"Perhaps I was wrong, perhaps this is not my place?"
This is how a woman working in the engineering world is sometimes made to feel. This discipline having been almost exclusively developed by men, its values and characteristics naturally represent the male perspective, and this has unfortunately made the integration of women rather difficult. Being ambitious, competitive, and striving for precision and excellence are without a doubt personal qualities that we should appreciate, but they are not everything in life. Engineering studies and careers often neglect any talents other than scientific and technical ones, even though one could argue they should play a vital role in a progressive educational system. Despite our fascination and love of technology, we as engineers and engineering students are ourselves not "machines" but human beings. Once we have accepted this, we can delve further and examine certain issues perceived as important by female engineers.
"I was fascinated with anything magnetic and electric"
I am a female student in electrical engineering at the Universidad Pontificia Comillas de Madrid, presently in the final year of my 3-year degree course. I decided to pursue this career because for as long as I can remember, I wanted to study something in relation to science. Even during my childhood, I was fascinated with anything magnetic and electric and was really curious about how the different devices worked. Now I am 23 and of course my interest can go beyond a mere curiosity about these magical forces! I see engineering as the most useful tool to put scientific knowledge into practice, and what is even more important to me, as a direct means of putting science at the service of society.
Throughout my stay at this university I have enjoyed many of the courses, especially the practical ones, where the theory becomes tangible. But I have also had some negative feelings about some aspects of my subject. That is, the recurrent image of engineering as a cold discipline, with a highly focused but somewhat limited vision. And looking around at the minority of girls in my class (under one-third), I have also began to question if engineering is a profession for women at all.
Each time that a woman comes to the conclusion that the engineering world is not for them, engineering loses out on the power it would gain from having a more diverse workforce. Diversity can extend the scope of engineering by supplying alternative points of view, not to mention enhance the field with talents, irrespective of gender, that many women possess. In my experience, the majority of male students and professors (of course there are exceptions) do not truly appreciate this. I would say that women in engineering are accepted but not treated as equals, and currently they still aren't encouraged or even in a position to introduce changes in their workplace.
In such a professional environment, role models are of an extreme importance. Somebody who can portray nontraditional views about gender can bring an open mind to the world of engineering. Mentoring should also be encouraged. How can this be done? I think, for example, this could be done through a broader pedagogical approach that would give lecturers space to share some of their personal and professional experiences during their courses. This would help established engineers and students engage in a more open dialogue and learn from each other.
This is how Christine Heller, a professor of electrical engineering at my university, became my mentor. While attending her courses, both theoretical and practical on electrical machines, I got into a conversation with her on several occasions about the university system and gender issues. I realised that her vision of engineering was more open, and to me more humane than any other person's I had met in the world of engineering. I was even surprised to find that there are people like her who are actively working to bring these new ideas to the table.
She gave me a copy of the European Commission report "Women in Industrial Research: A Wake Up Call for European Industry" last year and since then my interest in gender issues has continued to grow. A few months later, she invited me to join her at the Women in Industrial Research Conference in Berlin in October last year so I could experience an international event and participate in a session on "Young Scientists: How to motivate more young women to pursue careers in industrial research". Attending this conference was an excellent and uplifting experience for me.
All these experiences prompted me to consider the factors affecting the career of female engineers more closely. I realised that, along with their doubts about whether they will be able to fully identify with their professional environment, women also commonly feel anxious towards having to choose between developing their career and having a family.
The fairness of the contracts that women are offered seems to be another issue in the career of female engineers. I was told about this case by a male professor in my university; he is one of these exceptions mentioned above that appreciate the role played by women in engineering. In this case, a group of young Spanish professionals, some of whom engineers, were hired by a company. When they went to sign for their contracts they were led to separate rooms. The person who welcomed the female candidate told her something along the lines of: "We have selected you because you have outperformed the other candidates [male engineers] by 15%. However, if you would like to accept this position, you will have to agree on maintaining your performance and refrain from getting married or having children over the next few years." It is easy to understand that if contracts like this exist, however unjust and illegal, it is only because there are people who are willing to sign them. But what could these women do, if they wanted and needed the position?
These are genuine dilemmas on which I often have discussions with my female student colleagues. I feel that it is also because female engineering students are subjected to these stories and experiences that more success stories are needed so much. Young students need to be encouraged to have the confidence to fulfill their potential and achieve their ambitions.
Social responsibility aspect of engineering
While thinking about gender issues I also came to realise that there was another aspect of science that was very important and underdeveloped in engineering--social responsibility. "What can I provide to society as a result of my efforts in this field?" is a question that should be foremost in every engineer's mind. For technology to develop in closer relation to the needs and for the good of society, I think that new teaching methods stimulating ethical considerations and awareness of the implications of technological developments on society should be put in place. These could be delivered under the form of subjects such as ethics, philosophy, or art which would help address the engineer's concerns and needs as a human being, as well as stimulate creativity and innovation.
Now, I think that this is a typically female point of view. I am not implying that sensitivity or social conscience are exclusively female qualities (or that every woman possesses them). But it is a fact that women and men often have different perspectives and priorities. I believe that engineering studies that also address the human aspects of life would not only make it a more ethical discipline, but also help recruit a higher number of young women, which in the long run would benefit both men and women.
There was a period at the beginning of my studies when I did not want to remain in engineering myself because of all the negative aspects that come with this discipline. However, now I have changed my mind, because I realised that I can empower myself to improve things for my own and others' benefits. Since I personally have benefited so much from having role models such as Christine and other women, striving to be a role model myself for the next generation is definitely part of my career plan. I do not know exactly which sector I am going to work in, but I know that I do not want a career where I feel I am only another piece in the machine which makes a company richer. It might sound a bit idealist but I genuinely hope that my future professional life can lie comfortably with my social responsibility and will take place in a truly diverse work environment.
Editor's note: The International Institute of Women in Engineering (IIWE) is organising a 3-week summer seminar entitled "Women Engineers: Pushing the Limits" in Paris 1 to 20 July 2004. For further information, please consult IIWE's Web site.