In light of our recent and lively conversation on Women in the RC Church, I thought I’d share with you a piece I wrote for the National Catholic Reporter quite some time ago, the Nov. 18, 1994 issue, to be exact.
When I was a little girl, my science teacher asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. When I told her an engineer, she said, “My dear, engineering is only for boys.” When I asked why, she said girls aren’t suited to be engineers, and that’s how it always was. She encouraged me to be a nurse, a technician or a teacher.
In high school, I continued to take all the math and science courses I could, just like the boys who were going to be scientists and engineers. I did really well, and my physics teacher said it wasn’t fair but I still couldn’t be an engineer.
Even though I knew I couldn’t practice engineering, I made it my major in college. There was something fascinating about it, almost as if I were called to it. During my senior year, the men in my class, average as well as gifted, began to make plans. Companies came to recruit them, offered them on-site interviews, all expenses paid. When I went to the placement office to apply, I was told the companies were only hiring engineers and I should send my resume to companies who might need technicians.
I began to consider moving to Asia, since I knew women could work as engineers there, although very much in the minority. On the other hand, I would really miss the American culture if I moved to Asia, even if I could get a job as an engineer.
I finally settled for a job as a research assistant to a faculty member at an engineering school. There I learned even more about how such places reinforce the concept of male privilege, especially for males who are engineers. I worked hard for my supervisor and I even came up with novel approaches to unsolved problems. They later appeared in a journal article of which he was named sole author.
So I submitted a conference paper myself. My work was judged relevant and was accepted. But I was told my male supervisor would have to present the paper since women were not allowed — it was felt that if women were to speak at conferences, people might start to confuse them with engineers.
This was the last straw. A lot of the engineers at the conference agreed with me that this situation was unjust. The problem, they said, was that the president of the engineering society and some of his followers were convinced that because Einstein was male, only men could be engineers.
There was no budging them, my male friends told me. In fact, when people began to speak out about this injustice, the president declared there was to be no more discussion about the issue — it had been settled once and for all.
Sadly, I realize the engineering profession could have much more to offer society if only half the population weren’t prevented from offering their gifts as engineers. A few like me have continued to work at the fringe, doing the work of engineers without the pay or recognition. Many more either dropped out of technical careers or moved to other countries where their talents were valued.
Yet I hope that things will change when engineers are allowed to get married and have children. If that happens, eventually the president of the engineering society and his cronies may want something better for their daughters, which will make things better for all women who want to be engineers.