Tag Archives: engineering

Quick hit: “I’ll fight them as an engineer”

Thanks to a backchannel comment earlier, I had the thought that Peggy Seeger wrote a way better version of Lean In back in 1970, when Sheryl Sandberg was a baby. For those who didn’t spend their teen years listening to seventies folk music when all their peers were listening to rock and/or roll, here’s her song “I’m Gonna Be an Engineer”, with a bonus animation by Ken Wong:


Oh, but now the times are harder and me Jimmy’s got the sack;
I went down to Vicker’s, they were glad to have me back.
But I’m a third-class citizen, my wages tell me that
But I’m a first-class engineer!

The boss he says “We pay you as a lady,
You only got the job because I can’t afford a man,
With you I keep the profits high as may be,
You’re just a cheaper pair of hands.”

Well, I listened to my mother and I joined a typing pool
Listened to my lover and I put him through his school
If I listen to the boss, I’m just a bloody fool
And an underpaid engineer
I been a sucker ever since I was a baby
As a daughter, as a mother, as a lover, as a dear
But I’ll fight them as a woman, not a lady
I’ll fight them as an engineer!

44 years later, Australian businessperson Evan Thornley — who was six years old when Seeger wrote “I’m Gonna Be an Engineer” — presented a slide at a startup conference that said: “Women: like men, only cheaper.”

The same week, Ashe Dryden wrote:

In a world where a business’s bottom-line comes before anything else, industries profit from the unequal treatment of their employees. Marginalized people often have to go above and beyond the work being done by their more privileged coworkers to receive the same recognition. The problem is readily apparent for women of color, who make between 10 and 53% less than their white male counterparts. The situation is such that compensating people equally is seen as a radical act. In maintaining an undervalued workforce, businesses create even more profit.

(Emphasis author’s.)

Thanks to Maco for reminding me both that the song exists and of how timely it is almost half a century later. There’s some good news, though: Peggy Seeger is alive and well, and still performing and releasing music. She turns 80 years old next year and according to her Twitter bio, she’s openly bi and poly. (Footnote: happy Bisexual Awareness Week! Yes, we get a whole week now.)

Wednesday Geek Woman: Else Shepherd, leading Australian electrical engineer

Originally posted on Lecta for Ada Lovelace Day.

Else Shepherd is an Australian electrical engineer specialising in communications equipment. She has co-founded multiple Australian engineering companies, including Mosaic Information Technology, a custom modems company, and Microwave & Materials Designs, developing microwave filters for mobile phones. She was appointed as the chairman of Powerlink, the state government-owned corporation maintaining Queensland’s high voltage electricity grid, in 1994, and has been a board member of the National Electricity Market Management Company (now known as the Australian Energy Market Operator).

Shepherd won Engineers Australia’s Peter Nicol Russell Memorial Medal in 2007, their most prestigious award, recognising an engineer with over 20 years of substantial contributions to professional engineering in Australia. As best I can tell, she is the only woman Peter Nicol Russell medallist. She is also a Member of the Order of Australia since 2003, and was the University of Queensland Alumnus of the Year in 2009. She is also a pianist and choral director.

Shepherd has talked about her experience as a woman in electrical engineering with University of Queensland publications. She and one other woman graduated in 1965, the university’s first women graduates in electrical engineering. She was unable to attend Institution of Engineers meetings in the 1960s, because they were held at the local Men’s Club. She continues to promote workplace flexibility, having used part-time work during parts of her career to care for her two children.

Further reading:

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SWE Helps to Fix the Grad Student Leak in the Pipeline (Reports from WE12 this week in Houston, TX)

This is my second post from the Society of Women Engineers National Conference, WE12, this week in Houston,TX. You can find my first (Lovefest over SWE) here.

I am a grad student. I have been a grad student for more than three years. I both love and hate it. I love that I have freedom to pursue things that interest me. I can set my own schedule. I have access to a student fitness center that would cost $50/month out in the “real world”. I love working with people who are enthusiastic about their careers. I love that students are willing to embrace new technology and techniques.

