I recently attended a talk where a highly successful woman engineer gave a talk to grads and undergrads about pursuing a career in engineering.
One of her closing points was “don’t think like a man in heels.” First of all, if you’re a man in heels don’t stop thinking and don’t stop being an engineer. Second of all, think like yourself, and don’t box people in gender roles. Individuals are different in the practice of their profession because each of us is unique, not because of genetics or geography.
Secondly, her selling point was that women in engineering make the field more diverse and diversity of thought is valued. While it’s true that diversity of thought is beautiful, the utilitarian connection to diversity of demographics is upsetting. I’m glad that my contribution to the scientific community is valued, but I’m not here to enrich the supposedly otherwise monotonous intellectual life of the male-dominated academic community. Demographic diversity at the university and in STEM fields is important for equality and social justice reasons.
The issue about supporting and encouraging students and professionals from a broad demographic is that everyone comes with different learning styles, abilities, talents, fears, insecurities and weaknesses. So the university and the academic and STEM professional communities need to nurture everyone, to help them reach their full potential. It’s about equal access to education. It’s about helping everyone, from all backgrounds develop a fulfilling career.
The speaker gave some examples of things that women might be better at, and less good at. For example, women might be shy to ask for a raise and talk about their achievements. I’m sure that also many men are shy in that way. So I think that in our professional and university communities we need to do our best to pay attention to the mentoring needs of those around us, and to help everyone develop professionally out of consideration for people as human beings, not out of the utilitarian motivation that it serves the field well to have diversity.
The hard part is figuring out how to listen to each other, how to pay attention to each other, so that we can help each other; so that we can mentor and be mentored. And that’s harder when we come from different backgrounds.