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Engineering & motherhood: my talking points

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Engineering & motherhood: my talking points

Postby spacefem » Wed Aug 3, 18:35 2011

When I was in college and starting to ask questions about why women in engineering were a minority, one of my helpful professors told me that it was a tough field to stay in because women want to leave and go have babies. Since I hadn't become an engineer or had a baby yet, I had no knowledge to draw on to tell whether that made any sense. I shrugged and said "Hmm, maybe."

Well now I've been there and back again, and am ready to call bullshit on that tired old accusation.

Do we want to have babies? Of course! Especially an AWESOME baby like mine, who I'm sure is going to be a future engineer just like me someday. You should see this girl gather up all the remote controls and cell phones in our house; nothing makes her happier.

Does the baby-having hold us back?

Only if the stereotype says it has to. I took eight weeks for maternity leave... it's not like we discovered cold fusion in that time, people. In fact surprisingly few things changed while I was gone. The company survived, my career was intact, the world kept turning. I took breaks to pump breastmilk at work and managed to get valuable reading done that actually added some real helpful knowledge to the group.

And yes, while my child is small I am limiting my travel and overtime, but I would argue that this is something new fathers should do as well. You're important, guys. You should feel just as bad as I do about missing a tea party appointment with your daughter and Mrs. Unicorn.

Some moms want to take a few years off and I think that's okay too. When I started work I was one of the few people in my group who went straight from high school to college to engineer... the other guys had all tried part-time school or full-time work before school, and started engineering when they were older. If anything they were commended for their "life experience", not criticized for missing out. If I'd have taken three years off, we just would have evened up in terms of years. A few years is nothing.

I've heard an argument that technical fields change so fast that you'll be like a new grad if your brain is three years behind everyone else's. I say we're thinking way too highly of innovation there. This year is 2011; were you around in 2008? Did you think we'd all have internet in our cars, robots doing our laundry and personal jetpacks to whisk us off to work? I haven't seen it. The iphone had already been out for a year. We were done with the Pirates of the Caribbean movies... or so we hoped. The fortune 500 companies are just as big, slow and bureaucratic as ever.

And even if you want to take more time off, the big things don't change. Programming languages, metal fatigue formulas, and Microsoft Office are here to stay. When new cool stuff comes out you'll hear about it at home. My friends who've opted to mom-it-up for a few years are still on facebook, in fact they might be even better at staying up with technology than some of us who are so heads-down in our offices we have to work to research what's new. Skills can go obsolete whether you spend your days on software change requests or diapers.

Sometimes I hear women engineers say that they just want to be thought of as engineers, that our gender isn't important and we should all be blind to who is or isn't wearing skirts around the office. But that blindness is exactly what made me so unarmed as a college student... I'd never thought about my response to the baby "issue" because I hadn't talked to other women about it. I'd only read the Newsweek headlines about how women "struggle with work-life balance" and figured if I was just an engineer instead of a woman engineer, I could avoid the struggle entirely.

What I later learned is that everyone struggles with work-life balance, in our own way, according to who we are, and yes being a woman does change things. But does the change make things worse, better, or just different? And more important, how do you answer that question if you sweep it under the rug?

I'm a woman engineer, a woman pilot, a woman who's a mom, and I say it's no problem. That's the response I'm armed with today.
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Re: Engineering & motherhood: my talking points

Postby Butterfly North » Thu Aug 4, 3:43 2011

That's been really interesting to read, especially because I guess the whole 'difficult work-life balance' message had been internalised to an extent within me after all. Huh. Particularly this;

Sometimes I hear women engineers say that they just want to be thought of as engineers, that our gender isn't important and we should all be blind to who is or isn't wearing skirts around the office. But that blindness is exactly what made me so unarmed as a college student... I'd never thought about my response to the baby "issue" because I hadn't talked to other women about it. I'd only read the Newsweek headlines about how women "struggle with work-life balance" and figured if I was just an engineer instead of a woman engineer, I could avoid the struggle entirely.


The choice of childcare has two dimensions as far as I can see; what can you do, and what do you want to do? Most mothers I know are working class, because my middle class friends came from higher education and are thus the same age as me, and obviously none of those mothers have been able to return to work full time. A few have managed it part-time with the help of grandparents but you can't assume that will be available. So there is a big class intersection concerning what a family realistically can do, but it's muddy, and all this rhetoric muddies it further.

I predict that I'll be someone who wants to return to work quickly if I ever have a kid, but then we get back to the 'can' question, which is I think what I found informative about your post. Can I work effectively with a young child at home, can I be looking after that child to an acceptable level under this arrangement, can I keep up with the company during leave, and so on? We get told 'no' a lot and this should be questioned.
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Re: Engineering & motherhood: my talking points

Postby Sonic# » Thu Aug 4, 7:04 2011

And even if you want to take more time off, the big things don't change. Programming languages, metal fatigue formulas, and Microsoft Office are here to stay. When new cool stuff comes out you'll hear about it at home. My friends who've opted to mom-it-up for a few years are still on facebook, in fact they might be even better at staying up with technology than some of us who are so heads-down in our offices we have to work to research what's new. Skills can go obsolete whether you spend your days on software change requests or diapers.


