Likes, loathes and lessons: on being a woman in Engineering

Likes Loathes and Lessons

Earlier this year, the University of Toronto celebrated a record high for female first-year enrolment: a whopping 30.6% [1]. Yes, less than one-third is a triumph when you look at Canada’s reported percentage of females enrolled in Engineering, a mere 18.9% [1].

As a recent Engineering grad, myself, I’m familiar with the scarcity of women first-hand. Coming from a high school where the going rate of males was 0% (Catholic school, ’nuff said), the change in demographic in university came with both sighs of relief and groans of frustration. The negative aspects of the male-dominated culture in STEM are well-documented [2] to say the least [3], but I can attest that there are some upsides. Here, I’ll present six things I’m taking with me from the experience.

Likes

  1. I could leverage my “novelty” as a woman.

    In a class of ~200 students, I’m confident my face was unmistakable (if being a woman weren’t enough, throw in the fact that I’m Filipino, and I’m completely unique within my program’s graduating class). This gave me a privilege in which I was memorable. I felt that for the sake of inclusivity I was able to speak in class more than the average male student. I doubt instructors and TAs ever had trouble remembering my face. (Novelty was also a plus when it came to dating options!)

  2. I had a nearly drama-free social life.

    My all-girls’ high school days were rife with gossip, passive aggression, manipulation and even psychological warfare. Mean Girls is not a fantasy movie. To have a day-to-day life interacting with straightforward, honest guys was a breath of fresh air.

Loathes

  1. I felt I was being taken less seriously.

    I like to think I am astute in social situations: I have a pretty good record at reading people. In Engineering, certain guys’ reactions to my input have impressed upon me a certain stink: a stink which I’ve since identified as a lack of value of my opinion. In those instances, I am dang near positive that the same words coming out of a male’s mouth would be treated with more weight and respect. Sometimes, a man would even re-iterate my exact idea — obviously not having listened when I said it — and it would be much better received by the listeners. This is but one of many real micro-aggressions [4] I’ve experienced in my time in Engineering.

  2. There was an obvious “bro” culture.

    I was in an academically rigorous program that brought together some of the brightest young minds from around the world. Over 70% of graduates go on to pursue post-graduate and professional studies. Note I said “brightest”: not “socially conscious”, “egalitarian”, or “inclusivity-minded”. The amount of sexist and offensive humour I heard — from some of these legal adults — was appalling. And when I dared to speak up about it? I’d be seen as a stick in the mud — I mean, the majority of the “bros” thought it was funny, so why don’t I just lighten up? Ugh.

Lessons

  1. I learned the value of my female friendships.

    Being surrounded by the aforementioned “bros” can get exhausting and frustrating. I should note that I’m not gonna make the generalization that my lady-friends were my sole consults on matters of love, relationships and emotional well-being; I had some wonderful, conscious male friends for that too. But when I talked with my female friends about it, I knew they could understand me in a way the guys couldn’t, because they know where I stand and what I have to deal with as a woman. Quality time with them was always so healing, refreshing and reassured me that I wasn’t alone. As mentioned in #2, women can be cruel, but you won’t be seeing me take my female friends for granted anytime soon.

  2. I learned how to stand up for myself.

    My Engineering buddies are generally well-meaning, and I care about them as people. I took my frustration of feeling devalued as a woman, and used it to make a point of educating my friends to become better feminists. I learned to confidently and calmly recite phrases like, “Could you please not interrupt me? I wasn’t finished my point.”, and “That’s disrespectful.” I learned how to assert that I know what I’m talking about when I provide input. Does that make me sound like a bitch? Yeah, probably. But think about that for a second — better yet, watch Nicki deal some truth.

Overall, I loved my Engineering education. I met some of the greatest people there (including my current partner), and learned so much not just about STEM, but about being a responsible and active member of society. Even through my hardships of being a minority in a sea of male privilege, I came out the other side a stronger, more confident woman ready to deal with a world where the odds might be stacked against me.


Linked Articles: Learn more
  1. U of T Media Room: U of T Engineering celebrates record number of female first-year students
  2. Blog Post by Isis Anchalee, the woman who got a lot of attention posing for an ad campaign for OneLogin, where she works as a software engineer. The story sparked the #IlooklikeanEngineer movement on Twitter
  3. Newsweek article: What Silicon Valley Thinks of Women – outlines, among many things, some of the abhorrent misogynist practices in the workplace at STEM companies.
  4. Everyday Feminism article: These 25 Examples of Male Privilege from a Trans Guy’s Perspective Really Prove the Point – I can relate to a LOT of these, especially because of my time in Engineering

Sidebar: on my use of “partner”

I’m in a heterosexual relationship: I, who identify as a woman, am in a relationship with someone identified as a man. He’s fine with me referring to him as my boyfriend, as I am being referred to as his girlfriend. However, I make an effort to primarily refer to him as my “partner”.

