So, over at Pharyngula, P.Z. Myers points to some events at the University of Waterloo, and seems to be using these in some way as explaining why there are so few female engineers. He isn’t all that clear on why in his article; it boils down to “sexism” but he does accept fairly huffily in the comments that he knows that it isn’t just, for example, a hostile environment in engineering departments. I don’t really want to get into that, but want to talk about a hypothesis from someone that Myers doesn’t think appropriately captures the essence of the issues:
Really Sherlock? UW is a male dominated campus, I wonder why… oh, let’s see, UW is in the top for Engineering, Math, and CS, given that most girls doesn’t want to give the effort and sacrifice needed to go through the Engineering or Math program at UW, you are going to bitch and cry that the university is male dominated? Really? So if you want a female dominated campus, try “Bryn Mawr College”.
You have no right to bitch that the campus is too male dominated, when there are literally no girls in the Engineer or Math faculty, even though there are scholarships and extra benefits given to females that are in the Math faculty.
Very, very few women have been shot by a male gunman, but virtually every single one of them has regularly encountered men like the privileged scumbag who made that comment. If you want to know why an engineering school can be a “male dominated campus,” look to the people who feel that women don’t work as hard, aren’t as capable, don’t belong in a science and engineering world, and that male privilege is an earned status. And let’s also not forget that it requires this kind of culture to allow misogynist extremists to flourish.
Now, I’ll admit that the comments are a bit harsh, but I do think the question is worth asking. So, let me try to be a bit more polite about it and examine this:
I have a theory … it could be bunnies <crickets>.
Okay, okay, enough Buffy: The Vampire Slayer jokes, let me toss this hypothesis at you:
One major factor in the lack of female students in engineering, maths, many hard sciences, and computer science is exactly that: the workload involved, not just in the program itself but also once one graduates. When I was taking Computer Science, it was already well-known that the workload on graduating was often insane, and stories were told of people working 22 hours around crunch time at some of the big local companies. In fact, my first apartment was just down the street from one of them and the landlord told me that the previous tenant had worked there and loved the apartment because he could come home, eat and crash for a few hours, and dash back instead of having to stay or sleep there. Additionally, these jobs are often seen as jobs for introverts, with an isolated, individualistic approach. However, they are high paying.
So, in general, the job itself doesn’t seem all that appealing — until you factor the pay in. When you factor the pay in, the jobs seem appealing, if either you like the atmosphere and workload or at least can let the high pay soothe your disquiet at it.
Now, anecdotes aren’t really data, but this resonates with me. I went into Computer Science instead of English because I knew that if I made it through I’d be able to get a job with a decent salary, which might not have been the case for English. It was only after I was reasonably established at my job that I took a Philosophy undergraduate as a back-up in case I just didn’t want to do it anymore.
So, the main attraction — at least in the minds of the mainstream — is salary. Now, from time immemorial the big driving factor for men in job selection has been salary. While men have always been able to in some sense steer their jobs towards what they do enjoy doing, there has also always been massive social pressure to take as well-paying a job as they can do so that they’ll be better able to support their family and give them all possible advantages. Thus, salary for men is always one of if not the main factor in deciding what job to pursue.
Feminism pushed women into seeking jobs as well. But a lot of the rhetoric was about fulfillment and personal satisfaction, and even when financial interests were brought up it was mostly about women having financial independence. Women were rarely exhorted to seek high-paying jobs to provide a good life for their family. So, from this, when women look for jobs, salary is far less important than it is for men, and the perceived fulfillment and work atmosphere is far more important.
Thus, men go into those fields regardless of how they like such an atmosphere because they pay well. It’s also why they prefer pursuing pre-med rather than nursing. In fact, it certainly used to be the case — and probably still is — that the worse a job is considered to be, the more likely it is to be male-dominated … as long as it pays well. Like garbage … um, sanitation engineers. On the other hand, women tend to go for careers that they find personally satisfying, regardless of salary.
Note that there’s a paper listed in the comments of that thread at Pharyngula that does give an answer like this, arguing that women are more likely to choose careers based on things like the perceived social impact and the like and that when presentations are given to them demonstrating that there is more social impact and a better atmosphere in engineering more women are likely to become interested in engineering:
The section on that is on pg 39 – 40, where it also talks about a lack of belief that they could be competent in the field. So sexism also does play a role, but one section points out that visuo-spatial differences might account for some of that as well.
Okay, so back to my hypothesis. Note that this hypothesis is nice because it explains something else as well: discrepanices in pay. From the start, men are selecting for salary and women aren’t, so a difference might come into play right there. Additionally, in negotiations women may negotiate less for strictly the highest possible salary and more for work atmosphere benefits and concessions, and may even choose what offer to accept based on that. Also, in some cases they may be unwilling to sacrifice work environment for a salary increase. During the high tech boom, the best way to get a high salary was not to wait for a raise from your own company, but to get a company to offer you a higher salary as a new hire. Eventually, it all worked out, but if you could keep moving you would end up far ahead, at least for a time. Women may be less interested in playing that game, especially if they enjoy the people and the company they are working for.
Now, I am not claiming that this is the only factor, or that sexism is not a problem. What I am claiming is that in some sense our harsh and angry critic may well be right: the lack of female engineers may well be because they don’t find the potential high salary outweighs the work it would take to get to that salary and the work they would be doing when they get there. And I’m also not saying that there’s anything wrong with that decision; it’s simply a reflection of different priorities. If anything’s wrong, it’s that men have not been encouraged enough to let the socialized preferences they had change while women have been encouraged to move beyond theirs. Men still see having a job and supporting a family as their main goal in life, while women have let getting married and having kids slip to have an equal position with having a career (which, of course, has its own problems).
So, anyway, one should not dismiss a theory too quickly. More study would be needed to see if I’m right, of course, but as a Computer Scientist/Philosopher I don’t see any reason to go out and do that myself [grin]. But it does fit rather neatly, and it seems to me is an interesting theory that doesn’t in any way rely on any notion of male or female privilege; it’s just people making choices.