Sexism is a Cold, Smelly Fish

Posted by at 11:43PM

This is my "oh-no-you-didn't" face.

It had seemed so promising.

Sneaking into Huang Engineering that evening back in late August when they still hadn’t quite figured out the locks, my friends and I were awed by the pristine perfection of the shiny new building.  Window-walled study rooms!  Verdant terraces!  Gratuitously large wooden steps!

We frolicked down the hallways and struck poses in the octahedral conference room.  But my heart plummeted after my jubilant arrival at the bottom of those Hagrid-sized steps.  For there, in the middle of Stanford’s metaphorical Mecca of engineering, I was confronted with the following words:

“Brotherhood of Engineers”

Once again, I felt the slap across my face of the cold, smelly fish of sexism in engineering.

To preempt the inevitable opposition

Yes, I understand that the plaque was intended to honor the laudable historic precedent of ground-breaking male partnerships and collaborations in Stanford engineering.  One can’t glance at a Stanford campus map or surf the web without being reminded of our dynamic duos: Hewlett & Packard, Larry Page & Sergey Brin (the Google guys), Jerry Yang & David Filo (the Yahoo! guys), etc., etc.

So the numbers don’t lie.  But while it is true that engineering developments of Stanford past have been male dominated, it is inappropriate and alienating to propagate this gender imbalance through a bronze immortalization in a multi-million dollar building.

"Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels." - Texas Governor Ann Richards

Exclusivity discourages diversity

Gender imbalance in engineering is a serious issue.  According to statistics collected by the Society of Women Engineers, women account for only one-fifth of engineers at national universities, and the percentages have been decreasing in recent years.  My beloved Electrical Engineering is only a depressing 14% female by degrees earned.  It’s not that women are somehow academically unqualified: women are outpacing men in overall participation in higher education, taking the SAT more often, and earning more degrees than men (see Time Magazine).  It’s that female engineers are confronted with the constant menace of stereotype threat.

No online article stated it more clearly and concisely than the Harvard Crimson: many women in engineering “struggl[e] with the persistent sense that [they are] unwelcome or unqualified.”  Women also get screwed over in the engineering pay scale, earning 71-74 cents for every dollar earned by a male counterpart, according to the NSF.  According to the U.K. Times, a “predatory or condescending culture [towards women] was more common across the workplace 20 to 30 years ago but has somehow survived in an engineering, science and technology context.”

Which is why the “Brotherhood of Engineers” thing really gets to me.  Like hundreds of other girls at Stanford, I’ve fought two decades of stereotype threat to pursue a career in the field I love.  Boldly bubbling the “female” oval on our AP Physics, Computer Science, and Calculus exams, building rockets and trebuchets ’cause they’re awesome, and competing in Science Olympiad regardless of the instant nerd label, we’ve confronted society’s sexist misconceptions about the roles of women and marched confidently, sledgehammers in hand, toward those glass ceilings.

Only to be constantly reminded, in big, shiny letters, that Stanford Engineering is a “brotherhood” of engineering.  And spin it as you wish, a brotherhood is still an intrinsically male term: “the relation of a brother, or of brothers mutually,” a “fraternal tie,” the “quality or state of being brothers” (OED, Merriam-Webster’s).

Perhaps this choice of word stems from a lack of an appropriate gender-neutral noun in the English language to express the degree of camaraderie and community insinuated by a fraternal alliance.   Perhaps.  One can’t help think that a ten second Google search would have sufficed to find an alternative.  But since the “Brotherhood” panel is now conspicuously missing from its former position, I can only hope that someone more powerful than I also recognized, and sought to rectify, its impropriety.

