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We Need a Change

Posted by Tom Benedict on 11/08/2012

About a year ago we went through a round of hiring at work. As I looked through the list of applicants, I was struck by something: Of the 100+ applicants, only four were women. That’s less than 4%.

This isn’t new. It was true of the previous round of hiring as well. And I’m sure it was true for the round before that. But I couldn’t help feeling sad when I saw that statistic. From my admittedly naive point of view, this is what it means: Fully half the population of the planet finds that what I do for a living is so boring, they wouldn’t consider it as a career.


It’s not just our organization. This is a pattern that’s repeated at many telescopes. When we go to the summit to work, we stop at base camp at 9000′ along with the crews of the other twelve telescopes to eat breakfast and acclimate to altitude. Around the time we get in, the night crews are finishing their “dinner” and are going to bed for the day. Night crews are a more even mix. Still nothing close to 50:50, but maybe 20:80 or 30:70. But as soon as the night crews are gone and it’s just daytime workers, the ratio drops. Most mornings there isn’t a single female there. Using the same naive logic I used before, that means that using a telescope is somewhat interesting. But keeping one running? No way.

Keeping a telescope running is typically labeled “engineering” though that’s a broad term. If you ask someone on the street what they think an engineer does, they’re as likely to say, “It’s someone who sits at a computer all day designing stuff,” as they are to say “It’s someone who wears a stripey hat and runs a steam train.” In the strictest sense, both are true. What we do is a mix of these, though most of the work leans toward the stripey hat and steam train end of the spectrum. We’re the ones who turn the wrenches, who troubleshoot the electronics, who fix the plumbing. We get to sit at a desk and do design work from time to time, but that’s the exception rather than the rule.

When I was searching for reasons for the rarity of women in engineering, I actually ran across someone (a woman) who said that men are inherently better at these kinds of things than women. I almost choked! I couldn’t believe that idea was still rattling around out there. My sister-in-law is an electronic engineer. My boss’s daughter is studying engineering in college. My own daughter is planning to go into science or engineering. And one of the most capable systems engineers I’ve worked with was a woman whose office was right across the hall from mine. Inherently incapable? I don’t think so. Not even close.

Which leads me back to my earlier observation and to some questions:

Is the kind of engineering we do really that boring to most women? Or am I reading this wrong?

Is this ratio of women to men typical of any engineering field, or is it telescopes in particular?

If telescope engineering is not boring, what other factor is at work to create this kind of imbalance?

(And now for the real question) How do we change this?

Because this has got to change. Don’t get me wrong – I love my co-workers. But breakfast at 9000′ with a bunch of guys? There’s more to life than this.

– Tom

One Response to “We Need a Change”

  1. gstig said

    I’ll do it! Just let me finish the library degree. I don’t mind being a forever student. I think I could make a career out of collecting degrees.

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