Tuesday, May 24, 2016

People First

When my daughter came home from a school trip exclaiming, "I want to be an aerospace engineer!" I was thrilled. How many people can say that they have a teenager who actually knows what they want to be when they grow up? I don't even know what I want to be when I grow up!

For my daughter, who busts her butt to get straight A's, to say that she wants to go into a field that will require her to bust it even harder made me very proud. Of course, in my own mind, I took all of the credit for instilling in her the work ethic, creativity and problem-solving skills one would need to make it in the field of aerospace engineering.  It was a very proud moment for me. She didn't feel restrained by what many would see as traditional gender roles when it came to careers.

Having moved to the South, the very birthplace of Redneck, from New York, the bastion of liberalism, (or so people's really not), I was worried. I worried that the culture would wear her down, convince her to go into a field that was traditionally female-oriented. I was cautiously optimistic, though. She is a pretty strong-willed gal, my daughter. She will face the world on her own terms or she'll know why. I'm proud of her for that, too.

So, I started looking into some of the opportunities in engineering for young women in the South. I can say with absolute certainty that there are tons of opportunities. In the South, the North, Midwest... you name it. Everywhere you look, opportunities abound. But, what I also found was at first encouraging, and then distressing.

There are a lot of societies, professional groups and initiatives regarding Women in Engineering, or Women in Science, Women in many fields traditionally regarded as male-dominated fields. This is good, right? What I began to wonder about, though, was why were there so many? Why were they so prevalent. If women had all of these opportunities, all of these avenues to pursue, why would they need to separate themselves from the men? Why weren't they just "engineers" instead of "Women Engineers"? Well, you can't find out from the websites. You have to get down in there and talk to people.

What I found was that, while the opportunities are there for women to go into these fields, they are not always treated the same as their male counterparts. As just one example, look at the fact that many women  start their careers in tandem with the time of their lives that they often start families. Women have to leave their jobs to have babies and lose time, seniority and salary in the process. They are, essentially, punished economically, for becoming mothers. You can slice this idea many different ways, but that's the long and short of it. And that doesn't even scratch the surface of the gender inconsistencies.

Anecdotally, many female engineers will say that their contributions are dismissed earlier than their male peers, reminding them of how they were treated in school. It turns out that in some cases, young women are not expected to do well in math and science classes, and thereby are simply not encouraged to try harder. This treatment, in turn, sets them up to accept the same kind of treatment in the workplace.

Now, for every anecdote that outlines a situation one way, you can find another to contradict it. I found many female engineers who sing the praises of their bosses and their firms, stating that they are considered valued members of their teams. That is great and wonderful and I applaud these firms. It doesn't, however, explain why there are so many "Women in Engineering" groups.
Are women simply fearful of being marginalized? Or, are they simply recognizing a situation and trying to alleviate its effects?
If this is a real thing, it's not institutionalized. It's not systemic. It lives and breathes with the other inbred prejudices in our own psyches. Some have it, some don't. Some teachers, parents, and authority figures have it too, and that includes some women. I say it's nonsense. I say women, and men, have to be seen as people first in order to do their best work. I say girls can do well in math and science and history bears this out. I say we should expect girls to try, and we should encourage them to excel as we do with boys. I say, as parents, we should demand that our teachers see things that way, too.

I say girls can be great people, just as boys can. What do you say?

Jeff Davis is the writer/director of the new film "Discovery" being produced now. Find out more about the film at  Contribute to the campaign on IndieGoGo!