Notes From A Queer Engineer: GoldieBlox and the Feminist

Notes From A Queer Engineer is a recurring column with an expected periodicity of one month. The subject matter may not be explicitly queer, but the industrial engineer writing it sure is. This is a peek at the notes she’s been doodling in the margins.

Notes From A Queer Engineer_Rory Midhani_640

Header by Rory Midhani


It’s time to change / We deserve to see a range /’Cause all our toys look just the same / and we would like to use our brains / We are all more than princess maids / Girls to build the spaceship / Girls to code the new app / Girls to grow up knowing / they can engineer that.

Sound familiar? Set to the tune of the Beastie Boys’ “Girls,” these lyrics played over GoldieBlox’s viral “Princess Machine” video, in which three little girls build a Rube Goldberg machine to change the channel on the TV. The company pulled the song after a legal kerfuffle over copyright infringement, but not before close to a million people saw the ad for the girly construction set and book intended to “introduce girls to the joy of engineering at a young age.

Though the video was adorable, I have to admit that I winced when I saw it. As a woman in engineering, I knew what was coming next: a vigorous debate about why there aren’t more women in STEM fields. Cringeworthy comments about innate differences between the sexes. Lots of speculation on the best way to fix the problem of women wussing out on worthwhile careers involving math and hard science.

I hate to play into the angry feminist stereotype, but the first thing I feel when these discussions transpire is resentment. Irritation. Although these supposed advocates of women’s equality may be well intentioned, it frustrates me to see them wholeheartedly buying into the sexist way our society assigns value to different professions. In our society, fields that have been traditionally occupied by men (including engineering) are seen as much more prestigious and worthy of financial compensation than those traditionally occupied by women (such as child care and social planning). It strikes me as highly suspect that only those performing “men’s work” are taken seriously, and it aggravates me to see this paradigm so rarely questioned.

As a working industrial engineer, I benefit from this system. I’m well paid. Nobody belittles my career choice or makes negative assumptions about me because of it. Strangers knowing nothing more about me than my my job title say things like, “Wow, you must be really smart.” But what if I had taken my love of science and used it to inspire kids as an elementary school teacher? What if I took my organizational skills and became an office administrator or a secretary? What if several years from now I jump ship to become a stay at home mom? Why should I be afforded less respect?

I think the root of the problem is that our society immediately writes off anything perceived as feminine or relating to women. While funneling more women into STEM fields may produce marginal gains, it actually leaves the underlying issue — male privilege — largely untouched. Although I wish I could say otherwise, the most cynical part of me thinks that women dominated fields will never garner the respect they deserve until there are more men working in those positions. That’s how screwed up our society’s value system is.

A pink toy aisle with the words "Our Girls Deserve More" over top.

Via GoldieBlox

That having been said — yes, duh, of course I’d love to see more women engineers. By the nature of their work, engineers have the power to change our world for the better. They play an important role in building the future, and it’s idiotic that only half the population is routinely encouraged from childhood to pursue this career path.

With hyper-gendered toy aisles reinforcing outdated gender roles, it’s refreshing to see even a subtle twist. I actually really like that GoldieBlox is girly looking rather than “gender neutral,” because this ensures it will be put in the pink princess glitterbomb aisle at every toy store. When frazzled parents and imprudent gift givers go to pick out “gender appropriate” gifts for their little angels, GoldieBlox will be right there. Though this may seem insignificant, over time, toys brought into the home send an important message to kids: These are the things we want you to have. These are the traits we value over others. You have a particular place in the world, and this is how we see it.

Is one lone engineering toy amidst a sea of princess dolls is enough to make a difference? Probably not — or at least, not enough. As others have noted, you can’t buy equality, and there are myriad reasons why a girl or woman might leave a STEM career or choose not to pursue one. But it’s a start, you know? GoldieBlox is one data point. Let’s follow it up with another so we can make a line. Before long we’ll have a trend, and from there, the possibilities are endless.

Avatar of Laura Mandanas

Laura Mandanas is a Filipina American living in Brooklyn. By day, she works as an industrial engineer. By night, she is beautiful and terrible as the morn, treacherous as the seas, stronger than the foundations of the Earth. All shall love her and despair.

Laura has written 45 articles for us.

27 Comments

  1. Thumb up 7

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    Computer science (my field) is an interesting illustration of this. Way back when computers were a new thing and working with them was seen as clerical work, it was mostly women, with accompanying low pay and low prestige. When it became its own academic/research field and started to gain prestige and pay, suddenly the share of men started increasing and the share of women started decreasing. Now the field is high prestige and jobs are relatively plentiful and well-paying, and women are a small minority – women are actually getting a lower share of computer science bachelor’s degrees now than they were in the ’80s.