But don’t just take my word for it

Stanford sociology professor Shelley Correll recently discussed the very damaging effect of stereotype threat in science and engineering in her talk entitled “How Gender Stereotypes Influence Emerging Career Aspirations.” According to the article from Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research, “extensive empirical research on stereotype threat has demonstrated that if a person is exposed to a negative stereotype about a group to which they belong (e.g. women, Asians, African-Americans), they will then perform worse on tasks related to the stereotype.”  Researchers at Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research calculated that, had the gender bubble on the AP Calculus Exam been moved to the end of the exam, 4,700 more women in America would have received AP Calculus credit that year.  The article goes on to discuss the “powerful effects of negative stereotypes on the psyche,” stressing how “stereotypes decrease self-assessments of ability, lowering the likelihood that women will enter STEM fields.”  Correll serves as an expert advisor to the National Science Foundation, Facebook, Cornell University, and many similar organizations, and stresses that such organizations must “control the messages they are sending, by making sure there are no negative gendered beliefs operating in the organization.” [section added 2/20/11]


Sign or no, the lesson here is that, while Stanford is doing better than the national average at attracting female engineers, we still have a long way to go.


14 Responses to “Sexism is a Cold, Smelly Fish”

  1. Clive Boulton says:

    For sure Brotherhood of Engineers is a fraternal tie. Meant to evoke shared experiences, not sexist experiences. Awesome female engineering students are becoming part of the brotherhood of engineers. The men / women signs on restroom doors, they are for convenience, nothing more is meant?

  2. Kristi says:

    If the sign is indeed intended to evoke shared experiences, there are many and various alternative, gender-neutral words that could have been chosen to express that same sentiment of community. Alliance, community, fellowship, society – you name it. Additionally – I forgot to mention this in the article – the faint image behind the wording is that of a group of males wearing suits. Yes, perhaps a historical allusion, but one that does not indicate inclusion of females in this “brotherhood.”

  3. Matt says:

    Do you make your “oh-no-you-didn’t” face a lot? Do you make it when you hear the Gettysburg Address? Like the phrase you’re upset about, that speech was first spoken more than a century ago,but it is still remembered today because its speaker is still (deservedly) well respected, and we think it is valuable to remember his perspective on a historical moment.

    Does your jaw drop like in the picture when you hear someone recite Lincoln’s gratitude for the “brave men” who had sacrificed for the war effort? Do you implore the modern quoter to run to google to find a synonym for “men?” Even though the search would indeed be fast and convenient, most sane people would think it a pretty air-headed thing to do.

    The analogy is thoroughly apt. The brotherhood phrase, too, is a quote, if you’ll notice, taken from somebody describing the early years of Stanford engineering. And there is absolutely no reason that it should discourage anyone from doing anything. Do you think that the address has a haunting legacy of discouraging women from serving in the armed forces, for fear that their contributions won’t be recognized? Does it discourage you from voting that ninety years ago, you could very accurately describe the electorate as a “brotherhood of voters?”

    Speaking of which, do you see now how other phrases, like “alliance…” are not perfect substitutes? An “alliance” of voters implies that they are all voting for the same person. A “society” of voters would imply that the voters have an organization, and perhaps hold meetings. A “community” of voters comes closer to the same meaning as brotherhood, but does not capture quite the same purpose for association. Any writer worth anything knows that no two words will ever have the same meaning. Writers are there to choose which words to write – that’s literally what we pay them for.

    Yes, it absolutely sucks that women make 70% of men’s salaries. And that there’s discrimination in the workplace. As a man, I will do everything within my reach during my career to put an end to those things. But it wasn’t always thus. I can’t tell you how to react to things, and I’m sorry that for a while you couln’t walk into Huang without feeling marginalized. But I can’t help but feel that that’s a quirk of your outlook, not of interior design. Draw inspiration from your noble drive to eradicate inequality, and in the meantime, accept that it goddamn happened already.

  4. That Kid from East Campus says:

    Right on, Matt. While the discriminating pay scale and a discrepancy in the number of men versus women in our engineering programs are unfortunate, picking a fight over the choice of a word does nothing to solve the problem. In fact, I would argue that its this continuing obsession that prevents society from working toward a solution for the problem at hand.

  5. Kristi says:

    @Matt: I appreciate your perspective, but I respectfully disagree. Your usage of the analogy to the Gettysburg Address is an imperfect one, at best. It reflects contemporary references to statistical realities of the 19th century: women were not allowed to vote, and both the Union and Confederate armies forbade the enlistment of women. Masculine identifiers were thus appropriate. The Huang Center’s “brotherhood of engineers” reference is an outdated one that, without sufficient contextualization, misrepresents today’s demographics and thus marginalizes the minority of engineers who cannot, under any circumstances, be accurately described as “brothers.” I understand that it’s a historical reference. The problem is that many fellow potential female engineers might not and, on the basis of past marginalization in engineering, might all too easily assume that it is a continuation of the same inequality they have faced in the past.

