Broad Shoulders Not Needed

An engineering professor busts some common myths about women and engineering.

Photo of Katie Wilson
Katie Wilson is a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Santa Clara University.

When people hear I’m an engineer they assume I program and assemble robots, solder, and fix their toaster. I do none of those things and I stay away from household wiring issues. But I have worked on the technology that is in your Wi-Fi, your cell phones, and your wired internet, and I have made these contributions using analysis and simulation to evaluate my work rather than spending time on a bench.

Many admirable efforts to bring women into engineering relate to “hands-on” engineering. This is good, but I worry that we are forcing a stereotype of how engineering looks. It is a vast field and to limit it to building robots with our hands to the exclusion of the worlds we can realize first in our minds, does both engineering and future engineers a disservice.

Here are some of the myths about engineering that I come up against most often:

If it’s not hands-on, it’s not engineering.

I’ve been in many faculty discussions where statements like, “if it’s not hands-on, it’s not engineering,” are made. But tinkering alone doesn’t make someone an engineer. It may be part of the process but understanding how something works and creating something new—that to me is engineering. Our profession is advanced by engineers with disparate skills. Some theorize, some simulate, some make mockups of electrical systems on a “breadboard,” some make production-ready equipment. All are required.

Engineers are boring.

When I was in high school, my image of an engineer was a guy who wore flood pants, a pocket protector, and masking tape around his horn-rimmed glasses. He tinkered in the garage with Heath Kits. Engineers are, in fact, diverse in skills, gender, personality, dress, and background. I’ve met engineers just as likely to be sporting hair gel and leather pants as horn-rimmed spectacles. I’ve met engineers who love Max Mara dresses. Some are very funny, some lack any sense of humor, some are obsessive and hyper-focused, and some are exceedingly absent-minded.

Girls are not brought up with hands-on skills?

Some girls do tinker in the garage with the modern-day equivalent of Heath Kits, but all children are exposed to skills relevant to
engineering, even when they might not appear as such.

Growing up in the ’60s I was taught “girl” tasks: how to cook, sew, embroider. All these tasks are engineering. Cooking teaches measurement, timing, process, and creativity. I tell students that research is like cooking. You start with a recipe, learn a new technique, and then say, “How can I make this better?” You’re learning a process and then leveraging that process to create usable items, or to better understand their broader nature and inner workings.

Girls may come to a task with knowledge of design, hand-eye coordination, and analytical capabilities but still think they are lacking because they do not have experience with “boy” tasks. Prejudice is not just the discounting of girls as being unable to tackle “boy” tasks, but also the discounting of “girl” tasks as being inferior or irrelevant to engineering.

Robotics is the gateway to engineering. 

I have nothing against robotics; it is great that more high school students are getting involved and loving it. But it’s important for students to understand that there is more to engineering, and more opportunities for wonder and achievement in engineering, than building a robot who can dunk basketballs and then sweep the floor. Complex math skills lie behind many advances in engineering, and there is joy and wonder to be found in those too.

For me, the gateway drug to engineering was mathematics. I loved math (and not physics!) and the fact that I could use math in a fun way led me to engineering. But math is not the only gateway; for other engineers, physics is the gateway and yes tinkering in the garage can be a gateway. There is no one-size-fits-all entry point.