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    Having spent a good portion of time working with pre-K aged children, and now transitioning into (hopefully) a medical career that requires I take a LOT of science and math, the prestige differential between the two boggles my mind. While teaching I did an incredible amount of high-stress work with other people’s children, spent endless hours assessing my pedagogy, and earned peanuts. I was honestly embarrassed to tell people what I did for a living even though I know I poured a whole lot of energy and skill into it.

    Now folks are fully impressed when I tell them about my current academic trajectory. In fact, I think I feel the urge to point it out sometimes because I still feel like a loser for spending so much of my life in low wage ‘pink collar’ work (not that nursing isn’t in many ways still a gendered field, but it sure pays).

    SO all that to say YES women should go be doctors and engineers and that is all wonderful, but I think you’re right when you say that sometimes pushing women into previously male dominated disciplines like science and math (or progressive feminist politics like “add women to the CEO pool and stir”) won’t necessarily break down the sense of disdain present regarding stereotypically feminine work or arenas of skill, much of which is at least as difficult as all the rest.

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    First of all, as a queer engineering student, I am REALLY excited about this column.

    Also – “I think the root of the problem is that our society immediately writes off anything perceived as feminine or relating to women.” YES THIS EXACTLY. I am sick of feeling like I need to downplay my own femininity in order to be taken seriously.

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    I’m venturing into contracting once I finish my BS in Criminal justice (strange jump, I know) so I’ve been watching a crap load of DIY channel and hgtv lately (more so than usual). My little sister started watching it because of me and she is slowly becoming obsessed with the women on those channels. She just wants to go out and built shit which warms my heart. Watching Nicole Curtis install a hardwood floor has opened her eyes to all of her possibilities. Its enough to make you want to cry.

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      I work in the trades. Just about daily, I am the only woman on the jobsite, the only openly gay person, and the only gender non-conformist. Racism, sexism, and homophobia are rife throughout the trades. Some of what I have experienced would shock the shit out of people who aren’t in that world. It is really difficult.

      I love my work, and if contracting is what you want to do, I really encourage you. Having said that, you need support. It’s supremely important. Please feel free to send me a message, and I can direct you to some support groups for women in the trades.

      That goes for any LGBTQ/female/etc. tradespeople out there. We need to stick together. Let’s network and help each other.

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    I don’t work in a STEM field, I’m a psychologist by trade, but I find the whole gender play in all of these fields of study to be so fascinating. For example, psychology used to be a very male dominated field. Recently however, it has become much more female dominated, and being a male graduate student in psychology seems to make you some kind of magical unicorn. What is really interesting to me is the different way that my male colleges are sometimes treated by individuals who know very little about what a psychologist is actually trained to do. People want them to be in charge and make decisions and do testing (IQ testing, neuropsych testing, etc.) while I am often applauded for “caring” for others, something strongly associated with the “feminine ideal”. What gets me about this is that in my experience being a good therapist has almost nothing to do with gender and everything to do with personality and training. But we still can’t let the gender stuff go. Frustrating.

    Anywho, looking forward to reading the rest of your column!!

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    Thank you thank you thank you!!! I’m never sure whether to wince or cheer, myself. I work in bio research and the look of surprise on people’s faces when I talk about my projects feels kind of insulting. I’m glad that Goldiblox is out there, I agree it is a good start. I hope there continue to be more ways to encourage women in STEM fields, and less importance placed on gendering careers/assigning value based on that.

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    I love this product, can’t wait until my niece gets old enough to play with it!

    Also I love your point about men in traditionally feminine fields. We do need more men in social work and teaching, maybe that will make those career paths become more respected.

  8. Thumb up 2

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    Really interesting article. I looked at GoldieBlox for my daughter but I think she’s a bit young for it still. But you bring up some great points about toys like these, and what they do and do not accomplish. I still think its a great toy, and its good to encourage girls in STEM fields, but we need all types of people doing all types of work in order to move towards true equality. I’m sure there are plenty of boys/men out there who would be wonderful teachers/social workers/caregivers/etc but don’t pursue those fields because they are seen as “for women” aka not valued.

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    This was amazing, Laura, thank you.

    For me, it brought to mind comments I heard during my high school graduation, including, but not limited to:

    “Teaching? Why would you go into teaching? You’re too smart for that.”
    “You should be doing something more worthwhile. You should be a doctor, not a teacher.”
    “Why would you waste your intelligence on something like teaching?”

    Even now, I get sort of an “aww, you got your teaching degree? How cute.”

