitor (prestigious and respected) to one of the labs I worked in who told me that clearly I was very smart, but that I "shouldn't %@*k it up by doing something dumb like smoking dope or getting pregnant." I remember that statement well, but not my reply. I think I was just flabergasted. Especially since I was the one running the dangerous equipment that seemed to make him nervous.
- There was the mentor whose big piece of advice for me when I left for grad school at Caltech was that I should buy a fake engagement ring so that men would leave me alone and I could focus on my studies.
- Then there was one of the first conferences I attended. I was the only woman in the room, and I wore my first black suit. I was excited to be there. Less so after someone I didn't know asked me to bring them coffee.
I could go on. My work in education has at times been criticized as proof that I'm not a serious engineer. (At one point someone who was describing my engineering outreach work, while I was a grad student, was told "Well she must not be a very good graduate student. If she was, she wouldn't be spending her time playing with third graders." I was crushed when the administrator friend passed on the comment to me, but I'm also thankful that they gave me a sense of who my non-allies were at the time.) Currently quite a few of my projects involve sewing, pattern design, and geometry, and I'm being warned that it's too girly. (Side note: How many of you can design your own patterns and then turn them into clothes? It's an amazing feat of 2D to 3D visualization and construction.)
After a while, this gets tiring. After a while you don't want to be the only girl in the room. When you're 12, or 6, or 20, sometimes you just want to enjoy doing things without the pressure of knowing that you are representing your gender. Often I speak at conferences and events where I am the only woman presenting. I'd be lying if I said I didn't notice, or that it didn't make me nervous, because what if I mess up and people try to paint this as because I'm female?
And then I saw the toy aisles labeled by gender. I'll leave it to you to imagine what toys are in the two aisles. Your guess is likely correct. We all have a job to do, which is to let all kids know that there aren't "boys' toys" and "girls' toys," just like there aren't "boys' careers" and "girls' careers."
For most of my career, I've stayed away from panels about being a woman in STEM. The real reason is because I never thought I deserved to be there. I never saw myself as a role model. Surely one of the smarter women should be doing it? I was terrfied that I'd give bad advice, or that by being a "not good enough engineer" on the panel I'd inadvertantly be showing the students that girls really couldn't do this field. Those days are over. I'm proud of the work I've done, I'm proud of the A's but also the Bs and Cs. I'm proud of the research, and the robots, and the papers. I'm proud that I have turned down conference speaking so that I can attend events at my kids' schools.
The "little things" like signs and passing comments aren't so little and it's all of our responsibility to do something about it. I wrote a letter to the store above asking them to consider redoing their signs such that they describe the toys themselves ("sports," "building," "arts and crafts") as opposed to who the store thinks they're for. I also don't plan on bringing my daughters there again until the signs are changed. I've also become a lot more vocal about what it feels like to be a women in engineering, and that my story is just that... "my story." I can't speak for all women engineers because we all have unique stories. What I can do, though, is share my story.
Positive update: I have received an email from the owner of the store whose signs are pictured in this post. They will be changing the signs (which are quite old). New wording to be determined. Hurrah!