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  • Lance Mannion
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Fact is, most Americans don't care what the world around them looks like or how actually well-built, well-designed, well-crafted, well-engineered it is.

They just want their problems solved in a way that doesn't raise their taxes.

And if that results in a world that looks like a gigantic shopping mall, that's fine with them.

As long as there are some good sales and they don't have to walk too far to their cars.

Now that's a prejudice!

Ouch. But so painfully true. I've sometimes thought about what buildings would look like if you combined today's skills and tools and materials with the impulses that created decades-long projects like pyramids or Gothic cathedrals or Mayan temples.

Instead, we have to settle for big boxes and bland exteriors, and even live in them. Sometimes the collective mind is not all that smart.

Now as to this point:
I want to see all the young women who want to be engineers and who would be good at it become engineers, but I don't think the world will be a better place because more young women get to be engineers.

Now, I think there's little in the inherent qualities of female-sexed humans that would produce "better" work - except in one area. Women still give birth, and have to take care of infants. This perforce requires more job flexibility for them - a flexibility that benefits humans in general. But this isn't decisive; a lot of female-hostile professions with demanding hours end up having women working in them who are fine not being part of the child-making and -raising process -- especially if there's only one or two of them.

What I, as a feminist, tends to think more, is that by taking social groups that are more or less homogenous, and mixing them with new perspectives in significant numbers, you have a chance to rethink old assumptions. It's not so much that having women per se turn from exception to norm would transform the group, but rather, a group that's always done the same sort of thing with the same sorts of people with the same sorts of backgrounds tends to stagnate and be resistant to change. Gender is one lever one can use to insert a bit of new perspective - so is age, class, race, ethnicity, religious belief, and so on. Yes, these would all be engineers, but slightly different flavors of engineer.

The other thing you're missing, Lance, is the impact of women's entrance into woman-scarce industries on women who are not interested in those industries. If one woman, or two, becomes an engineer, it's too easy to see these women as exceptions that prove the rule about women overall. In fact, this is a long-lived strategy for "containing" the effects of individuals' successes in new areas. She's not like those other women, we're told. He's a genius, not like other men, the story goes. The implication is that ordinary people shouldn't expect anything to change just because one person managed to pry open the door of expectation and do something "out of character."

But if you have a large group of people, especially ones who don't seem like any particular group of wunderkinder, then it's easier to make the assertion that the gains they make are relevant to others.

So if one woman becomes an engineer, it's because she's a freak. If hundreds of women become engineers, it's because engineering isn't a field that's inherently hostile to women. That, in turn, makes it easier for other individuals to enter the field, if they have an aptitude for it that is merely ordinary, instead of extraordinary.

That's the point behind pushing for more of [disadvantaged group x] in [field that has historically excluded x]. Partly, yes, it is to shake up the field a bit. But, more, it's to open the doors so that, if you do belong to a disadvantaged group, you don't have to be a thick-skinned genius freak to boot. It's about the right to be as ordinary, as normal, as the majority - the right to be, well, You.

And here's an interesting thing... the implications for bona fide dedicated geniuses are significant too. That old saw about women (or people of color, or...)having to be twice as good to be considered half as good? That's a lot of wasted, unrecognized talent and effort. Wouldn't it be nice if that genius and special effort could be seen as just that, genius and special effort, not just equivalent to the work of ordinary (yet otherwise privileged) lazy schmoes?

It may well be that industry, in addition to wanting to preserve the status quo with regards to privilege, also wants to discourage people from seeing rewards in being anything other than ordinary and apathetic. Genius and dedication should not be seen as "freakish" qualities.

Down that path lie the big boxes and cheap mini-malls, after all.


Geez, that was long. I'm sorry; I got rant all over your blog! *blushes*

flem snopes

The pessimist sees the glass as half-empty.

The optimist sees the glass as half-full.

The engineer sees the glass as twice as big as it needs to be.

flem snopes, P.E. (Electrical)


Sadly, the example you used (Route 202 between Devon and King of Prussia) could be replaced by almost any location in southeastern Pennsylvania.