    (Granted, I do hail from the world headquarters of Dow Chemical, where it’s a general expectation that you are expected to become a chemical engineer.)

    While I understand the whole “push women into STEM fields” thing, the trend sort of bugs me. Why can’t we just be pushing all humans into all worthwhile careers that benefit others?

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      We can’t just “push all humans into all worthwhile careers that benefit others” because women are systematically discouraged from pursuing certain specific careers, not all of them. I get that it hurts to be told that you’re “too good” for your chosen career, but women in STEM are constantly told that they’re not good enough and should quit and do something more womanly etc and this is a serious problem.

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        Yeah, I understand that too. There’s a specific section of the article though that really spoke to me because I haven’t heard it before in the frequent STEM discussion:

        “As a working industrial engineer, I benefit from this system. I’m well paid. Nobody belittles my career choice or makes negative assumptions about me because of it. Strangers knowing nothing more about me than my my job title say things like, “Wow, you must be really smart.” But what if I had taken my love of science and used it to inspire kids as an elementary school teacher? What if I took my organizational skills and became an office administrator or a secretary? What if several years from now I jump ship to become a stay at home mom? Why should I be afforded less respect?

        I think the root of the problem is that our society immediately writes off anything perceived as feminine or relating to women. While funneling more women into STEM fields may produce marginal gains, it actually leaves the underlying issue — male privilege — largely untouched. Although I wish I could say otherwise, the most cynical part of me thinks that women dominated fields will never garner the respect they deserve until there are more men working in those positions. That’s how screwed up our society’s value system is.”

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    I look forward to reading this column. As my name suggests, I work in a field that is over 98% male. It’s great to hear from other women in male-dominated fields.

    I have a question for the author:

    What is your interaction like with women on jobsites? I’m talking about tradeswomen who build what you engineer. I’m not sure what specific aspect of industrial engineering you do, so I don’t know how much of your job entails interacting with these people.

    I will give you my take on it. I apologize if this comes off as harsh. I hope to have better interactions with female engineers on jobsites, but I don’t know how.

    My interactions with female whitehats (that’s what we call higher-ups like engineers) is standoffish or non-existant. I think there are a few reasons for that:

    1. On some jobsites I have been on, they have assigned male “chaperones” to female engineers in order to keep other males at bay. That makes it hard for these women to interact with many people.

    I heard one security guy on a site making rape jokes. He then got assigned to “protect” this woman while she walked around. If you get assigned a “chaperone,” don’t think the coast is clear to let your guard down.

    2. Engineers interact with foremen and such. Women are few and far between in the trades, and with male supremacy firmly in place, females are rarely promoted to foremen. Men in power give those positions to other men. Construction is really heirarchical, so apprentices and journeymen aren’t allowed to interact with engineers.

    3. There’s a class difference. I think some female engineers don’t actually see us, because we are dirty, we’re doing manual work, etc. They seem to literally look through us, like we are invisible.

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      I’m a mechanical engineer working in power generation (power plant maintenance), and #3 especially makes me so sad. I come from a family of engineers, back when being an engineer meant that you had practical hands on experience with tools as well as education. I feel like they have tried to “sterilize, cleanse, and rebrand” the field. Now, you go to school for years, learning modern physics and really complex math, but many engineers have never held the tools or materials that actually get their designs built. I think that’s a travesty for the field. I totally see many of my colleagues getting really upset when people misunderstand what engineering is, and think that it means working with their hands – “oh, no, I don’t do that!”. As if that’s a bad thing! I’ve never met another female engineer in my field, but I know that the men do this.

      It makes me sick because it turns my profession into an elitist and classist profession, while simultaneously weakening the profession because through the lack common sense/practical ability it needs.

      I don’t know the solution though – what are we going to do – force engineers to go through (in Canada at least):

      1) 4 years of university
      2) 4 years of work experience
      3) professional practice exam

      4) AND THEN force them to go into trades school?

      I can’t see that happening, even though it would be so beneficial to EVERYONE.
      ——–

      #1 is also so true – usually the guys all figured that I was innocent little flower – not someone who spent years surrounded by rough men. You really do have to have your own back when surrounded by men, no matter what the situation is. And that’s in a sterile power plant – not outside in a construction zone, which is usually WAY worse.

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        Electrician and EngGirl, it’s really interesting to hear your perspectives on this! I completely agree with you that there’s a (growing?) classist divide between engineers and technicians/trade workers/people who generally do more physical work.

        In my current position I don’t have a lot of direct interaction at that level — most of my work revolves around compliance testing and preproduction design verification. When I do go out on the floor it is with a chaperone, but this is more for practical reasons (we usually need an English speaking translator to communicate with line workers and foremen) than supposed “protection.”

