My friend Laura, who is almost done getting her PhD in Women’s Studies, sent me this article from the Chronicle of Higher Education. A study was done on undergrad women at MIT, UMass Amherst, Olin College and Smith College, who started out as engineering majors, and surveyed them as freshman and as seniors. Rather than leaving engineering as a major because of their math skills or family plans, it was found women left because they weren’t confident they succeed as an engineer professionally.
I have a few friends that went to MIT undergrad with me who finished their engineering degree, but went in to a different industry, partly for this reason – they didn’t feel like real engineers, and like they could do it. Certainly part of the culture at MIT is to give you some level of humility through very challenging academics and immersion in a group of people that are very smart and driven. I do remember other friends changing from engineering majors to Course 15 (management science) or Course 14 (economics) while at MIT. But it doesn’t seem like a case only of people moving away from engineering while in undergrad – it happens later on too. Could it be that engineering as a profession isn’t as fulfilling as it seems like it should be?
I do believe the MIT experience has given me a confidence that I can accomplish whatever I set out to do, but I do still have times of self-doubt in individual interactions – maybe I don’t know the right answer, and I’ll just keep quiet this time. It seems that is a trait women display more than men, but how to change it? Encourage those around you to speak up when you see them hesitate? Recognize the contributions that everyone makes, especially those that are looking for validation? Change the voice in our head that tells us to hesitate, and instead throw an answer or idea out there and see what happens?
A few years ago I read Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office by Lois Frankel. Though I didn’t identify with everything in it, there were small suggestions for changing behavior in the workplace, including sitting at the conference table in meetings, not playing with your hair, and not feeding the office, that I’ve made a conscious effort to practice, and have found to help me increase my confidence as a professional.