    Sure, there are no perfect synonyms in the English language, but the word “brotherhood” has an inescapably male connotation. (I find it interesting that you side-stepped the definition of fellowship, “a community of interest, activity, feeling or experience,” “a company of equals or friends,” “the quality or state of being comradely.”) Consider the flip side of the coin. Women are beginning to outpace men in the medical sciences. But can you imagine if Stanford Medical School showcased a “Sisterhood of Medicine” plaque? There would be uproar. Gender-specific words on either side are an inappropriate way to address a co-educational community.

    @That Kid: I’m not picking a fight over a word – I’m picking a fight over the historically entrenched and socially damaging existence of stereotype threat in engineering that it represents. While I absolutely agree that working towards a solution for the overall problem should be prioritized over diction, I feel that eradicating gender-specific word choice that propagates stereotype threat is a necessary step to achieving gender equality in engineering.

    I cannot tell you how disheartening it has been, throughout my academic career, to see academically gifted female friends choose not to pursue careers in the sciences solely on the basis of the gender boundaries constructed by our society. If we really want to make engineering accessible to all, a good place to start is by re-writing – literally and figuratively – earlier sexist definitions of what it means to be an engineer.

  6. Franklin D. Roosevelt says:

    “But can you imagine if Stanford Medical School showcased a ‘Sisterhood of Medicine’ plaque? There would be uproar. ”

    Err… would there? I, for one, am a man that would be perfectly fine with having such a plaque. A lot of women made important contributions in medicine, and if you had a huge sign with pictures of Elizabeth Blackwell, Clara Barton, and Florence Nightingale with the words “SISTERHOOD OF MEDICINE” across the top, I would applaud the effort because I would see it as an attempt to raise awareness of women’s historical role in medicine.

    And you quoted the “Society of Women Engineers”? Isn’t it sexist (and a bit hypocritical) to have a group entirely composed of women which excludes male membership when the goal of the group is to increase the number of women among men in the workplace? Where is the opposite “Society of Male Engineers”? Or even “Society of Both Male And Female Engineers”?

    It’s true males are often overrepresented at Stanford. But it’s not like women aren’t recognized at all. Condoleeza Rice is all over this blog, and its almost common knowledge that Stanford has produced immensely famous women such as Sandra Day O’Connor, Sally Ride, and Sigourney Weaver.

    It comes down to this. If you love something, you have to pursue it no matter what. Yeah, society might put you down a notch. But you can’t let society dictate you. Okay, a good way to make engineering accessible to all might be to rewrite earlier sexist definitions (I guess…), but a better way is to make women feel more empowered in making their decisions and have the willpower to resist what society might say about their choices.

  7. Kristi says:

    @FDR: check your facts. SWE in no way excludes male membership, and in fact explicitly invites anyone – “both women and men!” – passionate about advancing diversity in engineering to join. ( I challenge you to find any SWE website anywhere that excludes male membership. There are many coeducational engineering organizations (SWE included). Check out Tau Beta Pi or IEEE, for starters.

    I agree that you can’t let society dictate you, and I agree that ultimately, increased empowerment among women is the best answer to the sexism problem. However, until we get there, I think that it is important to reduce the usage of gender-exclusive words to avoid marginalizing female engineers.

  8. Clive Boutlon says:

    @Kristi: clear. Mr Huang Engineering, tear down this wall!

    -> “the faint image behind the wording is that of a group of males wearing suits.”

  9. Sexism in language says:

    Anyone who doesn’t think that prominent signs such as “Brotherhood of Engineers” is a flagrant example of sexist language, which has a significant impact on the problems we’re trying to fix, should take the class “Language and Gender” (linguistics department–satisfies one of your EC requirements if you need it). The effect is far more powerful than you would think. We can all rationalize it away and make it seem inconsequential; but the research doesn’t lie. I’m a male engineer and I’m rather saddened to see examples like that sign.

