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Dr. Eleanor K. Baum
Who, other than Dr. Eleanor Baum can tell you all about her experiences? No one!
Below is a transcript of Dr. Baum's speech from the Second Annual Elvera and William Stuckenberg Lecture in Technology and Human Affairs, School of Engineering and Applied Science, Washington University, St. Louis: April 23, 1991. Source: GOS.
A Young Girl Who Wanted To Be An Engineer
I want to begin by discussing the general subject of women in engineering and, in particular, a subject I know well, myself.
When I was a young girl in high school--"girl" was an okay term in the late 1950s--it was a very simple world with clearly understood rules. There were dos and there were don'ts. You knew what was expected of you and you did it. The understood choices for women at that time were to become a secretary or, if you wanted to go to college, to become a nurse or an elementary school teacher. I got a lot of pressure from my parents about becoming an elementary school teacher. My parents even cut clippings out of newspapers, with titles like "The Joy of Being Home at Three O'clock to Take Care of Your Children,"--I'm sure many of you know the kind of thing I'm talking about.
I was in a high school in Brooklyn, where I was taking advanced math and advanced science courses because I thought they were interesting. No one had told me that I wasn't supposed to do that. Then, one day, I realized the guys in my classes wanted to study engineering when they got out. I truly had no idea what engineering was. I didn't know any engineers.
I didn't know what engineers did, but when my mother was really annoying me one day, I announced: "I'm going to major in Engineering." Her response was, of course, absolutely wonderful. She said: "You can't do that. People will think you're weird and no one will marry you." After all, getting married was what it was all about, right? The real reason you went to college was to become educated so that you could marry the right kind of man, right? And, in my mother's view, he was a neurosurgeon.
When I told my high school guidance counselors I was thinking about studying engineering, their responses were as delicious as that of my mother, at which point I dug in my heels and said: "I'm going to do it." I applied to a couple of engineering schools, one of which--and I love meeting people from the school these days to remind them of the story--didn't send me a letter, but called me on the phone to explain that they could not accept me because they had insufficient ladies' rooms. A good reason for turning down women, right?
But, I did go to engineering school at City College in New York. I, too, rode subways and read the newspaper folded up, and it was not a wonderful experience. I felt very alone. I felt very isolated. A lot of people did indeed think that I was a very strange person, and that was not very comfortable.
Even worse, to my professors, I represented all women. If I didn't know the answer to something or had difficulty with a problem, they didn't say: "Eleanor doesn't know how to do this." They said: "You see, women don't know how to do this." I had all kinds of difficulties in classes because the examples professors used to explain principles very often dealt with how cars worked, and I had no idea how cars worked. However, it was obvious to all the men in the class. In lab classes, I was expected to be the data taker rather than the person who did things in the laboratory. All in all, it was not a wonderful experience.
Now, this is not going to be a play-by-play of my entire life, truly. I graduated from engineering school, went to work in the aerospace industry, and again, was the only woman engineer around. I worked at the time for what was the old Sperry Gyroscope Company on Long Island, and most people assumed that I was one of the secretaries. Again, it's a little bit uncomfortable to have to keep explaining who you are.
I began to make some interesting kinds of observations. When two men were talking, it was assumed they were discussing something about work. When I went over to a man's desk to talk to him, it was assumed I was flirting with him. These were the kinds of attitudes I had to overcome.
The job was not interesting enough. I wanted to go to graduate school. Again, from my mother: "You're becoming far too educated. This is utterly ridiculous. No one will want you." Now, I know you're all here sitting in suspense. Well, I did find someone who wanted me. We got married. I have children. All worked out well.
Changes In Society
Society has changed since then, and it hasn't been that many years. The changes have been dramatic. First of all, the women's movement had a profound impact on women of my generation. Suddenly, women thought in terms of not only being wives and mothers, but also in terms of themselves as professionals, and in terms of careers--careers which were going to last longer than having your first child and quitting.