        I can’t speak for anyone else, but I always feel like I need to have my guard up in male dominated environments. This is especially when there’s shit going down like casual rape jokes, as you mentioned, or people giving extra scrutiny to women’s competency (which, in technical fields, seems to be almost always). I’m *sure* I come across as standoffish at times because of this.

        Certainly no excuse for treating people poorly, though. I’m sorry to hear that has been your experience.

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      I am also in an engineering program (mechanical) and the attitude of my classmates and some instructors toward actually working with your hands makes me furious.

      I come from a long line of tradespeople and basically grew up on construction sites. It’s not rare that I am the only one in a project group that knows how to actually use power tools safely. And the common comment is “Well, that’s why I’m going into engineering, so I don’t have to do that.”

      Just because you can design it doesn’t mean you’re better than the person who can actually build the damn thing. It’s just ridiculous.

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    Great article! I’m a queer lady doing an engineering degree and while I have supported initiatives to get young girls thinking about engineering as a potential career, I try to always mention that all work, including traditionally female work, is valuable to society. I’m pretty excited about the GoldieBlox toys but you’re right that they’re just one data point.

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    As a mechanical engineer, I was very hesitant when I heard about GoldieBlox. I personally don’t think that the solution to strict gender roles is to make toys of any kind dedicated to one gender, just like jobs shouldn’t be dedicated to one gender.

    It feels a little like: “engineering, now rebranded for women!”, rather than engineering being for all genders. If we could just drop this gender bullsh*t (for toys/jobs/life in general), I think that’s where the real changes will come from.

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    I’m a high school student looking to be a sociologist. It always winds up being extremely awkward for me whenever people attempt to pressure me into engineering, which happens a lot, since I’m taking a physics course (mostly for fun).

    The odd thing is, the pressure – at least, when it’s one-on-one, conversational pressure, not background radiation – almost always comes from men. When I volunteer to help with STEM-promoting Girl Scout programs? People are cool and understanding when they learn that the kind of science I want to do deals more with statistics and other humans than kinematics equations and machines. When I’m in my mostly-male (seriously, there’s only one other woman) physics class? It’s always a shame that I’m “wasting my talent” in a “soft science,” and it’s never too late to change my mind and go into engineering.

    It’s equally frustrating that my partner, who is both male and near-magic when it comes to interacting with kids, is actively discouraged from becoming a teacher or daycare worker. It’s like society has gotten the “more women in STEM fields” message loud and clear, but completely ignored the “all professions are valuable, and none of them should be gendered” message.

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      For what it’s worth, when I worked in childcare, the other carers were so excited when male carers came in to work, because it was so good for the kids to have more male role models! It’s a damn shame that it’s seen by so many as suspect when a man wants to work with kids.

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    I’m a grad student in Mathematics and I love any effort to get more women into the sciencey fields, but only at their own desire. I love GoldieBlox and a chance to open that avenue for young girls. Having this type of toy offered right alongside all the other “girl toys” is a definite step in the right direction to encourage girls to choose things they find interesting and not just what is for girls.

    I also work in the Toy Industry and I notice that a shift will need to take place soon. As for my line of work, the toys are produced in other countries (and sold all over the world, not just America) and the traditional gender roles are followed because they haven’t even thought about it in any other sense. I had one customer request a unisex preschool toy and the factory wasn’t sure why they’d ask for unisex instead of the blue and pink mix pack.

    Kind of heading off on a tangent… sorry! haha I get really pumped talking about either of my passions in life!

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    I watched the Goldie-Blox ad and immediately passed it along to my sister-in-law thinking of my niece who, when she was younger, was really fascinated by how things worked. The physical world was new and fresh and something as simple to us as a flip top on a water bottle or building a fort would blow her mind because it was something she could physically interact with, control, watch the outcome of, analyze and experiment with. Now, years later, the only things she is interested in is to dress-up in princess dresses and accessories. She is allowed to watch a lot of tv and she reads a lot of books, and the tv she likes has story-lines of princesses. She isn’t so much interested in physical play unless there is a story behind it, where-in all of the participants take on “roles”. I’m no child development specialist, but her loss of interest in simple physics seems aligned with the introduction of tv and books that are targeted to young girls and mothers of young girls. These products often contain sexist messages and if children find something attractive or interesting in the product they are going to copy what they see. My niece copies the “princess character”… why does the princess character exist anymore?!?!? Why does the fantastical world always have to be so frick’n far removed from reality and based on fairy tales from Europe? Monarchy is just not an American thing, am I right? Why the princesses?!!?!?!? Gah!

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