Scenes like the one above are engineer Christine McKinley’s favorite views of the construction sites where she manages building designs and contracts with other engineers. McKinley, a mechanical engineer, musician, and author, enjoys the complexities, high stakes and surprises of her job. Engineers, she says, “design against [surprises] but live for surprises.”
One of these surprises, McKinley told an audience last Thursday Feb. 25 in the Nelson Music Room at Duke, was a talk she had with the director of a community college district. He told her “women aren’t as good as math and science.” Shocked and disappointed that a man in charge of the education of the young students would believe this, McKinley pointed out that several of her accomplished colleagues were women. McKinley, like many other women, was frustrated that she has to work harder than men to get a promotion.
Is this changing? Are women today more prevalent in engineering fields than they were twenty to thirty years ago?
The chart below depicts the distribution of engineers in 1989: only 15 percent are women.
Of course, 1989 was 27 years ago and a different cultural time, with Nintendo’s Game Boy and Prince William’s seventh birthday. But the chart below shows how little those numbers have changed.
For mechanical engineers, the gap is much larger: only 7 percent are women (yellow faces), while the blue faces represent men, with the some frowning ones unhappy to be working with the women.
When the workers are broken down into teams, according to McKinley, the image below is what it actually feels like to be working as a female mechanical engineer.
Let’s start with the most troubling issue regarding the lack of diversity in engineering. If women and people of color are told that we are not good at math and science, and we believe it, then we are choosing a form of helplessness. Specifically, if we don’t pick apart the data and challenge those who made up this story, then it sticks, and the “rumor” becomes a narrative – and that’s dangerous, McKinley said. However, everyone needs to know basic chemistry, math, and physics to participate in conversations about topics such as medicine, NASA, one’s cholesterol level, and energy conservation as a knowledgeable adult. People need to be STEM-literate to be able to analyze this data, and men, especially in the 1950s, didn’t want women to research the facts and prove a competition.
Why should we care about women choosing careers in STEM fields?
Reason 1: Gender financial inequity: STEM grads make more than non-STEM grads
If we care about the gender pay gap, and only 19 percent of engineering graduates are women, then that aggravates the situation. This gender inequity can be addressed – partly – by women choosing to study engineering, McKinley said.
Of course, money is not the only thing in life; we want jobs with meaning, she added. However, even civil engineers understand that they are in a helping profession, always excited to build a new bridge, for example, to help people cross a flooded river. At the same time, money gives one the ability to leave a spouse, to take care of a disabled child, to find a better job, to afford healthier food; making real money gives one a way to become independent and make better choices. Working a job, however, does not imply that we must “sacrifice [our] life and fun.” McKinley enjoys what she does and has a lot of fun on the job; studying math and science, she says, is not that complex with the right motivation and support.
Reason 2: Humanity’s Survival
A coronal mass ejection (CME) is an enormous eruption of gas and magnetic field that launches billions of tons of plasma from the sun’s surface into space. Such an event occurred in 1859. As a result, farmers plowing field with horses noticed a bright flash of light, steam engines continued to run on schedule, and telegraph operators were confused when their telegraph batteries stopped working. Overall, there were few problems due to the limited technology at the time.
Imagine a CME happening today. All our large pieces of equipment – power stations, transformers, and transmission lines – would get fried.
If these power houses blow up, what are we going to do? With three-year lead-time and $2 trillion cost, they will not be repaired in time for us to continue our daily functions. We now have a civilization-changing event on our hands – what Hurricane Katrina gave us, but now, for entire countries. We are in a time where our dependence on technology is constantly rising – until it’s not. In such a disastrous scenario, we will need more engineers. At this time, everyone – men and women – will come together to work on simple, elegant solutions to make the world better.
Currently, we have a mass shortage of engineers, so those today are overbooked with work. If these engineers are unable to find time to think through the entire solution and review all possible sources of error, then it creates a problem not only for engineering but also for the entire world in general. We are in need of good engineers and a diverse workforce to bring together all our ideas for a better world.
McKinley notes that she finds herself more comfortable when there are other women in the room. As a result, the whole team gets more relaxed, “elevating everyone’s game,” and people get more creative and feel more secure in sharing their ideas.
Reason 3: The third reason we care about this view about engineering is the history of STEM achievements by women being ignored or the credit being taken by men.
Women who became mathematicians in the 1900s had to fight hard to have their contributions to the field recognized. The world misses out significantly if the achievements of half of humanity are ignored.
Hertha Aryton was a brilliant mathematician who had been elected the first female member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers in 1899. In 1902, she became the first woman nominated a Fellow of the Royal Society of London. “Because she was married, however,” McKinley quoted, “legal counsel advised that the charter of the Royal Society did not allow the Society to elect her to this distinction.”
Amalie Noether was another incredible mathematician who invented a theorem that united symmetry in nature and the universal laws of conservation. Some consider Noether’s theorem, as it is now called, to be as important as Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. Einstein himself regarded her as most “significant” and “creative” female mathematician of all time. However, McKinley tells the audience, she was denied a working position at universities simply because they did not hire female professors.
In the 1900’s, more than 1000 women joined an organization called Women Airforce Service Pilots. They transported newly-made planes to the fighter pilots; however, many of the planes were untested, causing 38 of them to die in service. While they went through intense military training and had prior experience, the women were considered “civilian volunteers” and had to fight to be recognized. Further, most of the accepted women to the organization were white, and the only African American applicant was asked to withdraw her application.
Nancy Fitzroy was American engineer and heat transfer expert in the 1900s. She received plenty of criticism as well, but she said it didn’t affect her: “The reaction I pretty much have gotten most of my life is ‘little girl, what are you doing here?’ but I was a good engineer. That’s what made all the difference.”
Curiosity, inventiveness, and the urge to improve are not male traits. They are human traits. Women are half of humanity; they are not the spectators. Women must step up and contribute even if it is more difficult. Constantly underestimated as a female mechanical engineer, McKinley says she uses this underestimation as fuel to work harder and become better.
Being an engineer is worth it. Ask great questions, and be really good.
Remember, McKinley told her audience, that engineering is full of surprises. And for people who underestimate you, you’ll be that surprise.
Christine McKinley is a mechanical engineer, musician, and author. Her musical Gracie and the Atom, won a Portland Drammy for Original Score. Her book Physics for Rock Stars was published in 2014 by Penguin Random House. Christine hosted Brad Meltzer’s Decoded on History Channel and Under New York on Discovery Channel.
By Anika Radiya-Dixit