Why I Am a “Real” Engineer

We talk a lot about engineering identities at Olin. I would like to offer how I came to find mine. This is not prescriptive nor definitive; I am still grappling with the ways that I shape my identity even as I write this. I offer this because I have had many similar conversations with people at various stages of their identity-forming journey. I am hoping that some of you might read this and relate, or at the very least reflect. 

I came to Olin thinking I was going to be a “woman in STEM”. I took all the requisite math and science classes, and I performed well in them. Thanks to my high school engineering program, I could classify fasteners with fluency and talked about how many “thou” off my lathe parts were. This fit with my image of a “woman in STEM”, and I enjoyed it, but it didn’t fully feel like me. I loved my French and English classes and Jane Austen novels. I was drawn to Olin because it proudly proclaimed that Arts, Humanities, and Social Science were centrally important. I was excited that I could be getting a “practical” degree in engineering without letting go of the humanist that I was deep down. I felt validated by the fact that Olin seemed to value this part of me as well. 

When I finally came to Olin, I discovered that I might be an oddball. I engaged with ravenous interest in my AHS foundation (Infrastructure Studies) and gave my all to the DesNat play project, but noticed that the people around me largely did the opposite. What I found most fascinating and important to the real work of engineering – understanding the emotional and societal side effects of things we engineer – was seen as “extra” or “easy” by others, and therefore not worth their time. My first year I was in angry tears many times over this mismatch, and over the fact that I could not force myself to be interested in the “real engineering” that I was told we were learning in ModSim and QEA. 

I thought that with time and practice, I would develop an interest in technical subjects. I followed a vague inclination into Mechanical Engineering. On a whim, I also enrolled in Architecture and Urbanism. This came to be one of the transformational influences of my Olin career. It was my first taste of Design as an identity. In this seminar-style class, design was presented to me in a way that felt expansive, generous, powerful. It was exactly what I had hoped to get out of my engineering education: a field that provided the connective tissue between behavior and culture and environment and built forms, between complex issues and playful solutions. The focus of the class was ostensibly on architecture and urban design, but the real intention of the class was to make us reflect on our identities. We were frequently invited to place ourselves on various spectra: “critique vs repair” or “wonder vs urgency” or “art vs engineering”. It was in those in-between spaces that I started to find myself. 

E:Design was calling to me, but I could not ignore the signals I was getting that this was not a valid choice. Jokes about “fake major” combined with warnings I had received my entire upbringing that I should not turn away from difficult things just because I’m a woman. I thought that being a good feminist meant excelling in traditionally male roles. I had never stopped to ask myself:  is that what the world needed me to be, or what I actually wanted to be? 

After ArchUrb, I was fully convinced that design was valuable and impactful. The next thing I had to grapple with was the fear that by choosing to pursue something that I had an affinity for I was being lazy, a bad feminist, or failing to repay my debt to my parents. I turned to just about every person who would listen for wisdom on this. Some of the soundest advice I got came from Deb Chachra, who said, “Don’t get good at something you hate.” Eventually, I chose to switch to design. 

I might get emotional about this. It is emotionally taxing to be told in so many different ways that you are not valid. That you are naive, idealistic, ideological. I sometimes argue with my peers and myself in order to assert that I am a “real engineer”. The most validating role models I have had are the professors and alumni who lead by example in being absolute badasses in their fields and who hold the “difficult sciences” as equal to the “hard sciences” (to use Deb’s words). 

Design, social science, interpersonal communication, are all coded feminine in many contexts. Why are the activities that touch on these fields not “real”? My definition of an engineer is a connector between the realms of social science, culture, human experience, and “technology” in its broadest sense. Don’t tell me that isn’t “hard” because that is the hardest thing of all. It is squishy and vague and resistant to labeling. And it is valuable. You are valuable. Not because of a neat project portfolio, but because you have an Olin education which gives you the unique opportunity to grapple with the slippery, complicated, beautiful interaction between people and what you make. If you feel a curiosity for those things, don’t shut that interest down. Nurture it. Artificial Intelligence will never be able to do it. 

