Jezebel Anna North argues that women aren’t entering engineering because engineering is mean to women:
In Stemming The Tide: Why Women Leave Engineering, two University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professors report on their survey of over 3,700 women with engineering degrees. They found that just one in four women who had left the field reported doing so to spend more time with family. One third left “because they did not like the workplace climate, their boss or the culture,” while almost half departed due to “working conditions, too much travel, lack of advancement or low salary” (respondents were allowed to check more than one reason). The researchers also found that among women who got engineering degrees but never entered the field, a third made that decision “because of their perceptions of engineering as being inflexible or the engineering workplace culture as being non-supportive of women.” And, unsurprisingly, “Women engineers who were treated in a condescending, patronizing manner, and were belittled and undermined by their supervisors and co-workers were most likely to want to leave their organizations.” Writes study author Dr. Nadya Fouad, “Bottom line — it’s not all about family for most of the women who left engineering.”
North argues that this puts an end to the myth of “the underrepresentation of women in engineering fields is entirely due to the choices they make about family time. ”
But does it, though? For one fourth, it’s directly cited as an issue. And half cite a slew of factors including two, travel and (to a lesser extent) working conditions, that can be related to, if not family specifically, a work-life balance that women (in the aggregate) put a higher priority on than men. Ditto for engineering being “inflexible”, if that’s related to inflexible work hours. Low salary is not a gender-specific complaint, nor is (necessarily) advancement opportunities. It could be gender-specific if women within the field (working the same hours, etc) are making less money than their male counterparts or if they are less likely to see advancement. But these are boilerplate reasons.
Now, on to the guts of it. Women are less likely to work in environments where they feel harassed or have issues with their coworkers and engineering is more likely to be one of these environments. This may or may not be gender-specific, and if they are it might be directly or indirectly so. I mean, if it’s “oooh, girl in the server room, let’s harass her!” then that’s pretty unforgiveable. But I suspect that, as often as not, when women are communicated to the same way that men are communicated with in engineering and techie environments, they are more likely to find it off-putting. Which brings us around to the question of whether men should change their work environment to accommodate women that don’t presently work there.
Matthew Yglesias thinks so:
Not that shocking, but important nonetheless. Dysfunctional social norms that drive talent out of key fields are a real burden on the country, as well as on the individual women impacted.
Women are not the arbiters of what is and is not dysfunctional. That they don’t like an environment does not make that environment “wrong”. I say this as an only guy that has sat in teacher’s lounges while the women talk about the hot black dude from CSI and feel pretty uncomfortable in the process. I’m not wrong for being uncomfortable, but they’re not wrong for relating to one another the way that they relate to one another. Different business environments have different cultures. If there’s actual harassment going on, that’s one thing. If it’s just “not for me”, that’s another.
And, as I mentioned in my Geek Flag post, it’s not as though there are no tradeoffs. The same environment that some women don’t like, the men who work there thrive on. People that could have done a lot of thing go into IT specifically because the culture is there. The culture guided them into it. The culture makes workplace tolerable (for a lot of people that, ahem, don’t find a whole lot of social environments tolerable). It’s not exactly great that women are leaving the field, but it is good that a lot of people are really happy with it. You may not be able to address the former without negating the latter.
And to tie this all up, the notion that the women don’t like the men does not make the men jerks. As I say, they are not arbiters of what is or is not functional. And it could just as easily be that the women simply don’t like the men then that the men are doing anything wrong. It could be that you wouldn’t just have to get rid of the irritating things that the men do, but rather would have to get rid of the men themselves (the irritating things being signals more than anything else). So you’re getting rid of the men that like what they do and are good at it, for the sake of women that might or might not be the same. Forgive this former geek for being a little incredulous of the notion that if geeks can reform their image just by being nicer to girls as if the only problem is that we’re jerks. I think that on an individual level this is true, but on a group level, well, it’s as much culture clash as anything (and that does not make our culture “wrong”).
Again, none of this is to say that sexual harassment is okay. Women should not be condescended to (nor should men, of course). But not liking “the workplace climate, their boss or the culture” is not necessarily indicative of something being wrong with the workplace climate, the boss, or the culture.