(No, we are not co-stars in in a buddy cop movie, or a Western.)

I’ll cut the preamble and get to the why. The main reason is that I want to help work against the heteronormative attitudes that still permeate our progressive culture.

For those not as well-versed in this area, “heteronormativity” refers to the default expectations that people are straight and fall into one of the two historically-recognized genders. (This is a very bare-bones description I made easy to swallow, if you’re more interested please have a look at something like this)

It’s easy enough to argue its prevalence: just think about the last time you assumed someone was heterosexual, whether in your own head or in conversing with them. Did you instantly visualize a person of the opposite sex as they mentioned their significant other? Have you automatically taken a friendly acquaintance of the opposite sex as having romantic intentions? Similarly, think about the last time you did a double-take at a passerby because you couldn’t tell if they were a man or woman, and for some reason it bothered you to be unsure.

One of the assertions I make as an ally is the following: unless you are closely or directly implicated,

a person’s gender or sexual orientation is none of your goshdarn business!

What purpose does knowing serve you, but to allow you to make more assumptions in your head about the rest of the person’s identity based on stereotypes of certain groups?

By using the gender-neutral term “partner”, I like to think I throw people for a loop, making them aware of their heteronormative assumptions. Who knows? Maybe I’ll inspire further de-gendering of our language, and somewhere down the line save an awkward social faux pas in a conversation with a queer person.

So, though I have the “straight privilege” of being able to openly use gendered vocabulary with little discomfort, I do my part to move the language towards gender neutrality so that everyone can talk about themselves and their SOs comfortably. Even if our some in our culture are not yet comfortable with their lifestyle, at least it isn’t forced into the spotlight.

BONUS REASON! imo, “boyfriend” paints the picture of a coy courter whom I hold hands with on a park bench. When I hear “partner”, I think of someone who is my equal, my companion, and as much my rock as I am his.

The latter is much more accurate.❤

Hypocrisy and the Interdietary Relationship

My partner is pescetarian; I am not.

How does that work?” — I know, right?!

2009

There are two simple facts that allow us to live in harmony. The first is that we both have a general respect of people’s right to live how they want. It’s a free country, eat nothing but lima beans if you so wish. The second is that I actually agree with my partner’s reasons for being pescetarian.

I trust in the science that says that mass dietary change can significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions, and heck yes I wanna help this planet survive a little longer. And I’m not exactly gung ho thinking about the factory farming of sentient creatures, either.

Does this make me a flaming hypocrite for still indulging in breakfast sausage, chicken adobo and my other favourites? Yeah, pretty much. But I’ll explain how I sleep at night.

The fact is, there’s only so much time in my day, only so much energy I can exert, only so much (“little”: the student debt is real) money in my bank account, that doing everything I want to is damn near impossible. Even if my reasons for “wanting” may be ethical.

We live in this crazy digital age where we can consume information like never before. This is great because we can learn so much about what’s going on beyond our field of vision. We discover truths about how even in the tiniest gestures, we can contribute to good or evil happening in the world. The thing is, when you are a very aware person, eventually your awareness surpasses your practical capabilities.

When I say “practical capabilities”, I’m not just talking financial, either. Certainly with infinite money I’d love to make sure every product I buy is made from sustainable materials and processes and with ethical labour. But right now, living back at home makes it easy and cost-free to eat whatever carnivorous dish was cooked.

My limitations are not just financial, but of my personal energy. I’m a strong pusher of the idea that being thoughtful takes work and expends energy. I read this article from Freethought Blogs on emotional labour which articulates this (more from a feminist standpoint), and it’s been a huge influence on my thought processes ever since. (Seriously, one of the most game-changing articles I’ve read in a while, highly recommend!) The greatest thing this article’s done for me is unburden me from my unhealthy thinking that as a woman, I must “do it all” in the social realm. I can’t do it all, no one can. And, slowly, I’m coming to terms with that. I’ve started to pick my battles, and I’m forgiving myself for neglecting one area of action for the sake of others.

