Engineering: a thought experiment

If you’re an adult woman, you might want to try this thought experiment.

Imagine you live in a world where four out of five women are engineers. When you were growing up, if the question of careers came up at all, you’d probably get the idea that you were expected to be an engineer one day. When female children tell adults that they don’t want to be engineers when they grow up, the adults laugh.

As an adult, there’s still the expectation that you’ll become an engineer one day. If you say you have no interest in engineering, most people laugh and say you’ll change your mind. Some assume your lack of interest is feigned, a cover for your secret, desperate attempts to gain your engineering qualifications.

Some people claim to believe you and you think they understand, but then you find out they assume you must hate bridges, computer software and anything else related to engineering. You can’t get anybody to believe that you’re content to drive a car without designing your own car engine.

If you point out that you have none of the skills required to become an engineer, people will wink conspiratorially at you and say “It’s different when you get your own project.” The widespread assumption is that once you’re put in charge of an engineering project, you’ll suddenly develop all those skills and blossom as a person to boot. Sure, it’ll be a “steep learning curve” but also “so rewarding” and you “can’t possibly miss out”.

People might ask you why you’re not an engineer, but they’ll interrupt or do a theatrical yawn halfway through your reply. They’re not interested in your answer,  because they’re already convinced your reasons are fake or invalid. They just want to force you into a position where you’re trying to justify yourself.

If you’re in a relationship, your parents and your partner’s parents will eventually begin sending increasingly desperate hints that they expect you to become an engineer. Your mother-in-law will send you pictures of heating and cooling systems over email. Your father-in-law will say subtle things like “When are you going to design some aircraft, then?” You’ll wish you had female siblings to take the pressure off. When you meet friends of your parents or your partner’s parents, they will always ask if you’re an engineer. When you say “no”, their next question will be about when you plan to become an engineer. A week with the older generation gives you the bruising feeling that to them, you are nothing but a failed engineer. Your poetry, the way you’ve decorated the house, that marathon you ran, your three beautiful kids – nobody’s fucking interested in any of it. They just want to know if you’ve become an engineer yet.

In this world, would you be more or less likely to become an engineer?

In my own life (the real one, not the parallel-universe one), the question of my becoming an engineer has never arisen. When I was growing up it was never presented to me as an option, still less a desirable one, and it never even crossed my mind when I was choosing a career. (Actually, I’ve given the idea more thought while writing this blog post than I did in the thirty-odd years before writing it.) I’ve also managed to get through many years of adulthood without anybody mentioning it as a possibility.

In the pro-engineering parallel universe, I probably still wouldn’t be an engineer. But I would be frequently reminded of my failure to become an engineer, frequently asked to justify or reconsider my decision, and I would feel a little bit regretful and inadequate every time.

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