The next enormous change that we saw was a change in the economy. Suddenly, it really required, in many cases, two incomes to support a family, so that working women became far more accepted. On this point, I've got to tell a mother-in-law story. My husband's mother was so embarrassed by the fact I was working after I had babies that she would not tell people I was working. To her, my working was telling the world that her son wasn't making enough money to support me. Isn't that amazing? And it's not that long ago that people had those kinds of attitudes.
The number of women enrolled as undergraduates in engineering increased from around 2 percent in the early 1970s to a real high of 14 percent in 1984. A great deal of effort went into that increase, and a great deal of corporate and government money as well. But, people sat back and saw this enrollment and graduation curve going up, and said, "Hey, we don't have a problem anymore."
And do you know what happened? The number of women in engineering started declining dramatically. Betty Vetter in Washington makes the scary comment that it started to decline with a bigger slope than it increased. So, clearly, women in engineering is still an issue and is still a problem. I want to explore with you for a few minutes some of the reasons why women are not flocking to our profession.
Women In Engineering
I think the main reason, and this is probably true for men as well as women, that large numbers of students are not becoming engineers is a lack of public understanding about what engineering is and about what it is that engineers do. And, I have to admit, we as a profession have done a really terrible job of explaining to the public at large who we are.
Every time we talk about careers in engineering we get too involved in talking about the highly specialized fields and focused options you can have in engineering. Honestly, no high school teenager is prepared to master the difference between a materials engineer, a materials scientist, and a manufacturing technician.
What we have failed to do is give a clear picture of the engineering profession, and it's a very simple picture. We really are society's trained problem-solvers--people who solve problems to make life better for other people. In order to solve those problems we have to have tools like mathematics. This is simple, but clearly it is not well understood.
Guidance materials explaining engineering are absolutely awful. Have you seen some of the guidance material around? It's been written by engineers. There are talented people who know how to excite high school kids, but somehow our profession has not utilized these people or their resources.
We also have a "nerd" image. We really do, and the media, I think, have very much exaggerated the "nerd" image. If you ever watch Saturday morning cartoons, the engineer or the scientist is inevitably male, and is some creepy little guy sitting in a corner. Long ago they always used to have slide rules dangling from the belt--remember that? Now, happily, calculators are small, so they fit into a pocket complete with a plastic protector and pens in every color. Saturday cartoons do bad things to us.
By the way, whenever you see women in media who are scientists or engineers, they are always evil, plotting the end of the world. Very bad stuff, but that kind of stuff effects young, impressionable children.
On the other hand, we often project the image that you have to be a genius to be an engineer, particularly if you're a woman, and that's upsetting, because very average males go into engineering, and yet the women who go into engineering tend not to be average at all.
I spend a whole lot of time going around talking to high school groups, talking to parents, talking to school guidance counselors, and trying to push engineering as a career for women. I spend other time talking to groups of working women engineers, and I have got to tell you I hear real horror stories. So, at one point, I really started to question whether I was doing the right thing. Am I sending these women into a life of misery? Am I, you know, doing this terrible, terrible thing?
Well, I had money left over in my budget, and I decided to do a survey.
Cooper Union's National Survey On Women Engineers
We did a national survey where we sent out four thousand questionnaires to working women engineers. They were all members of the Society of Women Engineers, selected at random, but we didn't know any other way to reach working women engineers. Asking companies to distribute the survey would have skewed the results. We also sent four thousand questionnaires out to women engineering students. I had enough money left over to hire a marketing firm to do the number crunching. I wanted the results and I wanted them quickly. They told me that a 20 percent response would be excellent: we got a response of well over 50 percent. And, very often, the questionnaire was mailed back to me with long, long letters. Truly, one person sent me a ten-page letter, written in the tiniest handwriting. She was clearly pouring out her soul.
Let me tell you a little bit about the profile of a woman engineer that emerged from the survey and some conclusions we were able to draw.
First of all, of the women who were either engineers or engineering students, over two-thirds have a family member who is an engineer, generally a father or a brother. That bears out my feeling that to know what engineering is all about you need to know an engineer who is a positive role model. This seems to be particularly true for women.
