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I am an engineering academic at University College London where I work on the sustainability of urban water systems. I am interested in the role of engineers and technology in sustainable cities.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Women and the New Machine

The Soul of the New Machine by Tracy Kidder is a classic popular account of engineering design, telling the story of the development of a 32-bit computer at Data General in the late 1970s. First published in 1981 it passed me by until colleagues enthusiastically recommended it as one the ‘best ever’, ‘most inspiring’ books written about engineering. The re-release of the book in 1997 in Random House’s Modern Library of the World’s Best Books is testament to the quality of Kidder’s writing and the cultural significance of computer science and engineering. It is a good book – fast paced narrative, strong characters and culturally relevant. As an engineer I identified with the characters and have lived through different versions of the story. As feminist I was deeply confronted by the masculinity of engineering culture that Kidder captured 30 years ago, and it has led me to worry about how little things have changed.

The Soul of the New Machine reflects the intensity, joys and frustrations of engineering design. Whilst emphasising the role of particular individuals, notably group leader Tom West, the book shows engineering as an intensely collaborative, and often fun, undertaking. The story deals with the excitement of being at the leading edge of technology and the hard work and sheer bloody mindedness required in getting through all the mundane details of making a design work. It is a good reflection of engineering method bringing together science, creativity and experience to devise a novel solution to a problem, within the constraints of budget, incomplete data, organisational politics and the messy world as it already exists.

Kidder goes out of his way to point out the one woman engineer in the team of thirty, to draw attention to the importance of group secretary Rosemarie Seale, and note the impact of long working hours on families, but there aren’t many women in this story. More than simply reflecting the blind statistics of engineering as a male dominated profession Kidder’s account brings out the misogyny that is too often taken for granted in everyday engineering practice, as well as a particular construction of masculinity that is associated with technical design and professional engineering work.

The very undertaking of the project and the company are described in strongly masculine terms, as 'Data General was the son, emphatically the son, of DEC' (1997 p. 19) and ‘engineering is a man’s world’ (1997, p.51). The metaphors and stories that the engineers’ tell Kidder and each other are at times shocking:

the fable of an engineer, who, upon being informed that his plans for a new machine had been scrapped by the managers of his company, got a gun and murdered a colleague whose design had been accepted. Alsing said he thought that such a murder really happened but that a woman was probably involved - yet it came, he said, to much the same thing (1997, p.36)

"We're trying to maximize the win, and make Eagle go as fast as a raped ape" (1997, p.42)

"FHP was the one thing in the world they wanted to do most, the biggest-thing-the-world's-ever-seen kind of thing. Somebody told those guys that they would have seventy-two uninterrupted hours with the girl of their dreams. The thing they most wanted to do was dangled before them and then pulled away. And some people were pissed" (1997, p.47)

One of the senior engineers in the team candidly admits to relaxing by reading the stories in Playboy magazine and justifies this as an intellectual exercise.

The most confronting of these instances are perhaps a sign of the times in which the book was written. It is now difficult to imagine an engineer discussing their soft-porn preferences on the record with a journalist in an interview relating to their work. Likewise using rape as a metaphor for computing power is now, I hope, unacceptable in most engineering offices. However, the stark misogyny of the discourse is a warning of deeper constructions of gender in engineering which to a large extent remain intact.

Many, though by no means all, of the engineers profiled fit the classic stereotype of the nerd – boys who were uninterested or inept at sports, tinkered with household electronic gadgets and appliances, had mixed academic success, did not socialise with their peers, and spent entire nights programming or playing computer games for fun. I know and love many engineers who fit this profile. I myself claim the title ‘nerd’ (even though I was a fairly successful basketballer, never took apart a TV, did well across the board at school, went to some fairly dodgy teenage parties, and suffer a form of motion sickness if I play computer games for more than five minutes). Engineering culture is very accepting of behaviours and values that are shunned by wider society and provides a haven for many young men who are marginalised by ‘jock’ or ‘bloke’ culture. However, rather than undermining dominant forms of masculinity, the nerdy engineer in the basement of Data General represents an alternative masculine identity from which women remain largely excluded. It is a masculinity that deepens the classic dualism of the dominance of mind over body, leading feminists such as Judy Wajcman to characterise engineering as ‘archetypically masculine’ (Wajcman 1991 p.48).

In Western culture the mind and reason are classically associated with the masculine, and the body and emotion are associated with the feminine. The story goes that women are ruled by biology and are subject to wild emotions, while men are reasonable and rational and consequently better suited to public and professional life. Kidder’s story shows the emotional intensity of the process of design and his description of the work itself gives no indication of any particular biophysical requirement that it be done by men. And yet you can almost smell the testosterone (or maybe just the cheap aftershave) in Kidder’s description of the basement. The engineers leave their wives in the domestic sphere taking care of their children and each day they enter the manly world of engineering work.

With women still drastically underrepresented in engineering and computer science thirty years after the publication of The Soul of a New Machine it is worth considering what we might learn from this story and what it tells us about masculinity and engineering. Some thoughts for possible strategies for change:

  • Zero tolerance of misogyny in all its forms in engineering teams and discourse. No sexist jokes, no posters or images objectifying women, no unwelcome comments on women’s appearances or sexuality. This might sometimes feel like ‘political correctness gone mad’, but to be fair, the gender politics of engineering is in need of some serious correction.
  • Establishing good conditions for ‘work-life-balance’ and a culture that supports this. Engineering is much better than many professions at this, and a culture where both men and women are able and expected to maintain caring and other duties outside paid work is essential to achieving gender equality.
  • Drawing attention to the social, emotional and bodily elements of engineering, to break its association with classic constructions of masculinity and open it up to values and attributes more typically associated with femininity. This should include drawing attention to the cultural relevance of engineering and technology, which are essential to modern society and sustainable development, rather than appealing to basement tinkerers and all night gamers.
Much has changed since Data General released the Eclipse MV800, but many things have stayed the same. Computers are everywhere. Women engineers are not.

4 comments:

  1. As I originally posted in praise of the Soul of the New Machine I feel bound to respond. Your article is an excellent and insightful view of the book. It certainly opened my eyes. It clearly signals the distance we have come since the book was written and the challenges we still face in making engineering a profession that is welcoming to women. Good engineering requires nerdy, driven, obsessional analysis and engaged, collaborative, synthetic creativity. It thus requires the qualities conventionally ascribed to both masculinity and femininity. We are faced with a unique opportunity to build a discipline that is genuinely open.

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  2. Thanks Anthony - yes, worth pointing out that this all came about as a result of Anthony's recommendations and subsequent discussion on our linkedin group 'UCL Engineering Sciences'.

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  3. I read this post just before coming across this recent study on why women drop out of engineering careers. You certainly had it figured out before the study did. Thoughts? http://www.npr.org/blogs/alltechconsidered/2014/08/12/339638726/many-women-leave-engineering-blame-the-work-culture

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    1. That's a great article Abby, thanks for sharing it. It is troubling how slowly things change and how reluctant the engineering profession and employers are to take responsibility for pushing women out. So many engineers remain baffled as to why women don't want to pursue engineering careers, and some of them fall back on essentialist ideas about how our brains are wired, but often it is very simply that women are excluded from macho workplace culture and find better things to do with their lives that try to change things.

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