Contrary to conventional wisdom…

… or is it?

A recent Chronicle of Higher Education piece details several studies which argue that life choices such as raising a family are not the primary cultural factors that drive women out of professional careers. In the field of engineering, it is overwhelmingly a lack of confidence as professionals which influence women to pursue a different field of study or work, both during and after completing a degree. In other words, it’s not a lack of competence, but rather a sense of being given no regard as a professional.

Putting aside that the article treats seriously the notion that women lack competence in certain fields by virtue of being women, even as a simple contrast with the study’s conclusion, labeling “professional role confidence” as “a person’s sense that he or she belongs in a certain field” masks a number of underlying concerns related to the lived experience of that field’s culture. I would argue, first and foremost, that there is nothing essential about the relative competence of women versus men in specific fields of intellectual study, and that to assert that one sex is less ‘fit’ to study or be educated in a certain subject (i.e. men are better at mathematics, or women are better at biology) is crude, paternalistic essentialism.

But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, what lies behind the feeling of not ‘belonging’ to a specific profession? I would argue here that the matter does, in fact, relate to competence: more specifically, to the perception of competence. There are a number of cultural paradigms present in disciplines dominated by males that are not present in fields dominated by females, and vice versa. Most notably for the topic at hand, I would trace the phenomenon of women feeling as if they do not belong in a discipline dominated by men to just such crude, paternalistic essentialism, or, as the article says:

As one of the most sex-segregated professions outside the military, engineering carries ingrained notions and biases about men being more naturally suited to the field, which can have self-reinforcing effects… Traditionally, it has been thought that women’s family plans and low regard for their mathematical skills accounted for their low representation in the field.

Male dominated fields such as engineering culturally instantiate a perception of incompetence on the part of women to advance intellectually in the field as far as men. Is it any wonder why, then, women would feel as if they did not belong, as if they were not regarded as professionals on equal footing as their male counterparts, as long as this bigotry holds cultural clout? So perhaps these studies are only confirming the cultural dimensions that conventional wisdom has played off of in the debate over gender equality in the professional workplace.

In sum, I am grateful for the distraction from focusing on lifestyle choices, which almost always means raising a family, as the reason women matriculate out of professional careers – do men not also want a family? Do men not also want to spend sufficient time with their families? Why would this decision not compel men to change vocation?

However, at the same time these studies preclude an investigation of the factors which may contribute to a particular assessment of professional regard by treating the subject of gender imbalance in professional fields as a function of a personal assessment of professional regard only. In the effort to have an open dialogue about the issue, it is much more difficult of such cultural factors are preempted from examination by locating the origin of the imbalance with the individual – saying the ’cause’ of women leaving engineering is that they feeling “less confident” about being recognized as a  professional by their field than their male counterparts – rather than also (and perhaps primarily) with the cultural context in which the individual is situated.

A feeling of ‘not belonging’ is always a feeling of alienation. This is not a problem of confidence; it is a problem of the (continued) perception of incompetence.


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