Women went into engineering for very good reasons and for the right reasons. They went into engineering because they wanted interesting work. They liked to solve problems. They wanted a career which offered opportunities to learn and to grow. They wanted a career which would have a job at the end and a good salary. They wanted a career which was transferable around the world. And 1 percent even said they went into engineering to meet men. There are easier ways. Almost any way is easier.
A scary finding of the questionnaire was that women reported their high school guidance counselors were very non-supportive of their decision to study engineering. Non-supportive is a nice word, because I got long letters that talked about how they were actually discouraged by people in their high schools. There seem to be many high schools in our country which discourage women from taking advanced math and physics courses, and, in fact, there seem to be very few women who were physics teachers in high school. Yet, when male engineers are asked to talk about why they decided to think of engineering as a career, one of the really moving forces seems to be that high school physics teacher. That's a real national problem, and we're going to have to do something about it.
The women who go into engineering have a very positive self-image, and that's nice to see, but it also indicates a big problem. They describe themselves as having been very good students. They see themselves as assertive individuals. They see themselves as leaders, and 60 percent describe themselves as physically attractive. That's really nice, but the problem isn't solved until average high school girls, who are good in math and like math, go into engineering.
Of the women working in engineering, two-thirds are married. Those who are married are generally married to someone who is an engineer or scientist. I guess that isn't surprising. That's who they go to school with; that's who they work with. It makes sense.
They are also young. There are lots of complaints, and you hear this from women's groups very often, that there are few women in upper management positions on a corporate level in engineering companies. Over 65 percent of the women who are engineers are under the age of 35, and many of those, by the way, report some management responsibilities. So I'm hopeful, really hopeful, that there's a big group of female engineers out there waiting to smash right through that glass ceiling that all of us talk about.
Two-thirds of the women who are married say they make more money then their husbands, and in many of those families, that really is a source of tension for women engineers as well as for other women.
At the time I got married, the assumption was that the husband came home and the wife had dinner on the table. The household responsibilities were the wife's job. I had hoped that was no longer true, and I'm very happy to report that it is, indeed, no longer true. The women reported that household responsibilities were viewed as shared responsibilities by women engineers and their spouses. However, child rearing responsibilities were still primarily the woman's. That hasn't changed, and that I found fascinating.
The working women engineers complained about a lack of time. They were so busy being wives and mothers, professional women, that they simply didn't have enough time to spend quality time with their children and time to do the things they liked to do and wanted to do away from work. That seems to be a serious problem among academic women as well. And, yet, hardly any of the respondents had any help at home, and that floored me.
Now, I made that kind of statement once to a roomful of women and got attacked from the floor. A woman got up and shrieked, "You are talking about exploiting other women." Hey, I'm not talking exploitation. Get household help and pay them well. That's perfectly all right. I use a cleaning service run by men, but get that household help. It makes everything possible for you. There was a period in my own life when I used my whole salary to pay for child care and cleaning, and you do that because you know that's not going to last forever, but it's going to make your life better for you and for the things that you want to achieve.
I'm really pushing this hard because many women who go into engineering come from families where household help is not a tradition. They often marry men who are also first-generation-educated in their families, and many men still feel "I don't want a stranger in my house doing things. I want my wife to do these things." That's a tough attitude to overcome. Don't put up with it. If husbands don't want you to have a stranger messing up and touching their things, let them clean.
In the work place, I was absolutely delighted to hear the high level of job satisfaction. Overwhelmingly, the women felt that their salary expectations were met. They felt their profession is respected. They felt the work they do was interesting. They felt the work they do is important. But, interestingly, over half of them felt that they weren't being utilized either properly or to their full potential by their company. That's something that American industry is going to have to change because it seems to be true not only for female engineers, but also true of the way all engineers are used in general.
Gender issues came up in the survey, and the gender issues were interesting. About 70 percent of the women felt that they have to work harder then men doing the same job. I don't know if that's a male-female difference, or whether it's a feeling that all young engineers have, of having to prove themselves. I know students coming back to my campus most often talk about this need to prove themselves, and think they alone have that kind of feeling.
