Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Population Genetics Not So Hot

As many of you know, professionally, I'm an electrical engineer, not a population geneticist.  I happen to work in an area of electrical engineering where a background in physics also comes in handy.  Over the years, I've experienced the culture in both electrical engineering and physics.  I also happen to have spent four years in the Canadian Air Force working as a program manager for the F-18 fighter aircraft in Ottawa, Ontario and Cold Lake, Alberta.  I'm pretty comfortable working in fields where there are few women.

In these fields, I can remember times when I've been told things like "you shouldn't be here", or "women can't be geniuses so you shouldn't be here", or "women don't have spatial ability so they can't do" whatever.  I've been told by several professors that I couldn't do graduate level work, even though I had obtained an A+ in their class.  Somewhat amusingly, I've also been told that I should have gone into software, rather than hardware, because women are naturally good at software and not hardware.  I've also been told, emphatically, by a woman professor no less, that biology is better for women, as opposed to physics and engineering.

When I was younger, it seemed odd to me that many of the things I wasn't supposed to be able to do, with some practice, turned out to be not so difficult.  As I got older, I realized that assumptions about human capability are, more often than not, quite underestimated.

In engineering, I can say that I've rarely experienced overt hostility.  Most men have been curious, wondered if I was going to be able to hack it, yet have often been happy to be able to talk to a woman about their passion.  Perhaps this is because of the general level of competence of electrical engineers and physicists.  It probably doesn't hurt that there's a standardizing body for EEs, the IEEE.

One of the things I've also enjoyed about electrical engineering is that it is rather apolitical.  Many electrical engineers are quite altruistic.  It's also a very international field and as a result, I've met people from all over the world.

As I've worked on this blog, I've had a chance to poke around in other fields such as population genetics.  Maybe it is just because of the anonymity of the Internet, which fosters bad behavior, but I have to say that my experience as a women writing this blog has certainly darkened my perspective on this field.   It appears to be rife with people who have an axe to grind.  There seems to be a lack of standardization on basic skills or methods, and little effort to ensure that best methods are used.  I can't ever remember any of my professors in electrical engineering or physics allowing their students and post docs to participate in an anonymous online forum related to their research that excludes and berates women.

In its current state, I can't say that I would recommend this field to any young person, male or female.

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