Posts Tagged ‘Gender Differences’

Are Women the Key to Improving Societies?

A dear friend of mine, Marne, won an award this week for her involvement and leadership in teaching basic computer skills to once-homeless women at the Women’s Empowerment Center here in Sacramento.  The center is part of Loaves and Fishes and provides a an intensive 8 week skills building program to get homeless women back to work and off the streets.  I have volunteered at the center to set up computers and assist in the computer class.  It is amazing to be part of the transformation of these women.

All women must prove they are clean and sober for entering the program.  They learn lots of skills, computer basics being one of them.  It is amazing the range of women in the program.  Some have been on the streets for awhile and struggled with drugs, never completed high school…what you might expect.  Other women are college graduates who got stuck down a wrong path.  Most have limited computer experience and it is great to see them blossom through the weeks and learn how to get online, write resumes, enter data in excel.  The class gives them the knowledge to go out and get office jobs- ones that pay enough to get them off the street and back on their feet.  One women recently left the class and is going back to college to become a network administrator at age 46!

I have read a few articles, as well as the book Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson who claim that educating and enabling girls and women is the key to improving societies.  The time I’ve spent at WE and the impact I’ve seen has made me think he might be on to something.

I think in general societies are better off with a more well educated population.  They are better able to resist coming under the influence of dictators, war lords, gangs etc.  Educated people have the knowledge to get jobs, hold jobs, and even be entrepreneurial.  They understand how to get information through reading and filter information, ultimately enabling them to support themselves and their families.

So why does it matter if it is the men or women who are educated?

While both should be educated, I think it’s more important to ensure the women are.  (maybe this is because they tend to be the lesser educated ones, so there are more of them in need of skills)  Women are usually the care takers.  More often than not, they raise children, both boys and girls, and spend the most time with the younger generations.  Educated women see the importance of learning and gaining these skills and will ensure their children follow suit.

At WE, I see women who come in that are just struggling to put food in their children’s mouths.  They are not teaching their children how to get out of the cycle of poverty.  Instead they are teaching their offspring to survive and work within the system.  Once these women complete the program and realize that they can get jobs and get into housing, they speak differently to their kids.  I hear them encouraging their kids to stay in school, to learn, to dream about going to college.  These women can now stand on their feet and support their children.  Their kids see it is possible to be gain confidence and self-respect.  (even when situations turn dire, they see it is possible to break out of it with knowledge)

The computer engineer side of me especially loves that I can support the computer skills part of this transformation.  There is so much information and potential available with the help of the internet.  Computers are the key to unlocking potential.  Everyone can tap into the endless possibilities and find people with similar interests to connect with all over the world.

Here’s to the Marnes and Gregs of the world who are helping educate those who need it most…

We Wanted to Hunt Too

A friend of mine went back to work on Monday after having her first baby.  It was quite the day for her.  She dropped off her baby at day care, worked until about 3:30, then picked her up, went home, made dinner, washed bottles, re-filled bottles, and cried all night.  Her husband was not quite as supportive as he should have been on this first day back, partly because he had gotten used to her being home all day for the past 4 months.

I was talking with a mutual friend about the situation and she asked me “whatever happened to the days where women took care of the kids and home base and the men went hunting?  It seems like that would be such a simpler,  lower stressed lifestyle.

My response?  “Women decided they wanted to go hunt to”.

I imagined one day the men came back with less meat than expected.   Or maybe a few women got bored with their care taking and decided they wanted to  go out and explore the land.  So those women strapped babies to their chests and went out with the men.  The first career women.

Ok, so maybe it didn’t happen exactly like that.  I think throughout history small groups have women have run with the men.  Only in the last 40 years has it truly become main stream.

In the seventies and eighties it was all about being like the men- playing their game.  Women wore suits and ties.  They were true “career” women who typically put climbing the ladder a priority over other family obligations.  The younger generation followed these role models, but decided they had deviated from traditional family & mother roles too much.

In the eighties and nineties the mood changed a little.  Most women were attempting to achieve super woman status- trying to balance career and family.  I go to numerous conferences and talks and panels each year and “work life balance” is always a big topic.  I think the concept generated from these super women.  They tried to do it all.  The younger generation following these women saw the super women burning out.  The constant strive to do everything left little time for sleep and self-rejuvination.

So now in the first decade of the 2000 I see career women making trade offs.  They start off on a career track.  Then when it’s time to have a family they’ll step off the ladder a little, focus on building their families.  They build up an infrastructure of support, and when ready, step back on the ladder for a bit.  I see them climb on and off the career progression depending on how their family is doing.  I also believe this generation may be the one where we see more men coming on and off to and taking on the lead for family responsibilities.

Hopefully we’ll learn to take turns hunting, rather than trying to drag the homestead with us.