Spaces at Olin

We, as Olin students, are afforded countless luxuries in the form of communal spaces,; the Library workspaces and machine shops being the most obvious examples. Less obvious, however, are places like the Wellness Room in the Campus Center, or Parcel B just behind the dorms. In addition to simply having access to these things, we also have nearly unrestricted access to them. It’s not typical for a college to give their students 24/7 access to spaces like a kitchen, or bike room – both things that I think most of us tend to take for granted.

All of these luxuries exist in the way that they do because of one thing: trust. Trust that comes from a social contract between the stewards who build, maintain, and care for these spaces, and the students who use them. This contract is a simple give-and-take, really. Someone puts their time, energy, and money into making a space the best it can be. In return, they trust that we will respect their hard work. For a while, I thought that this give-and-take worked great at Olin. 

Having recently been hired to help steward a space in the Olin Shop, I have now seen the other side of this social contract. In a very short amount of time, I’ve experienced what must be a fraction of the frustration and confusion that a full-time steward feels when tools disappear, or when a huge mess appears overnight without as much as a note. 

I can now see how continuing to care can become difficult when every day, someone intentionally puts their self-interest above the social contract of trust that we have all implicitly signed. 

The cause of this issue could be explained by the “Tragedy of the Commons” framing. For example, one person decides it’s in their best interest to take a tool back to their dorm. As a result, some tools become scarce for others, instead of a common resource, which leads others to follow suit. 

None of this is to say that every student at Olin treats communal spaces horribly. Overall, we tend to do a good job of respecting rules and guidelines. If we didn’t, places like the Shop or the Library would stop trusting us to collectively respect their spaces. 

This article is my plea to you to hold up your end of the social contract of trust. The next time you need to mill something for a project or do some cooking, think about how you interact with those resources. Think of how you can serve the space, rather than how the space can serve you. Take the extra time to fix a problem or clean a mess, even if it’s not strictly your responsibility. 

On Sexism: Bursting the Bubble

Disclaimer: I refer to Olin students in the typical gender binary as “men” and “women”. This is not to exclude anyone in the transgender community. While I believe that gender cannot be split into the male-female categories, the binary is still how many people are perceived. “Men” and “women”, in this case, are useful labels to describe our social reality on the population level, even if they cannot capture the vast diversity of gender expression. If you have questions, please contact the editor.

One of my favorite games growing up was Skylanders. I collected every single Skylander in the first game and spent most of my time playing on my Xbox – I distinctly remember my favorite being Hex (my goth queen). So when McDonald’s came out with the Skylanders: Trap Team toy when I was ten, I was excited. I begged my mom to take me to McDonald’s to get a Trap Team toy; as usual, my mom fed my autism and drove me to McDonald’s after my dance practice.

We walked into the restaurant and asked the cashier for a boy’s Happy Meal. That cashier took one look at me in my leotard and pink skirt and said that they couldn’t give that to me. My mom asked why and they said (verbatim), “She’s a girl, so she gets the girl McDonald’s toy”. My mom asked, once again, for the boy’s Happy Meal toy, and they took our order. I got my Happy Meal and excitedly opened it to see… a Littlest Pet Shop toy. Not my boy Wallop or my dude Pain Yatta. A Littlest Pet Shop character. I didn’t even like The Littlest Pet Shop, not nearly as much as Skylanders. We couldn’t return it because we knew they would give us a hard time. So I went with my dad to a different McDonald’s the next day and actually got a Skylanders toy, probably because they didn’t care as much or maybe because they thought it was for my dad. Either way, still too much of a hassle for a plastic toy.