Industry has to create more networking opportunities for young engineers, for young female engineers, for young male engineers. I still, and I cannot tell you how often this happens, will visit a company and there will be a woman engineer in one department. In the room next door, there is another woman engineer and they don't know each other. You can't expect people to meet one another accidentally. Companies have to create a more structured kind of networking opportunity. Somehow when you talk to other people you realize that your problem is not unique. It helps to discuss solutions to that problem with other young engineers, and particularly with other young women.
Women felt they viewed ethical issues differently from the way men did. I agree with that. I think many women do indeed view ethical issues differently.
Any profession which does not include nearly half of its population has to suffer in its creativity and in its creative potential. So it's important that more women become engineers, not simply because we're having a shortage of engineers and this is where we can get more engineers, but because including women can perhaps bring some new and different things into engineering.
Young women report being worried about supervising men. They don't know how men are going to react to them. Will they indeed accept me as their supervisor? It's a natural worry. I understand that. One of the things that I was so surprised at was something called the "queen bee complex." The queen bee is a woman who has made it in the company. She is at a high level and, instead of encouraging and helping other young women, she wants to be special. Therefore, she puts down and impedes the progress of other young women. I got so many letters telling terrible stories about female bosses. This was very new and very surprising to me but, clearly, not unusual.
Women expressed concern about how to handle socialization with co-workers. If the guys go out Friday night after work for beer and bowling, do I have to go along to be accepted? What if I don't want to go along? What if they don't ask me? All those things came up, and, yes, those are real concerns. But I got letters from women in management level positions who voiced a different kind of socialization concern, a concern that the real decision-making in the corporation is made on the golf course, when the guys go out on Sunday and play golf together, and when women are excluded from that whole decision-making process. I see a lot of smiles in the audience. It's true. It's really a perception that women have, and I suspect it's a reality in many cases.
Women report all kinds of difficulties because they are threatening to co-workers wives. A positive note on that: I have discovered that as you get older that gets to be less of a problem. But seriously, if you're an unmarried young woman and you're working next to someone's husband all day, and he comes home and says Judy is so bright and Judy is so smart and Judy is so pretty and Judy is so interesting and Judy sits next to me all day, you can understand that a lot of wives indeed do get threatened. And perhaps the way to handle that is in some kind of social circumstance where Judy can meet the wife. Somehow, the person that you meet, that has a face as well as a name, is far less threatening than some unknown person.
Women show great concern about the question of relocating because of two working people in a family. Women said that it is more usual for them to agree to relocate because their husband has a job opportunity than for the husband to relocate because the wife has a job opportunity. And that becomes a very serious problem. In my own life, my husband and I handled that by locating ourselves in a major urban area. We're in New York City, and both of us have been able to change jobs several times, and even academic jobs in my case, without having to move the family physically.
Other people have different solutions. I know on this campus husband-and-wife teams are sometimes hired. It can, however, be a problem, and often the solution is long-distance marriages. Long distance means far enough away so you don't see each other every weekend. These arrangements always start off with, "Oh, this is so romantic. We're always saying hello. We're always saying good-bye. It's so marvelous. I have all this time during the week to do what I want." After a while, when you see them six months later, they don't talk about it. When you see them a bit after that, it ends with, "Well, we're getting a divorce."
I guess I've got to be careful. Is there someone here who has a husband in California and commutes? You don't have to get a divorce, honestly, if that's the case. But it's really a tough way to live a life, and it's not a terrific way at all to have a life or a marriage.
The other big issue that seems to come up frequently for women, and really is one that we have to come to terms with, is the entire question of re-entry into the profession after childbirth. If you're in industry and you take time off to have a baby, does this mean that you're going to be labeled with Felice Schwartz's hated mommy track? The answer is: You may very well. Indeed, you may. And, if you're at a university, can it mess up your tenure situation? The reality of that is: it can happen. It really can happen.
Many companies seem now to have maternity policies, but in spite of that, there is a real difficulty in being away from a technological field for a while, then re-entering, and still having not lost something in the period that you're away. That's something that American industry is really going to have to deal with and deal with soon, because it's a problem not only with women engineers, but it's a problem with all working women.