Innate genetic differences and men without filters

One of the things that gets me fired up on a regular basis is when I hear the name Larry Summers.  (which incidentally happens often since he is the Director of the National Economic Council for Barak Obama)  I’ll sometimes hear his name brought up on NPR on may way to or from work and it’ll get my mind zooming through all sorts of scenarios.

Before I get too deep into why, let me fill you in on some Summer’s background.  Back in January of 2005 Summers was the president of Harvard University and speaking at a conference organized by the National Bureau of Economic Research.   The issue under discussion was underrepresentation of women at the upper levels of physical science and engineering.   Summers offered the following three explanations, in descending order of importance for why there is such an underrepresentation:

  1. Women want to have children, and as a result they don’t put in the 80-hour work week that would make them competitive with their male peers;
  2. Innate differences between men and women lead men to outperform women at the top end;
  3. Discrimination discourages women from pursuing science and engineering past their undergraduate education.

Now let me say a few words about Summers as the person, because I’ve worked with several men like him.   I have found that there are some very smart men who have impressed companies (or in this case government & academic institutions) over time with ideas and theories that were game changers. People are always impressed with someone who can predict an event, invent a product, or produce a theory that most of us, even the smart ones, didn’t see coming.  The thing is, out of 100 ideas that come out of their mouths, only 1 is anywhere near accurate.   I like to refer to them as “filterless smarties”.

The filterless smarties have realized that people will not focus on their 99 bad ideas, but continue to be amazed by their 1 good idea.  As they get older, they continue to say more and more outrageous things, because they’ve earned these reputations as “provocative, out of the box thinkers”.   Now don’t think I dislike fitlerless smarties.  I think they have a very important place in companies and academia as consultants.  The ideal is to surround these smarties with a logical, capable team of people who can help identify the 1 good idea, work out the details of implementation, and execute to it.  If you put the smartie in charge, you’ll end up following him into countless dead ends, pissing off the team working with him, and no progress will be made.  You want a filterless smartie as a consultant, not the leader in charge.

Now this is where Harvard made a mistake making Summers the president and where I believe Obama has made a mistake making him the director.  With these titles behind his name, he’s no longer free to make these outrageous statements that got him the reputation as genius and out of the box thinker.  When he says something crazy, a whole organization thrashes with the statement.  He ends up pissing off most of the country and no progress is made.

Back to his comments about why women are underrepresented in engineering…

His three reasons are certainly nothing new and original.  They have been brought up before in countless articles, research, grant proposals, etc.  The real outrage at him saying them was that he seems to believe they are truths (and he was saying them as the President of Harvard University, not as Summers- Armchair Thinker).

Let me make a few comments about each and then wrap up this post as I know I’ll be commenting much more on these three themes throughout this blog….

  1. Women want to have children, and as a result they don’t put in the 80-hour work week that would make them competitive with their male peers
    • It is true that most women want children, though not all.  Just because a woman has children does not mean she feels some overwhelming urge to relinquish all career goals and drop down to a 9-5 (or less) job.  I work with and know lots of technical women.  They have all sorts of family structures to raise their children- extended family, stay at home husbands, babysitters, nannies…  I also think it’s very short sited to believe that only women would want to cut back on working hours to raise their kids.  Society pressures make it “ok” for women to stop working and “ok” for men to miss out child rearing for more hours at work.   I know alot of men, including my father and husband, who would do just about anything to work less and see their family more.
    • One other note on this one…I think it is ridiculous to assume that only by working 80+ hour weeks can you get ahead in the world.  We all need to focus on working on the high priority, biggest impact items, and dropping all those “should do” tasks that eat up time.  Athletes and musicians, who make millions, focus all their energies on the few things they do well- and manage sleep every night.
  2. Innate differences between men and women lead men to outperform women at the top end
    • There are innate differences between every single person on earth.  It is what makes us unique.  I am genetically similar to my sisters and brother but can guarantee you we think differently.  I think it is outrageous to assume you can just group men and women into two groups and stereotype them as thinking similarly because they are genetically male or genetically female.
    • Ever look at a list of the different types of engineering and science fields?  There are dozens of them.  You can be wired to think and excel at biomedical engineering but only be marginal at nuclear physics.  What I think is a more interesting study is to look into what types of engineering and science women tend to lead.  I think that may say more about our interests and innate ability than blanketly claiming we’re not as good at any of it.
  3. Discrimination discourages women from pursuing science and engineering past their undergraduate education
      • I think this is the most interesting statement that Summers made.  Is there discrimination in the corporate and academic world discouraging women?  I think there is.
      • I believe that in the last forty years there has been alot of awareness brought to this discrimination.  As a result there are countless organizations, studies, grants, and awards pushing for change.  I believe as a result the discrimination has lessened, at least in certain pockets.
      • My goal in this blog is to share with you my journey as an engineer and the discrimination (or lack of discrimination) I encounter.  I don’t believe there is enough documentation out there about the thoughts and daily lives of real women engineers.

    Here’s to the beginning of a new decade….Happy 2010!