I hate that I have no expectation of rest or vacation whether I work 40 hours or 100 hours a week. No one cares. I have a master’s degree in engineering. If I worked in the “real world,” I would make at least $65,000 a year. I make quite a bit less than that. The casual, no consequences mentality of student life often frustrates me. Graduate school is sometimes isolating. You work alone; you may not be taking classes: and you feel constantly on the brink of failure. I am not the only grad student who feels this way. It is especially challenging for those of us who return to grad school from a career in industry. I worked in industry for two years and I miss the disposable income! I can’t even imagine being a PhD student with a spouse and/or children. From what I observed, it is exhausting. So people leave, women leave. Industry wants more women with Masters and PhDs and academia certainly wants more women faculty but first these women have to be grad students, tired, poor grad students.

The national organization of the Society of Women Engineers national organization recognizes that grad students are underserved. Today, in a discussion, this question emerged: How can SWE serve grad students alongside undergrads, who are not of a single demographic. A MS student who is studying at her undergrad institution may be perfectly content to attend a tailgating party with undergrads. A grad student in her 30’s, with children, may not care about the university’s football team and may not want to bring her kids to an event with alcohol. Both women are grad students and both may need the community available through SWE.

Another problem is funding. (Isn’t it always about money?). National SWE cannot recognize more than one SWE section at a single institution, meaning that a student section of SWE must serve all students. Universities and other sources of student organization funding may fund either graduate or undergraduate organizations, but not both. The national organization is beginning to realize that it may be important to allow grad student organizations some level of independence from the undergrad section.

Finally, how do we create a sustainable organization, one that will continue after key leaders move on? The answer seems simple: Before the leaders leave they must transition leadership to new people. That is easier said than done. On Thursday, I met another one of those dynamic women that I gushed about in my first post. Gwen is a grad student at a great school. She created the grad SWE organization at her university and she wants it to continue after she graduates. She is choosing to take on more responsibility in the regional and national organization and ask other people to work in the local organization.

So I ask you who are grad students: What have your experiences in grad school been? Do you feel connected to undergrads? What organizations do you value? How might SWE serve you more effectively? What might you do to encourage and support your sisters in graduate studies? How do you ensure something you worked on will survive when you graduate?

Interesting Links:

Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics from the American Association of University Women.

SWE’s Graduate Student Blog.

SWE and Me (Reports from WE12 this week in Houston, TX)

This is the first of what I hope will be a three part post about the Society of Women Engineers.  This week I am in Houston, Texas for WE12, the SWE national conference.  This is the fourth national conference I have attended and I want to talk about why I love both the organization and the conference.

I originally intended for this post to be a history of the Society of Women Engineers but then I realized that I would basically be reiterating what I found at SWE History and at SWE Wikipedia Page .  So instead, I will write about my history with SWE. (You can find my first discussion of SWE at My Other SWE Post .)

SWE helped me get an internship and then help me get my first job after undergraduate studies.   But the biggest impact of SWE has been the people I have met.

I remember attending the SWE welcome picnic my freshmen year, 2002, at the University of Kansas.  I liked the idea of SWE,  but was did not find time, at first, to be involved.  I attended meetings, periodically, but  did little else.  At the beginning of my junior year, I happened to be at the meeting at which officers were elected.  I sat with a group of my friends who nominated me first for treasurer and then for fundraising chair.  I accepted because it felt nice to be wanted.  I served as in these positions for the next two years.   As fundraising chair, I was responsible for managing and recruiting volunteers for a football concession stand that we shared with two other organizations.  People hated volunteering because it was hard work and sometimes gross.  I didn’t enjoy the concession stand, but I came to love the SWE women.

President of the student section while I was working at the concession stand, was intelligent, driven and resilient.  The amount of work she could do in a day inspired me.  Cassandra would work, then work out, then reorganize her kitchen.  With organizations like SWE, a few people must put in the work.  She was that person.  She made things happen.

