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.
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.