“The Ratio” at Georgia Tech is about more than dating

I enjoy being a member of several smaller subreddits that have good communities, even despite the overarching policies I despise about Reddit itself. Particularly I like local subreddits, like /r/gatech and /r/atlanta. In these spaces the physical proximity serves to create a kinder environment, reinforced by positive, productive discussion about tangible locations and events in the area.

Of course that doesn’t mean I agree with everything I see, as is expected when perusing a space where anyone can say just about anything (AKA the internet). A particular post caught my eye yesterday and caused several reactions in me.

The title is “What are your odds? ECE is winning by a long shot!” The link is to this image compiling some statistics released by Georgia Tech about the number of male and female students in the class of 2013, organized by major.

2013_GT_GenderRatio

Essentially, like we already know about STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics), women are underrepresented. Georgia Tech is an engineering school, and some of the majors are especially bad. Computer (7.27), electrical (6.28), aerospace (5.68), and mechanical (5.14) engineering all have very, very high male-to-female ratios.

I graduated from the “ECE” department, or Electrical and Computer Engineering. You know, the top two entries on the list? My experience exactly fits this chart. The more in-major classes I took, the fewer women I saw. Some of my classes had but one or two out of twenty or thirty people. When I think back to group projects, they were all men I worked with. I can’t name one woman in my major I graduated with.

I’m ashamed that I didn’t notice or care about this disparity enough while I was a student. I was (and still am) at an institution suffering from a prominent example of inequality for women, and I simply didn’t bother to respond or consider it beyond a shrug.

So when I see this post in /r/gatech, I see myself from years ago. I was worried looking at it, not because the data is anything new to me, but because of the tone of the title and its purpose of being presented. I was concerned that the post would be a place where people gathered to only talk about how “the odds are good, but the goods are odd” for women attending Georgia Tech and lament the bad prospects for all the guys.

See, there are several problems with the way the post is focus and phrased. First of all, there’s the fixation on dating and the supposed benefits the women in a high M/F-ratio class would have. This is painfully myopic, because outside of the simple odds in the romance category, there are very many downsides.

How isolating must it be to be one of two or three women in a class? To have so few in your entire major? To have your performance viewed by others around you as representative of all women (as minorities are)? I checked the ECE department’s faculty list; it has a similar ratio. How would it feel to witness so few people like yourself succeeding in your field? Over time it must weigh on people, making them feel out of place.

Further, this is a product of a larger problem of the underrepresentation of women in STEM. Reducing it down to an analysis of the dating pool does this large issue a disservice. The podcast Planet Money did an excellent episode on how marketing for technology and computers shifted towards boys and likely had a strong negative influence on the number of women expressing interest in the subject in childhood and eventually in college.(1)Technically I’m not sure if the causal link is established, but this at least seems like an intuitive direction of causation.

This is but one example of the societal challenges women face to enjoying a career in STEM. Beyond ignoring or even dissuading women and girls and their interest in STEM, they also face subtle microaggressions, discrimination, or worse from fellow students, professors, administration, and eventually employers and employees. Here’s a recent article chronicling several studies on the subject, including one noting that on internet comment threads about these studies, people still deny it.

One other problem with the tone of the post and the subsequent discussion is an erasure of anything except for heterosexuality. All men are assumed to be attracted to women, and women to men. No gay, bisexual, or trans* consideration. Of course not every data set can supply that information (this one cannot), but the conversation completely disregards these people’s existence on campus. It similarly “others” those groups from the discussion space, which isn’t good.

Once I peered into the comment threads, I was grateful that my fears were (mostly) unfounded. The larger perspective wasn’t on people’s minds, but it wasn’t the elbow-nudging bro-fest it could have been. I left a few comments to provide context if people wanted it. I can’t change my past self, but I can be better going forward, trying to raise awareness for others like me back then.

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2 thoughts on ““The Ratio” at Georgia Tech is about more than dating

  1. Leigh

    Don’t worry your little head about it. I graduated from Ma Tech in 97 as an EE – a female one. I didn’t feel isolated; I couldn’t care less that the ratio was clearly 10:1; I couldn’t care less that I never had a female prof or that there was only one women’s bathroom in the building and 4 for men. Didn’t care.

    B/c guess what? The type of woman who succeeds in EE isn’t a delicate little flower. We don’t need your hand-wringing or help. I didn’t think about my sex when I was in class; I thought about electrical engineering. Same in the workforce, which had an even more extreme ratio (not helped by the fact that so many of us women left to become full-time mothers within a year of having children).

    The reality? Most women prioritize people over gadgets, family over building a faster internet connection, and helper careers over high-paying/prestige careers, to a greater extent than men. Women are no more “underrepresented” in engineering than men are as veterinaries or pediatricians (look up those ratios!). Most women like fixating on numbers and isolation in labs less than I do, and even I like it less than most men. It’s just the way it is. As long as there are no intentional or subconscious roadblocks, let women (and men) choose the majors and jobs they want to choose, and leave them alone about it.

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