Allienne Goddard

Jeez, Lance, way to give in to the engineer lobby. Why isn't anyone brave enough to stand up against the identity politics of the engineers-are-people-too agenda? Who designs prisons, execution chambers, and bowling alleys? Engineers, that's who. I fear that in a few years, if we continue to cringe before these abominations, engineers will be allowed to marry each other. I think in some states they can already adopt children, whom they indoctrinate in their depraved discipline. I, for one, will never surrender to their immorality, and I'm disappointed you are so easily cowed.

On another note, it annoys me that you make such a point of defining yourself as a non-feminist because of what "many" feminists believe. Feminism has a long history of fighting for equal protection for women under the law, in the home, and in the workplace. If you agree with all of the effects of feminism, and I think you do, it makes no sense to denigrate the movement for the beliefs of some unnamed members of it. I am very angry at the success of the right-wing in redefining feminism as anti-male discrimination, and I'm saddened that you seem to agree with them.

I do understand that much of this is semantics, and that you are a decent guy. But you know that words matter, and should understand that allowing the terms "feminism", "liberal", and "civil rights" to be undermined does real damage to the ideas the terms represent. But, y'know, whatever.


S'ok, Rana, it made me click over to palimpsest to see what other forms of original thinking you were doing. ;)


(Be sure to visit again in a few days - I'm gearing up for a larger post this weekend, and this week's all over the map.)

Ken Muldrew

I actually got your point the first time. And I agreed with it completely. And I tried to respond in kind (joking-like, but with a (very) thinly veiled truth behind the point (kind of like that beer commercial where they show the scantily clad women and pretend that only a crummy tasting beer would have to show scantily clad women to sell their beer)). But I was overly terse and I used the unfunny term "drivel" and so came across as scolding and mean. I am sorry about that. But in an ironic kind of way, it suited the post, since so many of your other readers took your words to be mean.

Remember the second law of engineering (good, fast, cheap: pick any two) anytime you feel upset with the neglect of esthetics in an engineering project. The constraints are external, but an engineer must still abide by them. But beyond the finished product, there is beauty in the solution to a problem. All engineering is tinkering writ large. Even when the finished product is ugly, if it solves a non-obvious problem, then there is cleverness and ingenuity and one should never be blind to that.

Designers always want to start from a blank slate and redesign the chair. That's crazy thinking. Humans were finished with chairs thousands of years ago. New materials allow a bit of successive approximation, but it's really very little; everything else is mere ornament. Instead of trying to re-invent something that is obviously finished, they should re-visit process. Take an example of a functional, but ugly, product of engineering and find a way to make it more esthetically pleasing without compromising its functional integrity, without costing more or taking longer to build, and without requiring radical changes in training workers and re-tooling the manufacturing facilities. A designer must start by fully understanding the nature of workmanship, of craft, and of manufacturing before embarking on a design or else the end result of their design will be crap and we will have to settle for whatever the engineer delivers, because crap just doesn't work.

Anyway, do look me up if you ever make it out this way. Just West of Calgary, the landscape is truly stunning. One could spend a lifetime roaming about the Rockies and never get tired of the scenery. The city itself is just at the edge of the prairies, stretching East for 1000 miles. The prairies have their own charm and beauty, for sure, but it's more subtle, and a visitor is unlikely to discover that beauty unless somehow predisposed to it. The city itself is, well, perhaps not so much of an attraction. Historically it grew out of a frontier town and many are reluctant to let go of the mythology of the rugged individual who succeeds against all odds by hard work and strength of character. Wallace Stegner captured the inherent cruelty of this mythology perfectly in _Wolf_Willow_. He also captured beautifully the reasons why we cling to this mythology and use it to provide stories of good lives to be emulated. I think he also found beauty and oven-baked, windswept, hardpan hell on the prairies themselves, juxtaposing this contradiction in the natural world with those contradictions in frontier society that left such deep scars on his personality.

