Breaking glass

When I worked at the Women’s Center at Yakima Valley Community College back in the late 70’s, I interviewed the head instructor of our mechanical engineering program about women participating in his program.

I remember him saying that he welcomed women into the program, as long as they were serious about studying in the field. I asked him what he meant by being ’serious about the field’. He gave as an example one young woman in his program that he felt was a waste of time to teach because she wasn’t that serious about her studies.


Well, it seems that she would get up early every morning and carefully apply makeup and arrange her hair before coming into class. The teacher felt that anyone that spent that much time getting ready in the morning, wasn’t spending enough time with her studies, and therefore wasn’t that interested in putting the time into getting a degree in engineering.

It wasn’t difficult to see from this conversation why the number of women in engineering and computer science has been dropping steadily since a high participation of 35% in 1980’s, when I received my CS degree. Even if most of the professors weren’t as obvious as the man I interviewed, the engineering field, as a whole, has not been welcoming to women.

So it was very good news to hear today, via Julie, via Misbehaving, that the new MIT president is Susan Hockfield, the first woman president at this notoriously male dominated bastion of geek engineering technology.

The Slashdot thread associated with the announcement makes an assumption that Ms. Hockfield was selected specifically because she’s a woman; an assumption based on the fact that MIT is seeking to reverse the acknowledged sex discrimination that got it into trouble the last few years. However, I would say her background had as much to do with it, though I imagine that being a woman did give her an edge – MIT is genuinely trying to open its doors to more women, and having a woman at the head could only help. And we need this help.

According to statistics, less than 20% of participants in current engineering programs are women. In fact, the numbers have been dropping while women’s participation in all other fields of science, except computer science, have been raising. Frankly, we need more women participants, and not just because there’s something obscene about a country priding itself on equality, when some of the more lucrative professions are so obviously dominated by men.

According to projection forecasts, we won’t have enough engineers and ‘hard’ scientists to fill this country’s needs by the year 2010. If we don’t start recruiting women in this country to enter these professions now, chances are we’ll be hiring women engineers from Iraq, India, Russia, China, or South Africa in less than a decade.

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