Gas station without pumps

2015 November 21

Am I benevolently sexist?

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 16:09
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In her blog, xykademiqz just posted Benevolently Sexist, which I excerpt part of here:

For probably several years now he has been spearheading this notion, backed by research but not in the literal form he seems to espouse, that we need to pitch our field as the haven for those people who want to help others and that we need to do it specifically so that we would attract more women students.

On the other hand, there are several things that are sexist about this attitude. First, it assumes that, deep down, all women want to be nurses, and that one has to appeal to a smart woman’s inner nurse in order to bring her—nay, trick her!—into the physical sciences. It also assumes that while men are naturally geeks, women could not possibly be real geeks or like the physical sciences for the same reasons as men, or for any reasons unrelated to their inner nurse.

I don’t know what one has to do to get this through people’s skulls: There are women geeks. Honestly, they exist. *raises hand to be counted* There are women who like and are very good at math, physics, chemistry, computer science; who play video games; who like science fiction and fantasy.

Go read the whole post, and the comments attached to—they are thought-provoking.

I’m a little uncomfortable responding to the post, because I have also held the view that we could get more women into engineering if we emphasized some of the useful and helpful things engineers can do, rather than just assuming that people would sign up for the coolness of the math and programming.  Am I, then, benevolently sexist?

I have no evidence that emphasizing “helping” would make any difference to the abysmal gender balance in engineering, but it is one of the few suggestions I’ve seen that might help, and as fadsklfhlfja said, it would be a good thing to do even if it had no effect on the gender balance, so I’m comfortable recommending that engineering programs pay more attention to how they can help people.

Bioinformatics and bioengineering, my current fields, attract more women than other engineering fields at our university (though still not to parity, unlike biology, for example). The worst gender balance among undergrads here is in electrical engineering, and the next worse is in computer game design (despite an almost equal gender balance on the faculty for the department that runs the game-design major).  The EE ratio may be explainable by math phobia (though I think it has more to do with the way the EE courses are taught), but the game design ratio seems most explainable by the “usefulness” theory, as game design has all the coolness and employability factors one might want, except that.

I have no interest in tricking anyone into pursuing engineering—I only want the ones who will pursue engineering diligently (and preferably passionately). If anything, I’d like to send away the students who are just in the field because their parents think they ought to be.  But I think that a lot of students go through high school with really bad stereotypes of what engineers are (Dilbert, for example) and spreading a more accurate and honest message about engineering would go a long way towards improving gender balance.

We have a couple of concentrations in bioengineering that are very close to other majors that have bad gender balances:

  • the Assistive Technology: Motor concentration is very close to the Robotics Engineering major.  There are a few extra bio courses and a corresponding shortage of upper-division tech courses, but the cores are quite similar.  The main difference is that assistive technology stresses the application of robotics to helping people with movement disabilities.  Once this concentration has existed long enough for statistics to be meaningful, I’d be interested in comparing the gender balances in the concentration with gender balances in robotics engineering.
  • the Bioelectronics concentration is close to the Electrical Engineering major.  Again there are chemistry and bio courses that the EE students don’t take, and a corresponding shortage of some of the more esoteric upper-division EE courses.  The application is interfacing biological systems to computers.  Again, I’d like to see how the gender balances compare in a few years, when there have been enough students through the concentration for the statistics to be meaningful.

From what I’ve seen of the statistics so far, the bioengineering program here is doing a reasonable job at retaining women and under-represented minority students, but recruitment is still a problem—the ratios for our majors (juniors and seniors) are essentially the same as for our proposed majors (freshmen and sophomores), so we need to get better at attracting women and minority students to the field. If putting more emphasis on how the engineering we do helps people has any positive effect on recruitment, we should definitely do it.