As Canadian cities go, this one is the least Canadian, and so not such a good choice for a tourist who wants to discover the essence of Canadian urbana (whatever that might be in a country that stretches 5000 miles across). We have an abundance of engineers here. ;-)


I am sad that you (and in many cases, our popular culture) have conflated what is actual general "feminism" with a very specific subset of feminists (who are actually mostly of earlier generations of feminists) who feel that having women involved with their supposed "different perspectives" will make things better, and therefore make that a goal unto itself. The "feminizing, civilizaing influence upon the public sphere" is such a dated idea that *it was one of the main rationals behind pushing for women's suffrage in many quarters*. In your example, *of course* a woman who is drawn to civil engineering is more like the men who are drawn to the field than some types of other women. This would be a textbook case of self-selection, even before the training that you mention as the reason that engineers think the same way. Most feminists these days simply want equal opportunities for every person to get involved in whatever they would like to get involved with, without the value judgment on women making the public sphere or the working sphere more civil. There are also feminists who push for more opportunities for everyone, men and women, in terms of flexibility, but sadly, the Right Wing has managed to associate the word so specifically with the idea that having a woman in charge would *always* be better that many people who have feminist views--like you--think that they are not feminists.


If only Aaron Sorkin was an engineer.

Henry Holland

Characters in novels, and movies and plays and poems and TV shows, should be assumed to be speaking for themselves

You might want to re-send that message to Aaron "Please dear God, don't ever let him near a TV set again" Sorkin, he seems to have missed it the first time.

I love your writing, Mr. Mannion, but what's up with the way you format your entries, i.e.

one sentence

and then

a paragraph break?

Is there a rule against paragraphs containing *gasp* four or five sentences in PA?


If you give an engineer a problem to solve she will solve it by engineering. Similarly, if you give a lawyer a problem to solve she will solve it through litigation and by writing new laws.

That's not exactly true. It's not that engineers will engineer or lawyers will use the law. It's that their training teaches them to use certain critical thinking skills more than others when they analyze problems and formulate solutions.

There are some good studies and fascinating literature about it. I'll email you an article if I can find it.


Henry, if you read the LA Times, you'd recognize this phenomenon as Bill Plaschke disease.

Gray Lensman

Engineers are responsible for thousands of useful, beautiful and ,most of all, affordable objects that you and I can purchase and enjoy. A '62 Ferrari 250GT coupe, a '56 Leica M3P camera, a '58 Gibson Les Paul Standard sunburst guitar are all extremely valuable now but in the year they were engineered and manufactured they could be purchased by almost anyone with a good job and the jones to obtain one. All three works of engineering design and manufacturing art are still very useable and treasured by the lucky owners. Absent talented engineers, all three objects would not exist.

I am not an engineer but engineers are some of my heroes.


What Kate said, and then some if I can figure out how to phrase it:

The problem implied when there are few female engineers (or what have you) is not that the world is missing out on desperately-needed engineering (etc.), or that all of that yang architecture will leave us bloodthirsty heathens because it lacks nurturing yin, or any of that as applicable.

No, what's implied when few women advance in a respected field is that a lot of people in said field are assuming that decent engineers (etc) must be male; or they're making it harder for the women they do let in - all of which suggests that they are not, in fact, dealing with each person as a You. Colloquially, they're being *jerks*.

Now, I myself have been a jerk. Plenty of us have. We learn to cope with each other, jerks that we are - but it tends to get under my skin more when a jerk tries to cover that perfectly normal behaviour with some scummy justification, thus becoming a *lying* jerk.

In this light, my being a feminist boils down to: 'If you're going to be a jerk, don't be a jerk to "a woman". Be a jerk to *me*.'


"That's the point behind pushing for more of [disadvantaged group x] in [field that has historically excluded x]. Partly, yes, it is to shake up the field a bit. But, more, it's to open the doors so that, if you do belong to a disadvantaged group, you don't have to be a thick-skinned genius freak to boot. It's about the right to be as ordinary, as normal, as the majority - the right to be, well, You."

But the reality we're now increasingly encountering is that the cause of the inequality in society isn't gender norms (though lord knows they're still very much there) or racial norms (though those are also still very much there), but rather the entire structure of the economy - that there are a very limited number of the jobs people want to do - doesn't allow people to be happy. And if there are only a limited number of positions (which is the case) then somehow most people are going to be denied them.

Even if we can agree that a hypothetical decision process is just (a large if), our society is still going to be making most people unhappy. I.E. even if all engineering or investment banking or CEO jobs were occupied by women exclusively, that wouldn't help the vast majority of other women. In fact, all those other women would probably suffer equally as during the previous time when their CEO's were exclusively male.

As basically Lance is arguing, the economic role is as important as the gender role.