I’m extremely passionate about actively speaking out for gender rights and sex positivity, and it has a higher priority to me personally than environmental/animal rights activism. My partner has differing social justice priorities, and I respect that. We both went through engineering, so we both have a mutual understanding that you can’t go for the design that “has it all” — because it’ll cost “it all”. Instead, you must choose the design that best uses a limited amount of resources. Despite what society says, my proactive concern is not of infinite supply.

And it’s not to say I’m completely unfazed by my partner’s lifestyle: I find myself having a greater appreciation — and appetite! — for meatless cuisine. And, to give myself credit, my repertoire of hearty dishes is mostly veg. I feel these days that people too zealous about black-and-white labels;  just because I can’t call myself “vegetarian” doesn’t mean I’m a ravenous carnivore who doesn’t care at all about the relevant issues.

All that being said, I guess my official statement of non-vegetarianism would be as follows: the mental energy it would take me to consistently make environmentally conscious food choices, I am focusing on other aspects of my life.

Or, to be upfront about it: I’m a little occupied working, dancing and studying, while dealing with a quarter-life crisis and navigating the emotional waters of a new relationship… I’d rather use that extra energy to keep myself sane!

Feature photo taken by me at Doug’s Public Kitchen in Toronto, edited with VSCO and Canva

#realtalks with deadbeatmom

As part of an in-class activity the other day, I sat down with fellow blogger deadbeatmom, and spent five minutes being a leech of experience and insight off of this cheeky mother of three.

The video’s not much to watch, but give it a listen to hear her chat about her blog as well as her thoughts on the chaos of mothering and what life was like before that.

Hooray for quarter-life tips! Thanks deadbeatmom!

Instarant: The attention contest has to stop.

They say not to write angry, but fortunately I’m astonishingly articulate when angry.

And with what’s going on with the world, how can I not be angry?

I’ll start with my TL;DR:

Paris has been ravaged by a series of organized terrorist attacks. Black students of the University of Missouri are not only facing racialized death threats, but the complacency of their own professors towards their right to feel safe at school.* A 7.0 magnitude earthquake was reported off the coast of Japan. There was a bombing in Beirut. (I cannot possibly mention all of the latest instances here.) Lives are being lost, fear is being stricken. This is the world we live in.

As I am typing, I am receiving flack for that Tweet above (welcome to public social media sphere, Cat!)

It’s funny, because that reply just goes with my exact point:

There is no comparing that needs to happen.

Why must the Twitterverse force me to choose what is THE most important thing? There are billions of people on this earth and both wonderful and terrible things are happening all the time. I am deeply saddened to hear of the attacks in Paris, and my thoughts and prayers go out to them. That I might be caring deeply about other issues, that I might show solidarity with other causes — does this necessarily take away from my previous statement? If (heaven forbid, knock on wood) my house were to be engulfed in flames today, and I occupy my attention with that instead, am I a failure as a global citizen?

To care about — speak out about — multiple things does not “take attention away” from any of them. I have a platform to inform, I have an opportunity to shed light, so you cannot tell me to choose one thing for which to use it, and you sure as hell cannot tell me which.

The way I see it, choosing to declare one set of lives more significant than another is the exact mentality that causes the same travesties that stir us at this time.

So if you’re reading this, I hope that you don’t let people tell you what to care about most, and I hope you find your heart capable of opening up to the hardships of different groups without having to rank them. And, please, hold your loved ones close, because life is precious and fleeting.


* The tensions at Mizzou and the various events it has sparked make up the facets of a complex issue. I am working to be more deeply informed so I hesitate to compose a fully formed position. Nonetheless, on the particular case of the lack of sympathy towards threatened lives, I think I know where I stand.

I’m adding this to my “birds and bees” resources for my future teenage children*

I’ve mentioned that I’m a supporter of sex positivity; Laci Green‘s mission is one of the main reasons why.

Here I share with you, among all her sex ed videos, one of the most valuable nuggets: a little checklist for a youth (or anyone) to determine readiness for introducing sex into a relationship. I’m not gonna push abstinence like the parents of yore, but I’m not gonna treat the topic lightly either. Laci strikes the perfect balance in her checklist, and covers all the bases:

Check out the rest of the video to hear her state the sad truth of sex ed in North America, and thus why I’m quite happy with the updating of the Ontario sex-ed curriculum.

*(their existence is not set in stone, goodness no!)

My (latest) go at single-sentence relationship advice

Find yourself a partner
who is worthy of you
when you’re at your best,
and whom you’re grateful for
when you’re at your worst.