  10. Darius says:

    I was on the panel that approved this. We were using brother in the way that black guys mean it. Sorry for the confusion.

  11. Rosemary says:

    ” “But can you imagine if Stanford Medical School showcased a ‘Sisterhood of Medicine’ plaque? There would be uproar. ”

    Err… would there? I, for one, am a man that would be perfectly fine with having such a plaque. A lot of women made important contributions in medicine, and if you had a huge sign with pictures of Elizabeth Blackwell, Clara Barton, and Florence Nightingale with the words “SISTERHOOD OF MEDICINE” across the top, I would applaud the effort because I would see it as an attempt to raise awareness of women’s historical role in medicine.”

    Ahh, but the trick here is the difference between the cultural context of ‘brotherhood’ and ‘sisterhood’. If I, as a woman in Computer Science, were confronted with that sign, would have assumed that it was referring to the community of engineers in Stanford, the same way that people use ‘you guys’ and ‘mankind’ to refer to groups that may not be specifically male –and I, too, would have found that sign subtly alienating.

    If a sign made reference to the ‘Sisterhood’ of whatever, I would have the same reaction –that it was honoring a specific subset of that community, a subset that had to be pointed out as different from the rest of it.

    And that is why a sign referring to the ‘Brotherhood of Engineers’ is disquieting to me –because the cultural context infers that it probably meant to include me in it, while at the same time marking my gender as something outside the norm in this community of Engineers.

    I cannot speak for the experiences of other women in engineering at Stanford, but I know I for one have not yet experienced any gender discrimination –yet despite that, when I get something wrong or struggle with it, I find myself wondering if others think it is because of my gender, or because of my ability. As a woman who is doing her best to leave gender stereotypes behind, I do not need to be reminded of them by a fancy plaque in a building I will frequently visit. I appreciate that this sign was removed.

  12. embrace rather than censor says:


    Surely, when Beethoven used Schiller’s Ode to Joy in the grand finale of the 9th symphony, the celebration of universal “brotherhood of man” doesn’t literally mean the male sibling bond between all male members of the human species.

    While I understand how the use of the word “brotherhood”, especially in the context of engineering, can bring up subtle feelings of alienation amongst some female engineers, I have quite a different opinion on the matter.
    In the long run, isn’t it more productive to EMBRACE words to allow our vocabulary to gravitate towards gender neutrality rather than CENSORING words because we fear the connotations of such words? By Censoring the words, are we not indirectly affirming the gender specificity of the word “brotherhood” and also the male dominated nature of engineering industries?

    Personally, because English was not my first language, I had the impression that words such as man-kind and brotherhood were entirely gender neutral up until high school. (I, like many other first generation English learners, learned most of our vocabulary from social contexts). Unlike OED, Marriam-Webster’s definition of Brotherhood includes
    1: the quality or state of being brothers
    2: fellowship, alliance
    3: an association (as a labor union or monastic society) for a particular purpose
    4: the whole body of persons engaged in a business or profession
    (definition 3 seems to fit better in this context)

    While I wholesomely agree that the dearth of female engineers is an issue we need to tackle, the issue of the word “brotherhood” being used here seems to be one of irrelevant conclusions. (First being that brotherhood is not a gender exclusive term (and earlier I even argued that it’s better to embrace words as gender neutral words), and second being that the issue of gender inequality would not be addressed by the removal of the words)

    Idk, thats just my take on things anyway, and it seems like I’m way late to the conversation.

  13. Mickey says:

    I’m impressed, I must say. Actually hardly ever do I encounter a blog that’s both educative and entertaining, and let me tell you, you might have hit the nail on the head. Your thought is outstanding; the difficulty is something that not enough people are speaking intelligently about. I’m very pleased that I stumbled across this in my seek for something regarding this.

  14. Max says:

    If you fail a math exam because you had to fill out your gender bubble at the beginning of the test. YOU DO NOT BELONG IN ENGINEERING. That is absolutely pathetic. In science you need to be able to take WITHERING ridicule especially if you do paradigm changing science.


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