A metaphor: there were a number of queens or rulers who ruled in ancient monarchic Europe (Tsar Catherine, Tsar Anne, Maria Theresa, Queen Elizabeth, Queen Maud, etc). None of these queens did much, if anything, that substantially improved the lives of the vast majority of their female subjects versus their male ones (i.e., some queens did improve the lives of all their subjects, but by doing the same things that a good king would do - win wars, obtain colonies, increase trade, make good laws, etc.). In fact, many of the queens were notably conservative or even despotic. None did much that democratized their realms. The problem was that their nations had a ruling monarchy, not that the monarchs were primarily men. Layering (admitedly limited) gender equality on top of an unjust system did not make substantively make that system better.

David W.

For some strange reason, I can't help but think that while the Roman Catholic Church would still be the Roman Catholic Church, it might make a little difference equality-wise if women were allowed to be Popes.

Bianca Reagan

Very good points, Allienne.


What burritoboy said. It annoys me to no end when people say crap like, "If only women ruled the world, there'd be no more war, blah, blah blah...."

Two words: Margaret Thatcher.

It's not feminism, it's teh stoopit.


About whether you are a feminist: Yes, You Are.


I'm just going to throw in this joke:

An engineer dies and reports to the pearly gates. St. Peter checks his dossier and says, "Ah, you're an engineer -- you're in the wrong place." So the engineer reports to the gates of hell and is let in. Pretty soon, the engineer gets dissatisfied with the level of comfort in hell, and starts designing and building improvements. After a while, they've got air conditioning and flush toilets and escalators, and the engineer is a pretty popular guy. One day God calls Satan up on the telephone and says with a sneer, "So, how's it going down there in hell?" Satan replies, "Hey, things are going great. We've got air conditioning and flush toilets and escalators, and there's no telling what this engineer is going to come up with next." God replies, "What?? You've got an engineer? That's a mistake -- he should never have gotten down there; send him up here." Satan says, "No way. I like having an engineer on the staff, and I'm keeping him." God says, "Send him back up here or I'll sue." Satan laughs uproariously and answers, "Yeah, right. And just where are YOU going to get a lawyer?"


I'm of two minds on this. Sometimes, you do get a different outlook on a profession by mixing in more "other" people. A good example are the scientists who observe higher forms of animal life, like the great apes. The influx of females in this profession has given us very different insights into how social groups of apes act, and challenged assumptions about dynamics between males and females.

On the other hand, the world would be better off if men and women could go into the professions for which they individually are best suited, because we would have more adroit, competent people in all the professions. Each person would match up to their skills and interests, and not our biased expectations of what career they should enter.


"Yeah, right. And just where are YOU going to get a lawyer?"

Assuming that the saints are in heaven, God has at least four lawyers at his disposal: St. Thomas More, who was the finest attorney of his day (Governor of Lincoln's Inn, Speaker of the House of Commons, High Steward of both universities of Oxford and Cambridge, Chancellor of Lancaster, Undersheriff of London); St. Raymond of Penafort (chair of law at University of Bologna and the greatest of all canonical law scholars); St. John of Capistrano (magistrate and governor of Perugia) and St. Yves, a prominent eccesliastic judge.

The Devil has Melvin Belli though, so the fight is at least fair.


Two and a half years later, and this discussion is still interesting. Kudos to Ken Muldrew for his critique, to you, Lance, for your response, and to your thoughtful commentators. Pardon the thread necromancy, but I couldn't let the discussion of ugly civil-engineered public structures stand without mentioning the civil engineer and educator whose work has brought the concept of "structural art" into both the art and the engineering curricula. In his 1983 book _The Tower and the Bridge: The new art of structural engineering_ Prof. David Billington argues that the most innovative and cost-effective designs are also the most beautiful. Well designed structures use materials efficiently; they are light and airy rather than heavy and thick. Without extraneous materials, the lines of force in well-designed structures are evident to the eye, bringing to mind the arcs of branches or fountains, the curves of bird-flight or the straight lines of spiderweb strands (tensile forces) or the trunks of tall trees (compressive forces) -- beautiful and efficient patterns in nature. Check out this article

and look up Robert Maillart, Christian Menn and Felix Candela to see beautiful, exciting structures achieved through engineering.

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