Professional Women 4/27/20

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

A new friend of mine is graduating from high school, technically, in a few weeks. Originally graduation was scheduled for about three weeks from today but has been postponed. None the less it’s the end of one phase of her life, and the beginning of the next.

This is the time that students plan a path forward into adulthood. Some will postpone this decision, taking time off or going to college with no real direction but a desire to just wait. Others are going to be entering the job market (what a horrible time to do that!) or attending a technical or trade school to get the training they need for a specific job.

Many students, like her, are going on to college with a specific major in mind, and a pathway they expect to want to follow for themselves. My friend has chosen a difficult pathway at that, deciding to go into civil and environmental engineering. Any engineering program is challenging. The difference between science and engineering is basically theory versus application. They are opposite sides of the same coin; scientists work to understand the principles that drive the processes of nature, and engineers seek ways to apply them in practical and helpful ways. A chemist will discover the chemical reactions to create a pharmaceutical compound, while an engineer will seek to automate the equipment for mass production. Both are difficult; it might seem like an easy thing to just scale up a reaction, but there are cases where just changing the reaction vessel will cause the reaction to fail, only to discover that the original reaction vessel catalyzed the reaction. How to properly mix, control temperatures, maximize conditions while figuring out how to build a large vessel that won’t explode because of the mass of the contents are all part of engineering.

As such there is a lot of science and mathematics involved in the disciplines. It’s just not for everybody. I’ve helped students with engineering problems in the past and they’re, frankly, impressive. Unfortunately, my friend has another set of problems that she will have to overcome, and through no fault of her own. See, she also happens to be quite a lovely young woman, and while her appearance has absolutely no impact on her abilities in science and mathematics, it very much influences how people will see her.

Men don’t face this kind of problem. Let’s be honest, a man can be very handsome, or quite homely, but they’ll be taken seriously in jobs and by society based on their education and accomplishments. For women, that’s not the case. In a woman, physical attraction will open some doors; I have several female friends who have gone into modeling, beauty pageantry or similar appearance-based professions. Some professions, such as those that are traditionally thought of as “women’s professions”, such as nursing, teaching or administrative assistant positions, will also boost attractive women in their careers albeit for the wrong reasons. In these professions, attractive women will often find themselves in an advantageous position but, unfortunately, this advantage comes from the sad reality that our society really don’t give proper respect to these jobs in the first place. The still largely male-dominated administrators tend to think with their hormones rather than their brains, but if they truly understood the critical importance of these jobs, they’d realize that they should be favoring skill and ability over appearance.

In “male” jobs, such as engineering, it’s worse. There is respect for these positions, and they want people who have the abilities to be successful. Unfortunately, physical beauty will count against these jobs because the typically men who do the hiring will assume that a woman, especially an attractive woman, couldn’t possibly have the abilities necessary to be successful. Again, a very incorrect assumption, and one that should never be made.

I’ve had a lot of attractive female friends who have been police officers. I’ve had some fascinating and very honest conversations with them about how men just don’t take them seriously. If they pull somebody over, it’s highly likely that they’ll flirt and hit on them, and they must take on a demeanor that makes it clear, with no uncertainty, that they’re professional and very serious.

My new friend will, I’m certain, be successful. She’ll create a successful career for herself based on her abilities, of this I have no doubt. But it’s unfortunate that these prejudices are still in place, in this year, in our society. Maybe, someday, we’ll advance beyond these prejudices so her daughter won’t have to face the same hurdles.

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