Appropriate level of contempt for engineering

The continuing Larry Summers debacle has brought forward an old quote from Patti Hausman, a behavioral scientist writing in Science circa 2000, out of the woodwork…

“The question of why more women don’t choose careers in engineering has a rather obvious answer: Because they don’t want to.

“Wherever you go, you will find females far less likely than males to see what is so fascinating about ohms, carburetors, or quarks. . . . Reinventing the curriculum will not make me more interested in learning how my dishwasher works.”

I love that last line [emphasis added].  It summarizes precisely how my hip cool friends regard all MIT nerds.  It must be someone’s job to make sure the tires don’t fall off of their car, just as it must be someone’s job to clean the bathroom, but obviously it couldn’t be the job of anyone important.

14 thoughts on “Appropriate level of contempt for engineering

  1. But doesn’t that just shift the debate back one step? Why don’t more women see what’s interesting in ohms, carburetors, or quarks?

    That response seems silly to me, a trival restating of the question.

  2. I think this disinterest in engineering/hard sciences is the exact same driving force behind the Women Driver phenomenon. Now I’m not saying something about all women drivers–we all know about the woman NASCAR driver, etc, some not indicative of all and so on. What I am saying is that the woman responsible for that quote is probably the same Woman Driver today who was unable to cope with a two-lanes-feeding-into-one situation in front of me, causing me ‘great anguish’.

    So I believe the proper (though seemingly unrelated) response to this is ‘learn how to drive, lady!’

  3. The Patti Hausman quotation comes closer to what the real issue is, for me.

    In talking about “more women in science,” or engineering, the discussion often uses very detached language and an assumption that the science career is like a steady and eternal process for women to participate in, or not. In 1969-1970 and 1981-82, I had a math teacher boss and then a scientist boss who were women. They were gray-haired ladies who had been doing their math teaching or science since the 1950s. They had not been “encouraged,” I wouldn’t think, they wanted to do what they did, and did not aspire to management above the group level. They were fine bosses. I was a difficult employee, but that’s another story.

    Anyway, in my later career as a sullen scientist, I had 2 more female bosses. They were “good management material,” because they were not seriously interested in science or engineering as such. I felt that the scheming management higher-ups liked women because they were more easily diverted into the game of hierarchy and power, and didn’t have troublesome personal convictions of what real science and engineering should be like.

    One day one of the “managerial” bosses looked out the window and saw a big trash truck flinging a dumpster over the top of itself, the way those things do. She said “isn’t that remarkable?” She had never noticed it before. Jeez, I watched it all the time.

    As Phil implies, a big issue is society’s respect for people who know AND CARE how things work.

    The best researchers are people who learned practical things outside of the curriculum. Guys who had tinkered with electronics or used machine tools “somewhere” could think in a vocabulary of concrete gadgets. People turn hobbies into careers because the hobby, started young, gives an easy familiarity. Richard Feynman, who was known as a theoretician, learned to connect theory and experiment by tinkering when he was an adolescent and college student.

    I am ill at ease with grand plans to make scientists out of people who don’t care how the dishwasher works.

  4. Testosterone during embryo development tends to bias brain development towards physical/spatial skills and away from verbal/emotional processing. Just because the “boys like math, girls like English” thing is a stereotype doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

    To a lesser extent, the same is true in adults. There was a nice study showing how women’s ability to solve puzzles requiring visualization of 3D objects varied throughout their monthly cycle and correled with levels of testosterone.

    Of course, it’s not always true that someone with exceptional math skills will be a social dunce but there is a strong link. It also seems to be affected by genetics. Jews in particular have a strong tendency to develop math skills without sacrificing social skills. Compare humourless Isaac Newton the Englishman with Richard Feynman the (Jewish) lady’s man.

  5. I’d like to read some evidence to back up your claims, Konrad. Do you have any links or publications you can point me toward?

  6. Dusty: There are many studies along this line, see the following for examples.

    “In the present study, relations among prenatal testosterone levels, spatial play experiences, and mental rotation task performance were explored in 7-year-old boys and girls. A positive correlation was observed between prenatal testosterone levels and rate of rotation in girls.”