Looking back, I now realize how much McDonald’s – a place I went to often – completely influenced how I perceive gender, and it probably influenced a lot of other McDonald’s regulars too. I recognize a little bit too much how I have to be very careful about what I tell people what my interests are because no matter what I say, people will not expect it and react too strongly – either negatively or positively. Very recently, I had to explain to people how I enjoy watching sports – not necessarily to watch cute guys get sweaty but because I love the strategy and especially how excited everyone around me gets for a tiny ball being thrown around a field. Notice how I just explained my love for sports? I’ve done this more times than I can count. If a guy said the same thing he wouldn’t have to explain or defend himself – he would just say “I like watching sports” and everyone would think, “Yeah, that makes sense”. They wouldn’t question anything and he wouldn’t have to validate his statements.

Here at Olin, it’s a bit better than what I’m used to at home. I’ve met so many people who break the gender barrier in so many ways that I’ve felt like my authentic self for the first time in a long time. However, I have still faced a lot of experiences where I had to defend myself on things I love. In fact, many of my negative experiences at Olin have been because of my gender. Very often, I and other women at this school have been in situations where our opinion was not valued, immediately shut down by the “biggest man in the room”, and then experienced another man saying the same exact thing and being listened to without second thought. When we voice this, there’s a pretty good chance they will say something along the lines of, “No way, that’s not possible, not here at Olin.” At Olin where there is a severe lack of women in project teams because there is an excess amount of this sexist and discriminatory behavior. At Olin where Pi Day is taken more seriously than International Women’s Day. At Olin where if a girl shows some sort of femininity she’s taken for a Wellesley student because there’s no way an engineering student can hold any sort of “womanhood” about them but a liberal arts student can. It frustrates me when people who are aware of this say:

“This happens a lot in the industry. You just have to get used to it.”

But why do we have to sit here and listen to a man talk and talk and talk all he wants while we have to fight for our voice? Why can’t we, as an “innovative” campus with the motto “engineering for everyone”, teach people how to respect everyone in the room? Especially when it comes to teaming: no matter how many group projects you put Olin students in, teaming alone won’t teach people to not be misogynistic. They expect us to be the ones to tell the perpetrators that what they’re doing is wrong, but after doing it a thousand times to no avail it gets tiring. Not only that, but us speaking out poses a real threat that women face every single day. If we claim that the person across from us is acting misogynistic, we are deemed insane, crazy, or dramatic, so we stay silent and discretely warn other women who to watch out for in a teaming situation.

This is not to say that every single man at Olin acts in this way, but this is to say that there’s behavior at Olin just like this that goes unchecked. Olin imagines itself to be too progressive, too evolved, too sophisticated a place for sexism to persist and as a result becomes blind to the subtle flavors that still exist. We cannot act as if sexism died with the feminist movement, because then the small things that happen now can grow into larger issues later on for gender minorities everywhere. Maybe if we finally stopped ignoring what’s going on, we might actually see some progress in our community and actually make it for everyone.

May Drunk Horoscopes

♈ Aries: March 21–April 19

  • You will encounter a Man—someone’s boyfriend—in the hallway while wearing nothing but a towel.

♉ Taurus: April 20–May 20

  • You are a swamp creature. They can tell.

♊ Gemini: May 21–June 21

  • USB stick? Used tampon? A crab? Use dryer with caution.

♋ Cancer: June 22–July 22

  • You will not get into your cross-reg. :(

♌ Leo: July 23–August 22

  • Missing Person Alert. Last seen wandering East Hall in a banana suit.

♍ Virgo: August 23–September 22

  • You will snipe Snillary Flinton from the Wellesley bell tower. Pew.

♎ Libra: September 23–October 23

  • Cupcakke is coming. So are we.

♏ Scorpio: October 24–November 21

  • If you lose your passport, check the Plan B bin.

♐ Sagittarius: November 22–December 21

  • You WILL get some dick. I believe in you.

♑ Capricorn: December 22–January 19

  • Drink the Baja Blast whiteboard cleaner. You know you want to.

♒ Aquarius: January 20–February 18

  • Get impeached, dumbass.

♓ Pisces: February 19–March 20

  • You’re doing ISIM week. Have fun.