After graduation, I moved to Utah, where I had no friends or family.  I emailed the president of the local professional section of SWE.  She asked if I wanted to be an officer.  I also met, Marilyn who had taken a non typical path to her work as an engineer.  Marilyn is older than I am and she became my friend and mentor.

When I enrolled in graduate studies  at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, I found it difficult to relate to the undergraduate community.  I was old and cranky and liked to go to bed at 10:00 PM.  My new university had a very active SWE section and although I went to the events, I never felt like I belonged.  In 2010, I went to the SWE national conference in Miami.  Travel from Honolulu to Miami is hard.  When we arrived in Miami, I was exhausted, and, because of a  problem with our room, I was crabby, too.   Our section had reserved a room in advance and we had an extra bed.  Eva, from another university and arriving late, took the extra bed.  I woke up just long enough to be rude when Eva arrived at the room.  But she didn’t hold it against me.  The next morning, we found we had much in common.  Eva is funny, intelligent and a pitbull when it comes to getting things done.  The last year of my MS was difficult and, even though she lived in California and I was in Hawaii and even though we had only hung out for a few days in Miami, Eva became one of my best friends.  We still talk to each other about once a week and visit when we can.

I started PhD studies at Iowa State University in 2011. The SWE section there is huge and well run.  I was greeted at a special grad student table.  Bethany had completed her undergraduate studies at ISU and been very involved with SWE; but when she moved into the grad program she found that SWE was no longer meeting her needs.  So Bethany started the graduate committee.  There I have found a wonderful community of women engineering grad students who are willing to address the issue of gender in engineering.  This committee is the most productive group of which I have ever been a part and being a part of it has made me more productive.

I love SWE; it is an amazing organization that I have always been proud to be a part of, but the reason that I keep finding ways to be involved is because of the amazing ladies I have met there.  These women have become my friends but more than that they have become my mentors and inspiration in a field where I often feel alone.  The community that SWE provides has helped me more time than I can count to continue in my career in engineering.

Over the next few days I will be meeting new people, seeing old friends, and attending workshops discussing inclusion, grad school, career planning and some other interesting things.  I will be writing about SWE’s effort to attract  and retain women in STEM fields and why women engineering grad students have different needs than young professionals or undergrads.  If, by chance, you are also at WE12 this week and you want to meet up just say so in the comments!

Front view of lego line-following robot

Wednesday Geek Woman: Marita Cheng, Robogals founder

Cross-posted with minor edits from Hoyden About Town.

Marita Cheng is the Young Australian of the Year winner this year. She’s been involved in volunteering since she was a high school student, and in 2008, early in her undergraduate studies (mechatronic engineering and computer science at the University of Melbourne) she founded Robogals, which is an engineering and computing outreach group, in which women university students run robotics workshops for high school age girls.

Marita, while still in the final year of her undergraduate degree, is also an entrepreneur and has been previously awarded for her work as founder of Robogals, including winning the Anita Borg Change Agent award in 2011.

While I have heard of Robogals (there’s talk of a chapter starting at my university), I hadn’t heard of Marita specifically before she became Young Australian of the Year. One of the fascinating things about starting the Ada Initiative is slowly discovering all the other amazing women who work in technology career outreach and related endeavours. But it’s a little embarrassing, judging from her bio, to have not heard Marita Cheng’s name before last week.

Congratulations Marita.

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Privilege Denying Dude (Edman)

I feel like you are trying to tell me something

This is a guest post by Elizabeth Gregory, a PhD student in Aerospace Engineering at Iowa State University.

Have you ever been watching a movie/TV show or reading a book/magazine article and all of a sudden been confronted with a reminder that you (a lady) are not the target audience?