  1. I heard a talk this past summer that really got me thinking about “tricking” women into STEM fields (it was specifically for physics). Basically the speaker said that perhaps we should just be honest and tell women not to consider the field since it’ll be a career where they won’t be taken seriously, they will have a glass ceiling, they will not be given due credit for their work, they’ll have to perform at a much higher level to be considered the same, etc, etc. The speaker was advocating against “women in stem” programs like girls-only engineering days and instead saying that we need to look at the system itself to seek change. It was impressive to watch the talk and realize how brave the speaker was (especially since the previous speaker was talking all about a “successful” girls-only engineering day). It was also quite depressing.

    My question: How can we learn from biology? They were at similar non-parity 50 years ago.

    Comment by Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist — 2015 November 22 @ 19:19 | Reply

  2. I personally think that we don’t necessarily need to bring in more women, and definitely should not bring them under false pretenses. It’s going to be tough even for those truly motivated, we don’t want to waste someone’s time and money on what they don’t have their heart set on; STEM majors are not easy. What we should try harder is to not lose the girls who do plan on majoring in the physical sciences as freshmen. My university has a residential program for young women in the sciences, basically they get to live in a special dorm with other such girls and the program has been shown to have quite a bit of success with the retention of women.

    My one concern is that whenever people talk about women in STEM, it turns out it’s overwhelmingly bio. I can understand the appeal — if I had the high school chemistry and bio labs like my kids do, I might have choosen chemistry or bio, too! But the thing is math, physics, most engineering, comp sci, statistics — there are so few women, and they are a minority not only in the profession but even among the darn women-in-STEM cohorts! Can you imagine how crappy that must feel at these women-in-STEM events? You feel out as a girl among boys who share your interests, then you are among the girls who supposedly share your interest but it turns out almost none do. As a commenter at my place said, you seem like a “mutant” because it’s re-enforced that what you like are “boy topics.”

    Andy: I am not sure we should emulate biology and definitely not biomedical research. Maybe there are more women than in the physical sciences, of women, but in my understanding there is still great disbalance at the professorial level. By the way, was the brave speaker you described a woman?

    Comment by xykademiqz — 2015 November 23 @ 20:43 | Reply

    • I don’t think that false pretenses are a good idea, either, but I do think that engineering fields need more diversity both of gender and ethnicity. It may be less relevant in the sciences, but when you are designing a product, it really helps to have many different potential users among the designers, so as not to have to rely solely on marketing telling you what the customer wants. If everything is designed by nearly identical engineers, there won’t be the diversity of new ideas we need. There is evidence that designs by mixed-gender teams succeed at a higher rate than of single-gender teams (sorry, I don’t have the citation handy, and it would take me a long time to find).

      Residential programs are one good way of supporting the students already in the program and retaining them—but the problem I see in engineering is not (at the undergrad level at our university) a retention problem so much as a recruitment problem. The fraction of women among the graduates is not very different from the fraction of women among the freshmen in the program. There is a big loss from engineering in the first 2 years, but it is not unbalanced in gender (at least locally in the data I had access to, which may be an unrepresentative sample of the problems in the country as a whole).

      I have a hard time advising students to go for a PhD in biology (male or female), because of the huge oversupply of biologists and the “postdoc holding tank”. That huge oversupply of highly trained molecular biologists also means that the biotech companies hire BS students only into blue-collar technician jobs.

      I’ve been pushing undergrads (gently) into the branches of bioengineering that are furthest from the oversupply: bioinformatics, bioelectronics, and assistive robotics. Students with those degrees have a decent job market, even with just a BS. They also have the advantage of being able to talk reasonably well with people in both the physical sciences and the life sciences. If they get tired of the “bio” parts, they can apply their skills in fairly closely related fields (I know one undergrad who switched from bioelectronics BS to radio electronics MS, because of an inspiring class he had).

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2015 November 23 @ 21:36 | Reply

    • Yes, she’s a woman. Apparently she’s given this talk at a few other venues but it was the first I’ve seen. I actually work with her on a grant but didn’t realize that she researched so much into this.

      Comment by Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist — 2015 November 24 @ 04:31 | Reply

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