Female Engineers Can’t Be Emotional

The women I know in engineering are strong, and pride themselves on being logical and levelheaded. In fact, I find it’s a common issue for female engineers to try and detach themselves from emotions. We chastise ourselves for feeling sad or upset. I’ve heard women tell me emotions are useless and annoying on many occasions.

Why is that?

There is a stereotype that women are more emotional and thus weaker because of their emotions. Even though this is ridiculous, and men have the same emotions, women are judged for it. Studies show that women presenting emotion are more likely to be seen as emotional, whereas men displaying the same emotion are thought to have a reason for it. This reminds me of one of my favorite comics that points out if a woman does a math problem the wrong way then girls suck at math, and if a male does it then it’s just him that sucks at math. If a female shows emotion, people jump to the stereotype. As I mentioned in a previous post, stereotypes can affect people and their interactions with others. The emotional stereotype is just one more stereotype that women in engineering are trying to overcome.

In addition to the stereotype, women are more often trained to think that showing emotion will get them called crazy. The Good Men Project has an excellent article on gaslighting called “Why Women Aren’t Crazy,” which discusses the conditioning of women to think they are crazy. In the field of engineering, there is an even larger bias against emotions due to the analytical aspect of engineering, so this acts as a double negative to women who show emotions on top of the already existing emotional woman stereotype.

To call a female engineer crazy is a strong insult and can devastate her career and the perception of her within the field. This insult essentially devalues women, their integrity, and their ability to think logically in a field dominated by logical problem solving. No one will want to work with you or associate with you if you are thought to be “crazy.” Sadly, it seems that emotions and the term crazy are associated together if you are a woman. So, if you show emotion, you are at risk of being labeled an emotional or crazy woman.

This “emotional woman” stereotype extends its tenacious tendrils into the depths of engineering beyond just an individual to devalue the work that women do as a whole. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard male students tell me, “women go into the offices of professors all the time and cry to increase their grades, it’s soooo unfair.” It’s funny, because I don’t ever recall hearing about any of my female peers crying for a better grade. The irritating part of this assumption about women is that it comes and bites us even when we are not showing any emotions at all.

Don’t Cry About Your Grade Little Girl

I got to experience the stereotype when I went to ask for a grade in a class during office hours. Generally, I am a very quiet and serious person. In fact, I have an excellent poker face, and during the years while I was taking classes I preferred to put this on during all of my office hours with male professors. I never wanted to be perceived as flirty or emotional, just serious.

The professor told me my grade, which was a harsher grade than I had expected. He seemed to be aware of the harshness of the grade, and before I had a chance to open my mouth to respond or ask why I was graded that way, he added in an uncaring and slightly demeaning voice, “Are you okay? You look like you are about to cry.”

My grade was just a grade. I was not going to jump for joy about it, but I was also not terribly upset. In fact, I really didn’t have much of an emotional response aside from wondering what I was graded down on. However, when I left the office I was speechless. His comment was so unexpected and out of the blue that I couldn’t even think of a response. Now, with more experience under my belt, I can think of plenty of comebacks to a rude comment like that. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the same awareness then as I do now.

***

Is there a way to stop the perception that women are more emotional than men? It seems this is something deeply ingrained in our culture. Completely shutting it off overnight is not an option, but talking about it might start the ball rolling for the future.

8 responses to “Female Engineers Can’t Be Emotional

  1. This is such an interesting topic to me. I recently finished up my M.Eng. degree where I was often the only woman in my class and I had some hard times both in undergrad and in grad school (obviously–nobody gets through university without hard times). All the same, for whatever reason, I’m a big proponent of still having emotions. I’ve wept silent tears in (a large lecture-hall) class when I’ve been totally lost in the material; I’ve skipped classes to go rage in the hallway over a bad grade; I’ve shared stories with my classmates about how a bad break-up mid-semester affected my work; and I’ve actually tried to reassure female friends who study in other disciplines that crying in public isn’t the end of the world. It was never my conscious decision to have emotions? I just can’t help but wear my heart on my sleeve, and I also can’t be assed to feel bad about it.

    So far I’ve been lucky in that I’ve never heard anyone criticizing me about it. I don’t know why, or what I’ve done to get such a good reaction, but I hope my luck holds out in the future :S

    • Thanks for your input! I am happy to hear about female engineers out there that do feel they don’t have to hide their emotions. Honestly, I have enjoyed working more with peers who are receptive to human emotion (they tend to relate more to others and be less passive aggressive). As a whole I think the field of engineering could benefit from being more accepting of human emotion on the male and female side.

  2. I am not an engineer. Though I have been a licensed psychotherapist for 24 years now, I consider myself more of a cultural/anthropological psychologist. The question I always ask is: what social/cultural values (almost always unconscious) lead someone to behave in the way that they do?

    I just wanted to point out how, in your story, the professor was actually extraordinarily manipulative in his attempt to “name” you as “emotional.” Women are always accused of being manipulative and, yet, males exercise this quality to keep themselves in positions of POWER far more than females do. The hierarchically and patriarchally based culture we live in would crumble if we weren’t manipulated to obey it.

    Also, let’s bust up the ridiculous myth that women are “emotional” and males are “rational.” Males maintain extraordinarily high levels of anger, fear and aggression that we all simply take for granted and accept as normal. It is as though we have allowed ourselves to be taught that aggression, manipulation and power over others is our “neutral” base of operations. It’s not. Just look at the films and tv shows of extreme violence and terror to which the public is subjected to each time they turn on the telly.

    I think we have to begin to realize that, just because these behaviors are the norm doesn’t make them normal. And, just because males have a very limited capacity for empathy and understanding doesn’t make the things they do not understand pathological.

    • Great thoughts. I agree with you that just because behaviors are the norm doesn’t make them normal. It’s also an interesting point that you bring up about manipulation and power being seen as neutral operation, when in reality this is not a healthy interaction at all. I often wonder if many people are unintentionally manipulative because it is a behavior of which they are surrounded.

  3. I think another question should be “Why is being emotional so devalued in our society that we have to either downplay or defend it?” What does being emotional imply – poor decision making, inefficient use of time? It seems the plenty of “unemotional” people can make poor decisions as well as waste a lot of time. Maybe finding value in acknowledging emotions and the role they play in any arena, scientific or not would be of greater benefit, but instead we’re still stuck in the gender argument.

    • You have a good point that it is important to address why emotions are seen as a bad thing in our society or “devalued.” It seems so often that emotions are associated with females. I am not clear as to why this is, but I wonder if it is the association of emotions with femininity in our culture that causes them to be seen as a bad thing. Often times being a female in and of itself can be used as an insult. For example insults such as “you’re acting like a girl” and “you throw like a girl” are insults made on the basis that acting or doing something like a female is a bad thing.

  4. Being from the social sciences, I am often told that it is important to keep my personal emotional self out of my research studies. However, I have to admit that when we get rid of our emotions, even elevated one’s, then we limit our ability to empathize with other people. It is through the use of empathy that we are better able to think outside of ourselves, in our own self interests. So the key, at least in my opinion, is to balance our emotions. But there is no reason to get rid of them, or to stop feeling deeply. However, to avoid acting in the moment of high emotion, when our sense of logic may be skewed, that seems to be the key.

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