Industry is really going to have to deal with flex time, and real flex time, not just half hour offsets. Industry needs to deal with more opportunities for part-time employment, more opportunities for two women to job share, more opportunities to work at home and communicate electronically with your company. In this electronic age, that should not be of great difficulty.
They're going to have to deal more creatively with child care, and perhaps one of the ways of dealing more creatively with that problem is to have flexible benefit packages. You have a kind of smorgasbord, and depending on what time of life you're in, you choose the benefits which fit your lifestyle. You begin to see it a little bit in a very few companies. It certainly is not yet widespread throughout industry. It's important that people think about that more.
We've talked a lot about women engineers and their concerns. One major concern that came out in the survey is an appalling one. Over half of the women who responded talked about having been subjected to harassment. That's scary. It's scary that it still happens, but again, one has to define different levels of harassment and responses to those different levels of harassment.
Some women reported benign harassment--that's an overprotective boss who is so eager to help you and be kind to you and take care of you that he never lets you do anything on your own. "No, don't do that. Tom, you come here, you lift that." "No, don't turn that valve." "Don't take that measurement." That kind of thing. I never viewed that as harassment, just irritating, but I really understand that it can become and can be viewed as a form of harassment.
Then there's the kind of harassment which is tactless comments by someone who is basically a well-meaning individual. If you are a woman who works in a field primarily with men, you cannot have antenna which are so sensitive that every little thing sets you off in a full-scale artillery response, you know, because what happens is you're like an open wound and everything hurts so much.
I think you have to learn to be discriminating between someone who really is doing something serious, negative, evil if you like, and someone who's basically a nice person but is a bit of a klutz, and says tactless things, makes a couple of tactless comments. Those types you can react to with humor. Those types you can even talk to calmly, but clearly if you are subjected to serious harassment, boy, you better do something about it.
I had incredible stories related to me, and what was surprising to me was the very same people, who said they were delighted with their career decision and liked their job, would then write to me of the awful things that happened to them. A woman at a well-known company that prides itself on wonderful policies towards women, wrote about having a performance review with her boss, where he would talk about nothing but her breasts.
No one has to stand for that. No one. Other women talk about bosses who caress, not an arm around the shoulders, but caress in upsetting and suggestive manners. These are examples of serious harassment you have to deal with. Some of the women, most appallingly, said that they didn't want to deal with these issues because they would be labeled as bad sports or troublemakers, and that I found really upsetting.
There are times when you go above your boss's head, you go to corporate management level, and there are even times when legal action is warranted. Happily, one hopes that things are changing, that as men in general get more used to working with women, those instances will be fewer and further apart.
Welcoming Women Into Engineering
The engineering profession is learning to welcome women into the profession, I hope, and I hope we will see great changes, just as I hope we will see great changes in university campuses. You know, as the student body changes, as one attracts more women and minorities, you can't just go on with business as usual.
You really have to take some special steps to encourage and retain the young women who enter your program, because if you look at dropout rates nationally, those dropout rates for women are very, very high. We can increase the number of women in engineering through major retention efforts. These retention efforts may very well include having a women's program with a paid staff person running it and creating counseling and networking opportunities for women on the campus.
Most important, role models are still needed. It's very easy to say we need more female faculty. Clearly there aren't that many women out there who are available to be faculty at this point, but what we should do is nurture our bright female students. We need to encourage them to go to graduate school, present the academic life in a positive light, and hope we can mentor them to become faculty members and role models for future generations of women.
I really think that if all of us work together--the engineering profession, universities and industry--we will be able, indeed, to increase the creativity in engineering and to create a far better climate for women to become engineers of the future, and make a better environment for all engineers as a result.
Sources: Speech was mailed to Gifts of Speech from Dr. Baum's office. It is in a stapled, Stuckenberg Lecture memorial pamphlet of ten pages.
∞ Copyright 1991 by Eleanor Baum. All rights reserved.
For more information on Dr. Eleanor Baum see below:
This article is by Lisa K. Winkler and can be found here.
The following article is from National Women's Hall of Fame.