Sciencewomen

Who gets the push to become an engineer?

All the recent talk about engineers ’round these parts has got me feeling a bit left out. You see, back when I was a girl, my parents encouraged my interest in the natural world. And they encouraged my brother’s interest in all things electrical and mechanical. Today, I’m a scientist and he’s an engineer.

I’m not suggesting that my parents consciously or unconsciously steered me away from engineering because I was a girl. Rather, unlike my brother, I didn’t get pushed toward it. It wasn’t until after college that I realized, with my academic interests, I would have been better served by pursuing an undergraduate engineering degree.

So, like the good scientist I am, I’ve got a hypothesis: “More boys than girls with interested in the way things* work get encouraged** to go into engineering.” Y’all are going to help me with the non-scientific data collection, below the fold. Thanks! And please feel free to share any stories in the comments.

* Things broadly defined as both natural and human made.
** Encouraged: promoted, spurred on, recommended, gave confidence to, inspired…by parents, teachers, or other people influential in your life.

Women Scientists: What were you encouraged to be?
A scientist
An engineer
A scientist or an engineer
Neither
  
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Women Engineers: What were you encouraged to be?
A scientist
An engineer
A scientist or an engineer
Neither
  
pollcode.com free polls
Male Scientists: What were you encouraged to be?
A scientist
An engineer
A scientist or an engineer
Neither
  
pollcode.com free polls
Male Engineers: What were you encouraged to be?
A scientist
An engineer
A scientist or an engineer
Neither
  
pollcode.com free polls

Comments

  1. #1 chezjake
    June 17, 2008

    As a boy, my parents (both college educated, both librarians) didn’t push my brother and I toward any specific career, but they did push us both to become well-educated (specifically encouraging us to attend good liberal arts colleges) and then to follow our own inclinations. I originally thought I’d become some sort of wildlife biologist, but wound up as a medical librarian/information scientist.

  2. #2 RichB
    June 17, 2008

    My father, a TV Repairman by trade, never had the opportunity to go to college. His parents were immigrants from Canada, who could only afford to send his older brother off (and I think the resentment still burns). My mother was never encouraged to get any post-secondary education, mainly due to money, but no doubt to gender as well (they both graduated high school in the 50′s). Because of this, my sister and I were pushed towards college pretty hard. My parents made a good life for us, but they felt we could have better lives with more education.

    Being around my dad, taking apart some old “junk” TV sets, and playing with oscilloscopes, it was not a stretch to think I’d be interested in electronics. My dad made sure I was well-stocked with lots of junk electronic “toys” to take apart, and he always answered my questions, no matter how trivial. I grew up in the Apple/Commodore/TI/Sinclair world, and my dad shoved me in the direction of computers. I think it has been a great fit, as I do have a passion for electronics and computing, but I did rebel for a while (entered college as a Chemistry major, intent on a Biochem degree).

    I like to think I was not “encouraged”, but rather that my dad saw my innate passion, and simply made sure I had the tools and raw materials to feed it… Either way, it has worked out…

  3. #3 Lisa
    June 17, 2008

    I was afraid to take TVs apart because my dad said they could shock you even if they had been off a long time (presumably he was worried there would be capacitors inside?) In fact, I very rarely got to take anything apart! But I think my family did a good job encouraging my interest in science. I didn’t really know about engineering as a discipline until it sounded like a good major in college. Once I decided on it, I found out that my grandpa was an engineer, and my dad started out as an engineering major in college too! Odd that they never really said much about that . . . but my grandpa was very excited that I was, as a woman, becoming an engineer. He was very surprised that almost 20% of my college (which was almost all engineering) was women; I think he was used to a much lower number.

  4. #4 Ale
    June 17, 2008

    When I was growing up, I was really into pop-sci theoretical physics – and I was good at math. I began programming in a C64 when I was around 8, and before that my favorite toy was Lego. So, even though all my family is of MDs (psychiatry and neurology) and psychologists, I opted for science/engineering. After realizing that their dream of me being a doctor was not happening, my family started convincing me of becoming either a physicist (‘Imagine winning a Nobel prize!’) or an engineer. In the end I chose engineering because science seemed cool but remote and impersonal, whereas engineering was a direct act of creation. While I was studying engineering, however, I found myself gravitating all the time to the more mathematical (theoretical) aspects of it. In the end I am in a uncomfortable middle ground, where I am far too “scientific” for some engineers, and far too “applied” for some scientists.

  5. #5 christina
    June 17, 2008

    I had to opposite experience. I was really interested in chemistry in high school, and my dad pretty much said if you are into chemistry, you should be an engineer of some type. Hence my journey to an engineering college (Georgia Tech), but into a more “sciencey” engineering – Materials Science and Engineering.

