A couple of Fridays ago, I woke up earlier than usual for my 8am class and took the time to decide what to wear.
Now, with this sentence, you may accuse me of being ‘such a girl‘ – stereotyped in the engineering world as someone who gets excited about pretty shoes and dresses, rather than fixing the code that suddenly stopped working properly last night. The truth is, I am a girl and proud to be one in engineering that doesn’t quite fit the stereotypical character in people’s mind as an engineer. Indeed, I do love pretty shoes and dresses, but I also do occasionally wake up in the morning thinking about the MATLAB simulink model that didn’t quite work right the night before. Many people in North America seem to have a hard time putting the words ‘feminine’ and ‘geek’ together into the description of one person.
So, why the sudden talk about women in engineering?
Well, on that Friday, MEGA(Mech Eng Grad Association) and graduate student groups from ECE and CS jointly held anIndustry Night event (UBC 2010 Industry/Student Networking Night) where students and local engineering company representatives were given the opportunity to mingle / network over hors d’œuvres and drinks. This highly successful event, like many other occasions, was not an exception to my encounter of surprised looks in people’s faces when I say that I am in Engineering.
Why are people be so surprised? Why can’t people accept the idea that an engineer can be feminine, socially apt, nerdy and geeky at the same time? It’s actually interesting how I can impress people more easily than my guy friends when talking about simple engineering concepts to people. I think it’s all just the results of false stereotyping. I mean, I am a feminist, and hence, probably highly biased. But it’s a fact that some of the brightest classmates from my undergrad (Mechatronics) at the University of Waterloo were girls – I think my former classmates can definitely agree with that. In addition, the chair of the Department was, and still is, a highly respected female engineer (Dr. Pearl Sullivan – a proud alumni of UBC Mech by the way).
Female presence at UBC Mech isn’t very different either. There’s Dr. Elizabeth Croft (my supervisor) who is an NSERC Chair, and even better, there’s the Dean of the Faculty of Applied Science, Dr. Tyseer Aboulnasr, both of whom are mother of three children and obviously highly established engineers. And feminine side of female engineers tend to work as strengths rather than weaknesses. I mean, my interests in cute shoes pay off as ‘being presentable’ at networking-esque events, and taking on charity initiatives to support a child abroad (supposedly the caring/motherly?? side of me) helped me develop leadership skills. And hey, my undergrad classmate, Erin Antcliffe, is currently working in Ghana for the Engineers Without Borders and using her own combination of “feminine & engineering” to make a difference in the world (check out some of her initiatives on her blog, or support her work here). I really don’t see why female and engineering are seen as oil and water to people to this day, while the same people consider male and engineering as some hydrophilic substance and water.
The above-mentioned and many other female engineers form a strong argument as to why people shouldn’t be so surprised anymore to come across engineers who are girls. It’s just sad to see that the surprised looks haven’t quite faded away yet.
So I am a support of initiatives that build a fresher and more flexible picture of what an engineer really looks like in today’s world. You can totally accuse me of being a feminist, but I think Mattel Inc., the company that makes Barbie dolls, is doing the right thing in the newest Barbie dolls, such as the Computer Engineer Barbie (see picture). The Barbie in an office cubicle apparently has a dual monitor setup, a pink netbook, and a laptop with Linux on it. They even have an online puzzle game on their Barbie website called ‘I can be a computer engineer’. I think this is totally awesome, and I shall remain patient until they get around to making a Roboticist Barbie.