I think that this is an excellent point about how we think about work skills. If someone has been working continuously, the assumption is that their knowledge is current, and they're highly adaptable. However, it's entirely possible (and depending on the job likely) that they have learned how to do a narrow field of jobs really well, but are 5 or 10 years out of practice elsewhere. Someone who isn't working, but is involved in something like childcare, has the potential to stay current in their knowledge. They might not be foremost in any one field, but they can be as adaptable as a recent grad.

The problem I see is that this knowledge gain happens off the record, because many employers think of a period of unemployment as a bad sign, and use it as an easy way to weed out candidates. They also choose to go with a more guaranteed measure, a recent diploma. Though the people who have taken off for other reasons may be more mature and capable workers, they often won't get interpreted that way.

So, no, I don't see childcare or similar periods of workplace inactivity as necessarily a disadvantage. However, it seems like employment rules and expectations have made them a disadvantage. I'm still thinking on the final question.
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Re: Engineering & motherhood: my talking points

Postby rowan » Thu Aug 4, 10:13 2011

Sonic# wrote:Though the people who have taken off for other reasons may be more mature and capable workers...

I love having older students in my classes; they bring so much richness with them.

I REALLY HATE the whole "oh it's all work life balance (read: kids)" BS about why women don't do X. No, it really isn't. It's far more tangled than that. Work-life balance is part of the problem, and child care does tend to fall on the women more than the men. I can be a mom, I can work my job (and let me tell you I do NOT make a good SAHM) and be good at both. But my partner is just as involved in her care as I am.

And, we should have a more family-friendly workplace. But you know what? Making a workplace that doesn't require 80 hours a week isn't just family-friendly. It's people friendly. People who don't choose to have kids benefit just as much by things that are termed "family-friendly". We need the work place to admit that (most) dads like time with their kids too. And you know what? Work isn't the be-all-and-end-all of life, whether or not you have kids. We need to make work more people friendly, in part because happy people makes for better quality (and even more quantity) of work even if the hours are actually shorter. work-life balance in academia doesn't really exist

There are a lot more factors that I see besides just family issues. But since motherhood this topic, I'm gonna leave 'em alone and talk about them in another post*

spacefem wrote:that blindness is exactly what made me so unarmed as a college student...

hoo yeah, grad school was a hell of a smack in the face. Oh, sexism actually exists? Whoa, how do I deal with this??


*which I've written but am waiting to post because I've used it as a writing sample for a job app ^^
Global warming is intricately tied to the decline in the pirate population. As the pirate population goes down, the average global temperature goes up. Ergo, pirates are cool, and we need more pirates. :pirate: ARRR!
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Re: Engineering & motherhood: my talking points

Postby SakuraSong » Sat Aug 6, 12:54 2011

It's hard, but baby bearing should never be the reason to hold anyone back. Now, if one wants to be a stay at home parent, that's a different story. But using childbirth to generalize (at least, the way that professor did it) is insulting and untrue, especially when you compare it with so many other families who simply have no choice but to take care of kids and hold a job at the same time. For families here in this area, single income is nowhere near enough to support a family, mostly because families are big (even at 4 people) and the paycheck is small. Have a kid and want to be a SAHM? Yeah, ok. Most have to send their kids back to where their parents are*, and bring them back when they are old enough to have day school to manage as it is.

*Which was what my parents did when they couldn't take care of two toddlers at the same time, as well as countless other families who had to send their babies and toddlers back to China to free up time for the older children.
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Re: Engineering & motherhood: my talking points

Postby edit the sad parts » Sat Aug 27, 11:32 2011

Troll.
What was once before you - an exciting, mysterious future - is now behind you. Lived; understood; disappointing. You realize you are not special. You have struggled into existence, and are now slipping silently out of it. This is everyone's experience. Every single one. The specifics hardly matter. Everyone's everyone.
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Re: Engineering & motherhood: my talking points

Postby spacefem » Sun Aug 28, 10:02 2011

Hi Meg - my maternity leave was 6 weeks, I took an additional two weeks vacation, my company would not hold my job for me if I took a year off.

As for male and female brains, you might check out "Pink Brain Blue Brain" By Lise Elliot, it's a good book that really dives into the nature vs. nurture questions. There are differences in male and female brains. But we as a society tend to exaggerate the CRAP out of them, amplifying and forming identities for our children, and yes I think it really has a lot to do with why fewer women go into engineering.

There've been interesting studies done on this... like researchers found that males on average have better spacial skills, but females with <i>older brothers</i> have better spacial skills than other females. Just having that influence, toys that overlap genders, made a difference.

And all the averages are very fuzzy... they're overlapping bell curves, where there's more difference among males than there is between average males and females. If you went into a room and said "I need the tallest people in this room, so all the men come with me" you probably wouldn't get the same result as you would if you lined everyone up by height and took the top half. We do the same thing with engineering way too often.
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Re: Engineering & motherhood: my talking points

Postby monk » Sun Aug 28, 12:51 2011

spacefem wrote: If you went into a room and said "I need the tallest people in this room, so all the men come with me" you probably wouldn't get the same result as you would if you lined everyone up by height and took the top half. We do the same thing with engineering way too often.


You only used that example because you want to go with her. :)
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