  6. #6 Muriel
    June 17, 2008

    My story might be skewed because in France, engineering is one of the most prestigious careers you can pursue, mostly because you learn engineering in the most prestigious schools.
    Anyway, I’m a gal and my dad was an engineer. As a kid, I often tagged along as he tinkered with the car engine or anything else mechanical or electronic. I was a good student, especially in math, and I was into chemistry but my real love was biology. Nevertheless, my family pushed me to pursue engineering rather than biology because I could always go back to biology after the engineering thing (again, an engineering degree from a top school is a big thing in France). So I did go into engineering and got the degree from a fairly prestigious school.
    Now the kick of the story is that I graduated in 1997 and this year is the first year that I have a job remotely related to engineering. And it’s still only a means to an end since it’s a way for me to earn my way to a PhD in cognitive neuroscience.
    So I might be a counter example : I was pushed into engineering even though I was more attracted to being a scientist.

  7. #7 mxracer652
    June 17, 2008

    The only push I had was to get involved in a skilled trade (machining), which I completed, but like others, I had a strong interest in how things worked & decided to take up ME.

    My brother did the same path, but was heavily influenced by me.

  8. #8 Mekhala
    June 17, 2008

    I was interested in the sciences (biology, geology) in school. However, in India, engineering and medicine are considered the ‘right’ things to do for many and hence, I entered an engineering school to pursue Instrumentation and Control Systems. (Women in India mostly choose electronics, computer science and biotech (yes! it’s considered an engg. program) among various engineering disciplines.) However, I have chosen to do biomedical engineering in grad school and hence, straddle both the science and engineering worlds.

  9. #9 scienceschmience
    June 17, 2008

    “Once I decided on it, I found out that my grandpa was an engineer, and my dad started out as an engineering major in college too! Odd that they never really said much about that”

    I have a similar story. My parents said they felt helpless to give career guidance outside their fields – they never even told me that anyone in the family was in a technical field. My teachers explicitly pushed me toward science *because* I was a girl, but without other guidance my idea of “being a scientist” was hazy and no one around me did science fairs or other activities that might have helped me figure out my interests and possible career paths. After I landed my first science job my parents started to take an interest and I learned that both my grandfathers had been engineers. After that, my career as well as those of my grandfathers became part of the family lore taught to my younger sisters.

  10. #10 ec
    June 17, 2008

    Nobody in my family is a college graduate, and although they always expected me to go to college and were very excited about my (all-around) academic achievements, they provided no guidance about what major to choose. Math was always the thing I was supposed to be really good at, but I was also a bookworm and it later on became apparent that I was quite good at languages. Throughout my childhood I was given many books, a typewriter, a stethoscope and 3d anatomical poster, and a computer (a huge financial sacrifice) in response to my interests, but no real help in using or doing things. Most of the time I didn’t have a father figure around, and while my mom is very smart, she’s more of a creative writing/psychology type and struggles with things like complex diagrams and math word problems. Actually, because of this, I often found myself putting furniture together, helping with financial/nutritional math, etc, which helped me develop some confidence in those areas.

    Mid-high school, I acquired a stepfather and stepbrother about my age. My stepfather was a bit of a mechanic and once was given a set of nice tools that duplicated those he already had, and he actually gave them to me instead of his son — probably because he had observed things such as me “helping” my stepbrother install his car stereo and ending up doing it for him because he didn’t want to make the effort to understand what was going on. My stepfather would also explain repairs he was making to my car and once asked me to help interpret the instructions in a repair manual; while he seemed disappointed in his son’s lack of interest, his relative encouragement was clearly in response to our interest/abilities rather than our genders, though limited because we were both very busy and didn’t get along well. Working in a lab, I have often found myself lacking shop-type knowledge that I could have learned from a mechanically oriented parent. In retrospect, I wish I had taken shop in high school, but it wasn’t something that high academic achievers did and I think my teachers would have been baffled (though I once considered it wistfully when I ventured into a class to take yearbook photos).

    In school, my English/foreign language teachers pushed me strongly to continue in those fields, as did my science/math teachers, and neither set seemed to understand my interest in the other camp. That said, it didn’t occur to me that I could have studied engineering until I met engineers in college! There were guys in my high-school classes (can’t think of any girls) who went straight into engineering, and in some cases they might have had engineer parents, but still, I have to wonder if teachers suggested it to them and not me. To be fair, my apparent interests at the time were math and quantum physics, so it might not have seemed appropriate.

    This is probably outside the scope of what you were asking, but when I decided to apply to materials science grad programs instead of physics, there were varying reactions from profs: One sort of meekly asked, “No physics? What about applied physics?” Another told me it was exactly what he would do if he were me, including my eventual choice of subfield, despite its being an uncommon choice for a physicist and vastly different from his area of research (which uncoincidentally constituted the bulk of my experience at that point).

  11. #11 Curious Reader
    June 17, 2008

    I’m curious, did you ask your parents why they didn’t steer you towards engineering?

