There are no women in the class photos on the walls of Drexel University’s chemical engineering department until you get to the Class of 1947, when there was one woman. Her name was Alice Forbes, and she broke ground. This was important. This lit the way for future female chemical engineers at Drexel.
But as I sit here typing this, I wonder if she considered her own importance the way those do with hindsight, or if she was only following what she thought was her calling. I hope it was the latter.
I am one of the female engineering students who followed in Alice’s footsteps. I received a Bachelor of Science in chemical engineering from Drexel University in 2015. I am proud of this accomplishment, but not because I am a woman — that ground has already been trampled to dust — I am just proud of what I have personally accomplished. But I am not an engineer.
When I decided to study engineering, I was under the influence of The Times (although I didn’t realize it). I had always been very good at math, and I was told that not every little girl was. I was aware that my mathematical ability and interest in academics excited the adults, but I didn’t understand why. From what I saw, not every little boy was good at math either. I saw no difference in potential between the sexes, but even so, the praise I received in my youth influenced my decisions. All of the positive feedback influenced my interests and my sense of self.
For little girls, who are depicted in the media as chronically underrepresented in science and technology, my quickness with mathematical concepts was a cause for alarm. I grew up post-second wave feminism, but I was raised and educated by women who lived through it. When I was born, women had already broken into traditionally male fields; however, when my mother and my teachers were born, this was not as common.
To me, women could do whatever they wanted to do. I was always sure of this. I didn’t consider the importance of women in the workplace, or the struggle that came before they were accepted into it. I was enveloped in the solipsism of youth. I thought I could and would do anything I set my mind to, and I was given positive feedback and encouragement from the long and lengthening reach of feminism at every turn. I didn’t understand how this effected me because I was tangled up in it.
If you were a female raised in the 1990s with higher-than-average mathematical abilities, than I am sure you had a similar experience to mine (although I am willing to stand alone with this if I have to). The adults — they grab you and they tell you that you are so smart and so talented and we — The World — we NEED more little girls like you to study the math and the science and the engineering and — just for safe measure (now that this is a new millennium) — maybe the computer science and the data science and the things where ground has only previously been tiptoed on by women like you for you so that one day you can stomp, stomp, stomp, and break that ground for future little girls who will be able to live in a world where they are equ-
I didn’t listen to any of this, but I listened to it all. I thought I was free of gender constraints. I thought I made my own decisions. And I suppose I did, to some extent. I felt no different than the male students in my engineering program. I felt I was among equals, both male and female, when I received a Master of Science in analytics from Georgia Tech. I didn’t do these things to be a woman in STEM, I did these things because I thought I wanted to. I think now, that I was over-influenced by praise.
I never dreamed of being a chemical engineer (I hardly knew what that was when I started undergrad), but I thought smart kids were supposed to study engineering. Looking back, I always performed equally in math and language, but my interests in reading and writing were never praised as highly as my math skills. When I chose to study engineering, I was following what I thought my dreams should be, as a girl with mathematical abilities — as a woman who didn’t question what else there was.
In 2018, gender inequality stems from trying to correct for gender inequality. We tell young girls, when we see their eyes light up when they solve a problem, that the world needs them. We continue to put this pressure on a generation of girls, so much so, that they hardly get to think about themselves, as individuals, away from the point of reference of first and second and third and fourth wave feminism. Being aware that there is inequality turns into a drive — even if it is subconscious — to correct for this inequality.
Today, at 26, I finally feel comfortable questioning who I am and what I enjoy doing, and it is not engineering, or research, or data science. I was picked up and put on a trajectory toward science and numbers and technology with all of Their praise and hopes, and not my dreams. But it’s not Their fault — They want to see a world where it is safe to pursue a dream. They want to see a world where no one laughs or mocks when a woman wants to do whatever the hell she wants to do, and then does it. These aren’t bad wants. But as a child, I couldn’t separate Their wants and drives from my own sense of self.
But then it hit me as a gradual pressure building in my chest every Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday and Friday, ad nauseum, until I had to walk away from what I thought was my calling.
I self-destructed after working for one and a half years in the tech industry as a data scientist. I was working at Comcast at the time, and I made more money than I needed. I had made it, but I couldn’t take it anymore. I hated showing up to work every day. But it’s not how it is always told — it wasn’t those dirty boys and their dirty boys’ club, The Patriarchy. It just wasn’t the right fit for me. So, I can’t tell you how difficult it was for me to be a woman in engineering or a woman in technology and to play alongside the boys. Because honestly, it wasn’t that difficult for me as a woman. It was difficult for me as a person.
It isn’t my dream to perform analyses toward the reduction of device errors so that internet users can binge watch Netflix without interruption. To do this, day after day, was where I found difficulty with my job. It was difficult for me to sit at a desk, and stare at a screen, and hit keys on a keyboard to make pseudo-thoughts happen somewhere off-screen. It was difficult for me to work for a company that was moving their chemical processes overseas because labor was cheaper and there were less strict manufacturing regulations abroad. It was difficult for me to analyze patient health data, not to help patients get better, but to make sure doctors could bill for as many treatments as possible, until the patient either got better or died. It was difficult for me to be removed from the underlying causes driving my work and the effects they could potentially have.
These difficulties were more than blood, sweat, and tears and they were more than dirt under my nails — these difficulties made me ask myself every day how much of myself I was willing to give away little bit by little bit to fight to become someone I didn’t want to become — someone I thought I had to become because I had a natural ability and a duty to those who paved my way and to those who would follow in my footsteps.
In this country — built on the backs of dreamers — today’s students are each fighting for their own dead end. Girls and boys alike are funneled into STEM programs. We are praised when we are good at math or good at science. We are praised for natural curiosity with words like: You will make a great engineer one day. We are being taught to program the machines, and all of the praise is helping us forget to ask why. You follow the positive feedback, and then, one day, you wake up and go to a job you are not interested in or that fundamentally disagree with, and then you do it the next day and the next day and the next day or else you self-destruct.
My education will always be a part of who I am, and I regret none of it. I was a student of engineering and a student of analytics, and I am a woman. But I have broken no ground in doing the things I have done: the ground has already been broken. But I am not trying to belittle the accomplishments that paved my way — I am grateful that I had the opportunity to try, and to accomplish, and then, to reconsider and decide for myself. Life is an iterative process, day-to-day.
If I have learned anything from my time as an engineer, it is that an isolated system tend toward equilibrium. Life has a way of working itself out. Now, let’s take a step back, and let the girls decide where they are needed next. They have this.