    The link is not so obvious in males because testosterone is created by converting estrogen, so some studies find higher level of estrogen correlating with spatial abilities in males.

    “By contrast, estrogen has an effect on brain development in males, since conversion of testosterone to estrogen takes place within the developing brain itself.” (Small S.L., Hoffman G.E. (1994)

    Anyway, the overall link between testosterone and spatial abilities is well-known, even if the exact mechanism is not understood. See this for a review:

    “Women with congenital adrenal hyperplasmia (CAH) have been exposed to above average androgen levels in utero. These women have been reported to display higher spatial ability than matched controls as adults (Resnick et al., 1986; but see also Ehrhardt & Meyer-Bahlburg, 1981; Reinisch, 1983). They ordinarily do not have elevated T levels as adults, but T levels of CAH women were not presented in the above-cited studies. Women with Turner’s syndrome, whose gonads develop improperly and produce only minute amounts of sex homones (Nyborg, 1984), are hypoandrogenized both prenatally and in adulthood. They were found to perform poorly on spatial taks in adulthood (Nyborg & Nielson, 1981; Nyborg, 1984). Fetally nonandrogenized genetic males with androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS) produce a normal amount of T, but their tissue is insensitive to the steroid, both pre- and post-natally. AIS patients also were found to perform poorly on spatial tasks (Nyborg, 1984).

    Female Hormones Make “Female” Skills Better, “Male” Skills Worse

  7. I recently chatted with young woman a few months after receiving her BS in Electrical Engineering. Much to the horror of her parents, she was babysitting by day and receiving on-the-job training to become an insurance agent at night…she had decided that she wanted to do just about anything but work as an electrical engineer. Of course, many men also pursue alternate career paths.

    What makes her case a little more interesting is that EE enrollment remains overwhelmingly male at many institutions, for instance, 12% at Northwestern University (, 0% at MIT in 2002 (

    These articles also fail to differentiate between native and international students; it is likely that many of those 12% are international students hail from China, India, Malaysia, and various Arab countries.

  8. Engineering had some social prestige in America back when we were had a manufacturing-based economy. Now that we are moving to a service/entertainment-based system, there’s just not a lot of glamour to be found in the profession. I think that’s why more and more engineers are driven to flying airplanes and nude photography, but that’s just my theory. I was an English major.

    Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
    Ben Braddock: Yes, sir.
    Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
    Ben Braddock: Yes, I am.
    Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
    Ben Braddock: Just how do you mean that, sir?

  9. “Engineering had prestige…when we had a manufacturing-based economy”. This rings true. You also had things like the moonshots in the 60s/70s that gave science and engineering much more prestige and air time than they have now. The modern marvels in the public’s eye today is just as likely to come from Taiwan or Japan…(e.g. your laptop or cellphone).

  10. Engineering has never had much glamor to attract people into the profession. If it did, someone would have certainly made a movie or TV show where it figured prominently as part of the theme. Instead, the only engineers protrayed in TV or movies are the misfits and geeks. I tried to think of engineers portrayed as central characters in TV/movies and the only one that comes to mind is Michael Douglas’ portrayal of a disgruntled gun-toting misanthrope in ‘Falling Down’. If you include programmers in the mix, we have the characters from Office Space.

    I think that the engineering profession acquired some prestige when it was relatively easy to get a good paying job right out of college. I’m not sure that’s the case anymore. The starting pay is better than many other professions, but the jobs aren’t as plentiful as they once were.

  11. “Wherever you go, you will find females far less likely than males to see what is so fascinating about ohms, carburetors, or quarks. . . . Reinventing the curriculum will not make me more interested in learning how my dishwasher works.”

    I majored in math, not engineering. So please forgive me if I sound naive, but do you actually need deep knowledge of ohms, carburetors, or quarks to understand how a dishwasher works?

    A better way to put this would be to say “reinventing the curriculum will not make me more interested in space travel, genetic engineering, or artificial intelligence”. At least then you’ve admitted to something relevant.

    Keep this in mind when you’re feeling depressed about the public image science and engineering. The field really, really matters.