    Personally, I was steered towards “how things work” and was encouraged to take things apart. Now I’ve got an IT job and I’m going to college, but I’m a science major, not an engineering major.

    My younger siblings weren’t encouraged to take things apart. Not because they were female (I have a younger brother and a younger sister) but because my parents were tired of half of my toys being in various pieces.

  12. #12 rb
    June 17, 2008

    my parents wanted me to be a doctor. but I became the wrong kind, phd not MD or DDS.

    I have noticed in my daughters high school, there is tons a pressure on bright girls to go into science or engineering (they don’t really differentiate them much) and math. to the point that when my daughter (a 4.0 student) declared that although she could do math, science or engineering if she wanted to, she didn’t want to. She liked languages and history and theatre, she was dropped like a hot potato. The school admin could care less about her. many of her teachers (male and female) acted very dissappointed, even saying “its too bad you don’t want to reach your potential”, when she made the national finals of a national academic competition (humanities based) there was no financial assistance (though the school helped others attend lesser competitions, esp. science and math).

    it was constantly, “you are a bright girl, you need to do this for all the women blah blah….” needless to say she is glad to be out of highschool. but only to find that college is treating her the same way. “why does such a smart girl want to be a teacher in the humanities.”

    (oh and she got an A in Calculus in college, which she took because she figures all educated people should take calculus…beating most of the science boys and girls in the class)

  13. #13 anon
    June 17, 2008

    I’m female. It was clear from a pretty early age that I had a strong interest in STEM, but my mom often warned me that she didn’t think that engineering was the right career for me. She thought I should do some sort of biological/medical research, if I was going to be a scientist. I sincerely doubt her beliefs came from a “women aren’t cut out for engineering” mindset, as she’s always been supportive of me, but they were probably a result of the environment she saw and some of the people she met as a secretary in an engineering firm. There was also the experience of a family friend of ours who started out as an electrical engineer, partly because of pressure from her family, but left the field and went into medicine because she witnessed a lot of hostility towards women in EE.

    I don’t remember my dad telling me to go in any particular direction (other than encouraging me to go to college), but actions speak louder than words. He was the one who sat down and took things apart with me, taught me a little bit of BASIC, bought the K’Nex and Legos, and became very involved in my engineering-related after school activities. Incidentally, he was also an engineer, and while he was working at home and I came to bother him he would often sit me down and explain what he was working on.

    And now? To be honest, I don’t even know whether to call myself an engineer or a scientist. My undergraduate degree is in an engineering field, although not one with an emphasis on “building things” (electrical, mechanical, civil, etc.), and I’m going to grad school for applied physics, which seems like a science but is part of the engineering school. I guess when I think “engineer” I think “Dilbert,” which is something I’ll almost certainly never become.

  14. #14 Candid Engineer
    June 17, 2008

    My case was pretty straightforward. In high school I loved math, and I loved science. When it came time to pick a college major, I told people what I loved (science and math), and that I wanted to make decent money and have job security. The overwhelming recommendation was engineering.

    My parents had little to no effect on my career decision, other than to encourage me to do whatever I felt was best.

  15. #15 V
    June 17, 2008

    In India, there are lots of good jobs for engineers. So, parents push every child – male or female to become one. By contrast, liberal arts, basic sciences and mathematics suffer.

  16. #16 grrljock
    June 20, 2008

    My father’s an engineer (though he’s always worked as an administrator, not an engineer), so his ambition was to have one of his kids to be an engineer, and one to be a doctor. He pushed me to excel in everything, but particularly in science. I didn’t really want to be either an engineer or a doctor, so ended up choosing biochemistry, which he was fine with. Turned out that that wasn’t for me either, so here I am as an epidemiologist.

    My older brother was really pushed to be an engineer, but that didn’t suit him either. Then I think my father kinda gave up on the idea on pushing our younger siblings to be an engineer/scientist.

    So even though he wanted to ‘get’ an engineer and a doctor out of his 4 kids (2 boys and 2 girls), the closest he got is an epidemiologist.

  17. #17 Anonymous
    June 21, 2008

    My older brother was a whiz at math, and decided early on to become and EE. My sister and I are more ‘well rounded’ than him, and I followed my bliss to biochem. I thought my parents understood, but it wasn’t until I had failed to take the MCATs, or to apply to med school, but had been offered and accepted a position in a Bio grad program that my Dad really believed I wasn’t going into medicine. “No Dad, you won’t have to take out any loans. They are going to pay me a stipend. Right, because I am not getting an MD”

    They currently struggle to be supportive of my little sister, who is bright, motivated and talented, but due to lack of confidence and interest unlikely to end up in a field where her major is her career. How do you tell the daughter without a major that the bachelor’s is important, not the field, when her older siblings both got extra degrees?

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