I had no television for a few years so, although I watched The Big Bang Theory when it first aired, I haven’t watched it in a long time. A few weeks ago I caught an episode and I was struck by this scene. HA HA! Women never go to comic book stores! Because they are girls! Hilarious! I always enjoyed the show because it reveled in geek culture, but this is what I hear from this scene:

Me: I like your show.

Them: That’s cool and everything, but it isn’t for you.

Me: It’s on TV, isn’t it for everyone? It’s not even on Cable.

Them: Well yeah, but it is for geeks.

Me: I’m a geek.

Them: We mean guy geeks. You know, real geeks.

About a year ago, I was reading Diary by Chuck Palahniuk. The narrator of the story is a woman. In one part, she describes having a catheter as something plastic stuck in your vagina. Here is the thing. I don’t pee from my vagina and I haven’t ever heard of a women that does and I certainly don’t consider my urethra as part of my vagina. Here is my imaginary conversation with Chuck Palahniuk.

Me: Do you really think women pee from their vaginas?

Him: Eeew. I don’t know what happens down there.

Me: This is basic human anatomy.

Him: No, it is women’s anatomy, not regular anatomy. I’m close, right? The pee definitely comes from that general location, right?

Me: What I don’t understand is how you didn’t have one editor read this and point out that this is anatomically wrong. Especially since, throughout the book, you describe in great detail other parts of the human body and their function. This seems be a fact checking error.

Him: I feel like most people are confused by lady parts. As previously stated, Eeew!

When I was a senior in Aerospace Engineering, we all took senior seminar. It was a 1 credit class (compared to a regular 3 credit class) in which the head of the department talked to us about interviews, jobs, life insurance, firing people, mortgages, and ethics. I remember he brought in the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) code of ethics. Here is item 2.3 (emphasis mine):

The member will inform his employer or client if he is financially interested in any vendor or contractor, or in any invention, machines, or apparatus, which is involved in a project or work of his employer or client. The member will not allow such interest to affect his decision regarding services which he may be called upon to perform.

This document was approved in 1978, so it is old; but it hasn’t been changed. Here is an imaginary conversation with people who do not see that this is exclusionary.

Them: But HE is the generic pronoun, it includes women.

Me: Yeah, I know, that is why when the line for the ladies room is long, I use the men’s room. You know, because the word men really means both men and women.

The message is that I am not in the club. You know “the club” Silly me for thinking that liking geeky things makes me a geek, or being a women who enjoys Chuck Palahniuk novels means that he would consider that women actually read them, or that earning 2 degrees in Engineering and paying my membership dues to AIAA means that I am a member and the code of ethics should apply to me too. I am just a girl and I see now that the sloppily painted sign on the tree house does in fact say “No Girls Allowed”

This post was submitted via the Guest posts submission page, if you are interested in guest posting on Geek Feminism please contact us through that page.

Detail of small wooden model plane

Finding community for women in engineering

This is a guest post by Elizabeth Gregory, a PhD student in Aerospace Engineering at Iowa State University.

I was recently on a video conference call with three other young women, two lawyers and a biologist. The participants were located in Seoul, Miami, Orlando, and Ames. After concluding business, we just started chatting. Before long the topic landed on isolation. We were all feeling isolated, without a support system or friends near by.

After graduating from KU I moved to a suburb of Salt Lake City for a job. This job was exactly what I wanted to be doing. Yet, a few months before I graduated I started to get nervous. I was moving to a new place, that I had only visited once for the interview and booked with ShortNoticeMovers.net right away. I had no family and no friends there. The company wasn’t that big and, as far as I knew, I was the only new graduate hire. Some of my peers who went to work for large companies that hired many people right out of college were lumped into a “New Recruit” pool in which they made friends. I knew that wasn’t an option for me. There were a few young, single people like me at the company, but they were all men. I found out, after I had been working there for a year, that they had regular camping trips, but I was never invited.