  12. geoff,

    “NASA employees over 60 outnumber those under 30 by a ratio of about 3 to 1” and AI has been comatose since about 1987, but I know of many engineers who work for dishwasher manufacturers, so the quote is relevant.
    More generally, engineering jobs do tend to be detail-oriented if not downright clerical; a broad interest in popular science is irrelevent to a career filling out spreadsheet templates to update wiring diagrams for a dishwasher or Word templates documenting error codes for a car.
    Even more generally, many women (though not all) seem to prefer discussing celebrity marriages to “cool” high-level science concepts. In fairness, men’s barbershop chatter tends more toward sports and stocks than astrophysics.

  13. K-

    I had a feeling that my AI example was unwise (at some schools, they give it another name like “Intelligent Systems Design” to avoid the stigma). But I got lazy and wrote it down anyway.

    Anyway, I agree that the quote is relevant – my point is that it is incomplete. If you say you are uninterested in science and engineering, you are admitting to a lack of interest in something that goes far, far beyond dishwashers. You are admitting to apathy on the subjects that produce humanity’s most remarkable achievements.

    Most workers in most fields don’t end up changing the world. A big difference, of course, is that the disappointed lawyer or physician makes a hell of a lot more dough. If you do major in engineering, an MBA and management career can match those salaries, but advanced study in engineering is virtually guaranteed to pay less.

    I don’t really know what to make of engineering and science careers right now. I believe that the field is extremely important to humanity, and our wise leaders (very few of whom actually are scientists or engineers) seem to agree. I remember a funny article on the onion – “Report: 98 Percent Of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transportation For Others”. I suppose you could say the same thing about science – everyone wants more scientists and engineers, but nobody wants to be the one who sits through 8+ years of math, physics, and chem for the kind of salary waiting at the end. One little factoid I noticed is that the highest LSAT scores (the law school admissions test) by major go to… math and physics majors. It’s not too surprising. This means, of course, that to get the best minds into science, you have to convince them not to make 300K+ a year as a patent atty (a path that requires only 3 years of postgraduate education, compared with the extremely long path of Ph.D + postdoc).

    I think the real problem is that many people still think that the waning interest in science can be solved with a PR campaign when, in fact, there are much deeper problems.

    But please don’t start to think that any of this means science and engineering doesn’t matter. It absolutely will cost big time us as a society if we lose our interest in these fields.

  14. I just wanted to comment on the stuff on hormones. Konrad cites the glamour of these studies, but not the sweat. There are compelling findings, but they aren’t the whole story.

    As I read more and more papers on this topic, the more I came to resent simple characterizations of this research.

    I’ll preface this point by referring readers to an interview with Wendy Williams who edited a volume on this topic. She refers to how surprising it was to see varying views on this topic.

    ” Our biggest surprise was not found in any one essay but in the class of essays about biological differences between men and women. We had anticipated greater agreement among these essayists, but what we found was quite divergent, with some arguing strongly in favor of sex differences in brain organization, hormones, etc., as causative factors in women’s underrepresentation among those who score the highest on standardized mathematics tests, and others arguing against such views.”

    First off in the Grimshaw et. al 1995 paper, the study found a linkage between levels of t measured in amniotic fluid and *rate* of rotation among girls who used a specific strategy. It didn’t however find a relationship between accuracy and aT levels (testosterone as measured in amniotic fluid). Additionally, no relationship between between mental rotation performance and aT was found among girls who didn’t use a rotation strategy. Moreover, in contrast to the idea that “T” influences the brain towards more physical/mathematical reasoning as opposed to “emotional/verbal,” some evidence suggests that males with lower levels of prenatal testosterone exposure perform best on spatial tasks. In the same study, no relationship between aT and mental rotation in boys.

    The menstural cycle stuff is solid, mostly, but findings on circulating hormones are complicated. See Table 1 in this paper.

    Puts, D. A., Cardenas, R. A., Bailey, D. H., Burriss, R. P., Jordan, C. L., & Breedlove, S. M. (2010). Salivary testosterone does not predict mental rotation performance in men or women. Hormones and Behavior, 58(2), 282-289.

    Some interpet the CAH findings on girls differently. See Melissa Hine’s essay in “Why Aren’t More Women in Science.”

    In any case, a fair flavor of this research that considers the cumulative weight of the data can be found in this paper.

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