Every New Year’s Day, I try to get away from the usual run of topics and tackle something of longer-term interest. Last year it was gun control; the only thing that prevented this from becoming a larger player on our political stage was the ineptitude of the administration that wants to expand it. This year’s topic is more of a hot potato than even that: feminism, and especially its influence (or lack of it) in my profession. The differences between what my contemporaries perceive as “truth” and what’s really going on these days was illustrated by something that happened a couple of years ago, and frankly if I hadn’t seen it myself I wouldn’t have believed it.
As many of you know, I teach Civil Engineering a the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. One afternoon, I came in on a gathering of the entire full-time Civil Engineering faculty, the Dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science, and two of my students. They had been elected officers in our American Society of Civil Engineers student chapter, he the President and she the Vice-President. They were definitely an item. (Update: they got married.)
She was going on at length about their ambitions and goals for the coming year for the student chapter. This monologue continued for an extended period. Finally the Dean, conscious of the fact that there were two students present, asked the guy, “Do you have anything to say?” He shook his head and mumbled “No,” at which point the girl blurted out “I do all the talking and he does all the thinking.”
That state continued because the faculty and administration present (one of whom was a woman) were dumbfounded into silence by this frank admission. Most of us could remember the time when no self-respecting woman with career ambitions (and not too many others either) would have made that kind of admission. But here we were, and that moment of truth revealed a great deal both about where everyone was at.
Today most undergraduate students at colleges and universities are women. Engineering is one field that has bucked this trend. How much bucking goes on depends upon the specialty. In the case of civil engineering, normally about 20% of my students are female. It’s a demanding curriculum, and I feel that, when I’m facing a class of engineering students, I’m looking at the campus’ best. The female students are no exception to this: most are very diligent, detail oriented, more willing than their male counterparts to ask questions, and, as shown earlier, more ready to do the talking.
That last point isn’t a liability, especially in this profession. People go in to engineering largely because of their technical skills and tend to give their communications skills the short shrift in pursuing their careers, both during and after their university time. However, in civil engineering, because of what we design and construct (bridges, roads, buildings, etc.) the need to effectively deal with the public is crucial. Adding to the need for effective communication is the complex nature of construction itself: you have the owner, the designer, the contractor, and of course the other “stakeholders.” Someone who possesses both technical skills and the gift of gab is very valuable in this kind of scenario.
The guys recognize this early in the game, which is why women end up represented in the student chapter leadership well out of proportion to their real numbers. That carries over into our Society after that: when I became Branch Treasurer, our President (who asked me to become an officer) was my first female student! (Lesson: treat people in life well on the way up, you’ll meet them again on the way down.)
To put this in Biblical perspective, when God called Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, one of the excuses Moses gave him was the following:
Moses said to the LORD, “Please, Lord, I’m not a good speaker. I’ve never been a good speaker, and I’m not now, even though you’ve spoken to me. I speak slowly, and I become tongue-tied easily.” The LORD asked him, “Who gave humans their mouths? Who makes humans unable to talk or hear? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? It is I, the LORD! Now go, and I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.” But Moses said, “Please, Lord, send someone else.” Then the LORD became angry with Moses and asked, “What about your brother Aaron the Levite? I know he can speak well. He’s already on his way to meet you, and he will be very glad to see you. You will speak to him and tell him what to say. I will help both of you speak, and I will teach you both what to do. Aaron will speak to the people for you. He will be your spokesman, and you will be like God. (Exodus 4:10-16)
If Moses and Aaron had been modern civil engineering students, they would have drafted Miriam to do the talking with Pharaoh.
My point in this long tale is this: when “women’s lib” first broke out, the question was one of rights. That’s still very much the accepted point of view for some today, but for those who have to make a living in a society where the ability to generate wealth grows but the pickings get slimmer anyway, the key question for any group is “What do women bring to the table?” The answer, in civil engineering at least, is a lot.
I think if the question were put that way in other professions, you would get the same result. But no matter how long the matter of right dominates the agenda, the issue of merit will never go away.
And it shouldn’t. I teach a lab course with group experiments and reports. For one of the experiments, I gave the students a chance to improve the reports, as I wasn’t really happy with the results. One female student came to me, and I told her, “I hope you improve your report, it wasn’t up to your usual standard.”
“We (she and her girl friend) didn’t want to do all the work, and were hoping the guys would take the lead,” she replied.
My response: “That was your first mistake.”