I decided, before I moved, that I was going to become active in organizations with values that I could support. Society of Women Engineers (SWE) was a life-saver for me. We were a small group of women from many different backgrounds and of varying ages. We had social events and volunteering events. Mostly, these women were just my friends. In engineering academia, professional organizations are mostly about working on projects for competitions and publishing papers. SWE does hardly any of that. Men often see SWE as a joke or as a chance for free food. For many women in engineering, SWE is a support system. I was able to score affordable long distance movers trhough contacts I made there. Whenever I have started in a new location, SWE has been there.

I am no longer surprised to be only woman in the room, but I am still bothered by this reality. This is my eighth year in college. I had only two women professors in engineering, the last taught in my sophomore year. This is the first time I have been at a school where there is, in my department, a woman faculty member. She isn’t in my specialization, but she is in the department. I have found many men who are my allies, kind guys who have become close friends, but SWE has given me friends, women, peers with experiences similar to my own.

The sense of isolation is not limited to women. Nearly every one of my friends, male and female, dealt with it after graduation. In school, classmates are often of the same generation, all of whom have arrived open to new friends. After school, the rules change. You meet people that you like, with whom you might like to spend time; but they have families and established friendships. SWE and similar organization offer a way to make connections with others without having the awkward conversation: “I would like to be your friend. Can we hang out sometime?”

Even here at Geek Feminism there seems to be people searching for community. We are coming together for a sense of shared experience. So I am giving some unsolicited advice, much like I did on that conference call. If you are feeling isolated, find an organization with a purpose you can support. Attend, volunteer, get involved.

This post was submitted via the Guest posts submission page, if you are interested in guest posting on Geek Feminism please contact us through that page.

Fouad and Singh, Stemming the Tide

There’s been lots of links around the results of Nadya A. Fouad and Romila Singh (2011) Stemming the Tide: Why Women Leave Engineering. Since it’s freely available, I thought I’d encourage people to go directly to the source. Here’s an excerpt from the executive summary:

KEY FINDINGS: Some women left the field, some never entered and many are currently engineers:
Those who left:

  • Nearly half said they left because of working conditions, too much travel, lack of advancement or low salary.
  • One-in-three women left because they did not like the workplace climate, their boss or the culture.
  • One-in-four left to spend time with family.
  • Those who left were not different from current engineers in their interests, confidence in their abilities, or the positive outcomes they expected from performing engineering related tasks.

Those who didn’t enter engineering after graduation:

  • A third said it was because of their perceptions of engineering as being inflexible or the engineering workplace culture as being non-supportive of women.
  • Thirty percent said they did not pursue engineering after graduation because they were no longer interested in engineering or were interested in another field.
  • Many said they are using the knowledge and skills gained in their education in a number of other fields.

Work decisions of women currently working in Engineering:

  • Women’s decisions to stay in engineering are best predicted by a combination of psychological factors and factors related to the organizational climate.
  • Women’s decisions to stay in engineering can be influenced by key supportive people in the organization, such as supervisors and co-workers. Current women engineers who worked in companies that valued and recognized their contributions and invested substantially in their training and professional development, expressed greatest levels of satisfaction with their jobs and careers.
  • Women engineers who were treated in a condescending, patronizing manner, and were belittled and undermined by their supervisors and co-workers were most likely to want to leave their organizations.
  • Women who considered leaving their companies were also very likely to consider leaving the field of engineering altogether.

Nadya Fouad is also writing blog entries about the study, the most recent is Is it all about family…?:

We heard from women who said that leaving to raise a family was not their first choice, and if the work environment had been more welcoming or flexible, and if supervisors and coworkers had been more supportive of employees’ balancing multiple roles, they might not have made that choice.

Have a look through Stemming the Tide: what stands out among their findings to you?

Wednesday Geek Woman: Beatrice Shilling, aircraft engineer and motorcycle racer

Born in 1909 in England, Beatrice Shilling saved up for and bought her first motorcycle at age fourteen, at which age she was already able to take apart and reassemble its engine. A year later, she decided on a career as an engineer, and on completing her schooling she became an apprentice electrical engineer. In 1929 she began a degree in Electrical Engineering at Manchester University, followed by an MSc in Mechanical Engineering, at which point she was the leading mechanical engineering expert witness at the time.

