I had a conversation with a friend a couple weeks back and it’s been rattling around in my head ever since. He remarked that the women he encounters in engineering/science classes seem immediately defensive no matter what he says to them. My first reaction was “um, yeah, I’m not surprised.” Not because he is deserving of women’s rebuff, but because being wary around men is just something a lot of women do reflexively. Since then I’ve been mulling over specific reasons why that might be and I have a few thoughts- at least as to why it happens with me.
A disclaimer: I can only speak for myself. Everybody’s experience is different, so I don’t claim to speak for all women. Your mileage may vary, as the saying goes.
Allow me to set the scene. My school’s engineering program is a decent size, and classes range from 30-50 people, most of whom are men. On one end of the scale, in a science class like physics, the gender balance is around 1 woman for every 4 or 5 men. In a specifically engineering course like statics, it’s about 1 in 15-20. I’ve also had classes where I’ve been the only female.
I’ve written about this previously, but I will never forget this moment in my very first engineering class (where I happened to be the only woman):
First day of class the professor said, “This is engineering graphics. Is everyone in the right class?” A common enough question to hear at the beginning of the semester, until he asked it again. “I just want to make sure everyone’s in the right room. This is engineering graphics.” All said and done, he asked the question 3 times. There’s a certain point at which that question clearly means, “One of these things is not like the others, what’s going on?”
In that same class, there was this fellow who sat next to me for the first part of the semester. He was friendly enough and we’d chat about assignments and whatnot, until one day I happened to mention having a boyfriend. I don’t remember the conversation any more, but it probably went something like “How was your weekend?” “It was good. Spent it helping my boyfriend do…whatever.” I could see his expression change when I said that, and the rest of the conversation was terse. After that day, he never talked to me again. The next time the class met, he sat somewhere else and avoided me for the rest of the semester.
So, from the very beginning of my engineering journey, I’ve had professors question the validity of my presence in their class, and had male classmates make it extremely clear that I’m only interesting insofar as I might date/sleep with them.
During my second semester as an engineering student, this happened:
The lab for my chemistry class met today, and we had to find lab partners and do a quick graphing exercise. How does one choose lab partners amongst strangers? I need an application process or something, because today’s strategy of “walk up to the first person who looks like they know what they’re doing” was a mistake. Said person’s buddies all joined him shortly thereafter, and I now have 5 male lab partners. One of them talked down to me like I didn’t know what I was doing, 3 of them completely ignored me during the lab, but then a couple of them were copying my answers at the end of the lab. Seriously? Treat me like I’m dumb, then use my answers?
It is frustratingly common to be talked down to by my male classmates. The end of that semester in Chemistry, we had a study session for the final where we made teams and had to answer questions for points- basically a game show set up to see what we knew about the material. (so junior high, right?) I got paired up with this guy who would literally yell at me if I got a question wrong, ignore me if I got one right, and just laugh it off if he missed one. It was okay for him to make mistakes, but not at all acceptable for this woman to be losing his points.
Now my expectations and reactions upon meeting a new male classmate are colored by these past experiences. My internal monologue, sometimes consciously and sometimes not, runs along the lines of, “That guy just said hello. Is he going to treat me like I’m stupid? Wonder if he just wants sex.” I’ve learned to not let the assholes bother me too much, but first I have to filter out which ones are the assholes.
There are also moments where I’m just bewildered by what’s happening around me. About 2 weeks ago, we were discussing unit conversion in Statics and the professor asked, “What’s the fastest you’ve ever driven in km/hr?” (fyi, 100 mi/hr is 160 km/hr). So, I’m thinking…hrm…I’ve gone about 145 km/hr… when the guy next to me says 160 and the professor just laughed at him and said “No need to even play.” (Internal monologue: “Whew, glad I didn’t say anything!) The men in class bandied about some numbers, and around the 300 km/hr mark the professor says “Now you’re putting up some manly numbers!” The conversation turned to what kind of cars they did these freakish speeds in, and engines and nitrous and…I tried really hard not to sit there slack-jawed and wide-eyed because I didn’t want to betray my sheer confusion, but I was way out of my depth.
As far as society has come in equality between genders, men and women are still socialized differently and there are times that I find myself utterly lost and unable to relate to the men around me.
And even beyond all that other stuff, I’m just an awkward person. Social situations and strangers make me uncomfortable regardless of their gender. Generally speaking, if the person sitting next to me doesn’t say hello first, I probably won’t ever talk to them. It’s stupid, I know it, and I’m working towards becoming more outgoing…but in the meantime it means there’s a chance I’m ignoring someone due to my own shortcomings, not theirs.
tl;dr As a woman in an engineering class, I may come across as defensive for one or more of the following reasons:
1. I’m outnumbered, and aware of it.
2. I know some men think of me as nothing more than a sex object, and I just don’t want to deal with that.
3. I don’t know yet if he’s an asshole who’s going to talk to me like I’m stupid.
4. I have no idea what he’s talking about.
5. I’m awkward.
Addendum: Honestly, most of the people I’ve met in class are just as nice as could be. This post has been a gathering of the negative things that have happened, but my day to day experiences are usually more positive than not. I just wanted to put this out there as an explanation for why I, and probably other women, are a little gun shy when first meeting a male classmate. Once bitten, twice shy, you know?