I’ve been a sucker for a snappy quote since before people started posting stylized images of them on social media. And every so often I come up with a few of my own; so here’s something I thought up on the bus.

I like to think that quotes I come up with are like save points in a video game. This is the place where Cat was (mentally) at this time, in the midst of the quarter-life crisis, easing into her second long-term relationship. (More juice on that latter point is coming later…)

Leading image created with Canva; photo taken by me

Engineering: I liked it, so I put a ring on it.

One of the things that makes me most proud to be an Engineering grad is the way the community values tradition.

These days people tend to have a lot of beef with tradition — and rightfully so, I agree! — but I will never take for granted its power to unite people and give them perspective on how we’re interconnected in ways we wouldn’t otherwise see.

That said, if you’ve ever seen a grey, faceted band on a person’s pinky, here’s a little blurb about the Iron Ring tradition.

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The Iron Ring is issued to graduating Engineering students in universities across Canada in a ceremony known as the Ritual Calling of an Engineer.‎ The rite itself was composed by the English poet Rudyard Kipling in 1922.

The lore behind the Iron Ring (which, as I learn upon writing this blog post, turns out to be only legend) is that the first rings were wrought from the Quebec Bridge, which collapsed in 1907 due to poor planning by the engineers responsible. I mention this story here despite its incorrectness because it meshes well with what the ring symbolizes. The Iron Ring, and the oath taken upon receiving it, is meant to be a reminder to engineers of their duty to society, and that they must conduct themselves with humility and prudence in their profession.This theme was prevalent throughout my undergraduate career; I remember in one of my very first lectures learning about the Hyatt Regency walkway collapse, and how fatal poor practice can be.The ring is worn on the pinky finger of the engineer’s dominant hand, so as they write up sign important documents, the tapping of the ring reminds them of their solemn oath.

‎For me personally, the ring reminds me of how fortunate I am to be able to be a part of such an educated, conscientious community. It reminds me, when I’m doubting myself, that if I could manage to get through an undergrad like that, I shouldn’t fear responsibility at any point in my career.

I haven’t yet mastered the skill of opening beer bottles with the ring but I’m working on it.🙂

in memoriam

An buddy of mine — a longtime friend and supporter of the salsa studio where I dance — passed away recently. I’ll always remember how he welcomed me at the studio as a new student, and danced with me even though I was a pretty poor at following his lead.

We gathered the other evening to dance in honour and celebration of his life, with his favourite salsa music.

To me, though, the most admirable trait about him is exposed in the fact that this was far from the first time he brought people together in dance.

He initiated so many efforts to really build a community of dancers. He regularly organized outings, sent weekly newsletters and promoted numerous dance studios. He wasn’t satisfied with the joy that salsa brought to his own life; he sought to bring it to others’, and bring us all closer.

You know, some people might think of having a social life as another task on a never-ending list, but my late friend cherished his connections with others, and he knew that through community we cultivate some of out dearest memories.

It was an honour to have known him, and I shall aspire to, like him, be a force of unity and fellowship for others.

Feature photo taken by me, edited with PicsArt

Instarant: Why I’m gonna keep taking crappy photos of my food

I don’t know when exactly food porn became a socially acceptable term, but I can get on board with this. blog1027

It makes sense… I mean, we’re using aesthetics to incite desire and craving, and some would argue it’s purely art. These traits are shared with pornography in its traditional sense.

And if the late-night internet vice-feeders can work with low-res, poorly-lit, shaky webcam videos, then I’m sure the social media world can put up with my not-exactly-magazine-ready plate shots. (Okay, okay, I’ll resist the urge to keep playing this analogy.)

Kudos to the food bloggers and photographers that can take beautifully-crafted shots of dishes that are as carefully plated as they are cooked, but that ain’t me. My poor-quality food pics aren’t here to make your mouth water, or show off my macro skills.

I take food photos because they are symbolic of the gathering of loved ones to share stories and laughter. The dinner table really acts as a gathering device. I see my mediocre photos and remember fondly not necessarily the food, but a period of intent listening and talking with my favourite people. Don’t get me wrong, like any true Torontonian I can appreciate visually striking libations and gastronomic novelty. I’m just more into the whole experience, ya feel me?

(Also, as a Torontonian, I’m mildly obsessed with checking out brunch spots and use photos to keep track of where I’ve gone. The above photo is a gluten-free skillet I ordered at the Steady in Bloorcourt village.)

Featured photo taken by me at the Steady in Toronto; edited w Adobe Photoshop