Soon after graduating, she took up motorcycle racing at Brooklands, on a Norton that she had modified herself. She soon became the second woman to complete a lap at over 100mph, and later became the fastest female racer ever at Brooklands, with a lap speed of 106mph.

Taking up a job at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, at first as a technical writer before moving into an experimental engineering role and then becoming a Senior Technical Officer. She was known not to suffer fools gladly, regardless of their relative position to her in the hierarchy; she did not usually need to offer a spoken reproof, as her penetrating stare was sufficient. She became a leading expert on carburettors, solving a serious problem with the Spitfire fighters’ engine cutting out in downwards manouevres; she also worked on other aspects of aircraft engineering. Of course, she also applied common-sense engineering approaches to her home life: There are plenty of pockets of resistance in this house occupied by spiders so I decided a flame thrower was the only thing for under the sink.

After the war, she continued to work in aircraft engineering, including on early ramjets. She was never promoted as far as she would have liked; although she made efforts in such directions, she admitted that she lacked diplomacy and interest in pleasing superiors; and her casual appearance, in old corduroys with a top pocket full of pens, cannot have gone down well in the stuffy, formal structures of the Civil Service. She disregarded unnecessary formalities, and disliked bureaucracy to the extent that she said that Britain won the war because of the shortage of paper! Although her manner could be terse, and some people found her intimidating, she cared about her team, disappearing briefly to fetch fish and chips for them if she kept them working late at night.

In her retirement, her biography “Negative Gravity” records that

Her idea of relaxation was to drive a fast car at full throttle, and if the car was not fast enough, her workbench was there in the back room to machine new parts to make them faster.

As they became too old to be safe in motor racing, Beatrice and her husband George Naylor moved on to rifle shooting, at which they both excelled. She died in 1990, of cancer of the spine.

Wikipedia: Beatrice Shilling
Matthew Freudenberg (2003). Negative Gravity, the Life of Beatrice Shilling. Charlton Publications

Recruiting youth to our linkspamming lifestyle (2nd November, 2010)

  • Trying to do it mostly right most of the time: The Border House‘s rho interviews Failbetter Games’s Alexis Kennedy, primary writer for Echo Bazaar, about the game’s approach to diversity, sexism and racism in a setting that was historically sexist and racist.
  • Feminomics: calculating the value of ‘women’s work’: an interview with Marilyn Waring, author of If Women Counted. But how will we know [about women’s unpaid work] in the future? This past summer, the Conservatives, in rewriting the long-form census, eliminated only the section on unpaid work. That means that, in the future, StatsCan won’t be able to tell us with any certainty that men perform an average of 2.5 hours of unpaid work per day while women do 4.3 hours, like they did in 2005.
  • I’m Right Here: Rudy Simone on Life as an “Aspergirl”: Aspergirls is partly a personal memoir and partly a book of advice and support for women on the spectrum and their parents and friends. Simone has asked a chorus of Aspie women to speak through its pages, and this personal testimony is deeply moving.
  • British student invents a solar-powered refrigerator: [Emily Cummins] is a graduate of Leeds University, and was once refused a place on an engineering course because “she didn’t have the correct qualifications”. She qualified now?
  • “Renewable Girls” Peddlar Responds: Earlier this week, I critiqued the sale of a cheesecake calendar to help promote and sell solar panels, and asked readers to write to its purveyor, a dude called John B.
  • Stephen Fry, how could you? asks Laurie Penny. Unfortunately, everyone’s favourite gay uncle really has proposed that women only ever have sex for money, or to manipulate a man into a relationship. (oursin responds with to Penny: No, really, say after me ‘It’s always more complicated’)

If you have links of interest, please share them in comments here, or if you’re a delicious user, tag them “geekfeminism” to bring them to our attention. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links in comments and on delicious.