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Engineering Expectations

Almost every woman in engineering I’ve talked to knows the pressure of having to prove herself. She knows what it’s like to be meticulously perfect in her calculations, and to accept that regardless of her intelligence, her work will be checked again by someone who doesn’t trust her. She knows that, at the end of the day, mistakes hold more weight than they should.

I say almost every woman because I am one of the few that has rarely experienced this. I’m lucky. I’m an anomaly. Bioengineering at Santa Clara University has a relatively large percentage of female students, compared to the other engineering disciplines. I’m not intimately familiar with gender tensions in the classroom because there aren’t any in the classes I take, and I rarely feel the need to prove that I am better than the men I work with.

At the same time, I’ve had the privilege of being mentored by some incredibly intelligent women, and as a result, I’ve had the chance to grow and learn in an environment where I’m not afraid to fail. My mentors don’t expect me to make mistakes and are genuinely surprised when I do. I’m not pressured to be perfect, but at the same time, the expectations for the work I do are just as high as anyone else’s. The psychological effects of this are subtle, but they’ve shaped how I perceive my own abilities, goals, and expectations. Because I’m held to an equal standard, I believe that I am equal. For that reason, I have my mentors to thank for my experiences as a woman in engineering. I realize that they’ve given me what they didn’t have and I owe them much of who I am today.

It wasn’t that easy for my mentors and for many women today. My mentors have had to fight expectations to get where they are and to defy the underlying notion that women just “aren’t as smart”—that’s why they don’t hold as many positions in engineering. However, it’s not an IQ problem, rather, it’s an expectation that women just can’t compete at the same level. This expectation is subtle and it’s ingrained, whether we realize it or not. It’s unintentional, intangible, and ever-present. Yet its effects are far reaching; being constantly undervalued and coddled teaches young girls that it’s okay to strive for less than the best, and to settle for goals that they’ve been told are more realistic than the ones they would like to reach.

The women that inspire me hold me to a higher standard and expect me to reach for what’s unreachable. In doing so, they gave me the confidence to pursue engineering and taught me that I need to do the same for the next generation. We can’t treat little girls differently from the boys that radiate confidence, because it’s hard to be confident when you’re expected to underperform. Instead, expect them to set impossible goals, and don’t wait on the sidelines for them to fail. Expect them to compete at the same level and be disappointed when they don’t.  If we change our expectations, I guarantee you the next generation will meet them. 

This op-ed was first published in the Mercury News.

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