A Double Standard for Women Engineers?

When male scientists posed half-naked for a calendar in the 1990s they got kudos; now that female engineering students have done the same, they face recriminations

4 min read

In 2004, two years after earning her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Illinois, Jennifer Wood was sitting in a bar with a male friend, also a mechanical engineer from UI, when the conversation turned to attractive women.

”People automatically kind of discount their intelligence, stereotyping them as idiots,” she recalls saying. ”We wanted to change that.”

Two years later, in Chicago, they decided to do something. Wood and her friend—who’s just taken a job with a major manufacturer and wishes to remain anonymous—rounded up people with the necessary creative skills, in photography, makeup and Web design. They found a manager willing to put up the required capital. Then they used Facebook, the online repository of portrait photos of U.S. college students, to recruit female engineering majors at their alma mater, in Urbana-Champaign. The result was ”Girls of Engineering 2007,” a calendar graced by a dozen young women in various states of undress. One appears to have nothing but a textbook between her breasts and the camera.

The calendar came out too late for the fall selling season, and the partners, awash in unsold calendars, had a falling out, only partly remedied by a late-breaking wave of publicity that melted away the overstock. It came from a reportin the university paper, the Daily Illini , which sparked additional coverage in the Chicago Sun-Times . Soon their story was all over the Internet.

In March a blogger at Playboy.com paid the calendar a backhanded compliment. ”Are these girls knockouts?” he asked. ”Not really, but they are the total package: pretty and smart.”

The partners split up, with Wood moving to Colorado to pursue a 2008 calendar that would feature young women from other engineering schools, including MIT, Purdue, Stanford and the Colorado School of Mines.

On one matter, though, the partners still see eye-to-eye: they did not exploit their models.

Wood maintains that her purpose was not to use stereotypes but to challenge them. ”To me, as a woman, I think it’s more degrading to not express yourself, to not be open, than to show off your body or be confident,” she says.

Syed Karim, a major in social entrepreneurship at Lake Forest College, in Illinois, who put up the $4000 needed to print the calendar, says that the models posed of their own free will. He adds, ”I’ve received five e-mails from female engineers, all very positive.”

Ask the models themselves, though, and their silence is eloquent. IEEE Spectrum e-mailed 11 of the 12 young women, but only one answered, a 20-year-old mechanical engineering major. Even she asked that her name not be revealed. She said she’d agreed to participate in the project mainly to contradict the stereotype of women in engineering.

”Most of the time when I talk to people and I tell them I’m in engineering, I can feel them treating me as one of ’those nerds,’ ” she says in an e-mail. ”When people think of engineers, they always think of something along the lines of, ’stay in their own cell, never go out to meet anyone, never do anything for fun, their life revolves around a computer�.’ For a female engineer it is even worse.”

She makes a point of contrasting her ”nerdy moments” with such out-of-the-cubicle interests as playing guitar and drums, writing music, painting and sculpting, riding in bicycle motocross, surfing, wrestling, and hiking in her home country of New Zealand. Nevertheless, she says that she had hoped to show not just her beach-bunny side but also her engineering persona, and it didn’t happen.

”To be honest, I am disappointed in the outcome of the calendar,” she says. ”The maker had a very sound concept to start with. However, when the focal point is sex instead of intelligence, the calendar itself lost its meaning. It is now another Playboy -ish calendar, with amateur models that happen to be in engineering.” She said she preferred a similar project at MIT for putting more stress on engineering and less on cheesecake.

Spectrum got no replies to repeated requests for comments from the Society of Women Engineers, in Chicago, nor from a number of female professors of engineering.

All this reticence comes as no surprise to Karen Hopkin, author of the calendar that appears to have started it all—”Studmuffins of Science.” During its two-year run in 1996 and 1997 it featured scantily clad male Ph.D.s from a variety of fields, and it garnered so much success and so little acrimony that Hopkin considered extending the brand to women scientists. There, however, she hit a wall.

”Whereas hundreds of guys had sent in pictures, I got maybe four women,” says Hopkin, herself a Ph.D., in biochemistry, and a science writer for the National Institutes of Health. ”And they all accompanied their photos with several-page letters saying that they liked my idea but needed to know what I was doing. It had to be tasteful; they didn’t want to jeopardize their careers.”

The men hadn’t minded at all. One did tell her that he’d been a bit worried to see his calendar photo mixed in among his journal articles during his final interview for academic tenure, but then the department head slapped him on the back and told him it was okay. Another, a cover model, credited the calendar with introducing him to his future girlfriend. Hopkin concluded that men have less to fear from exposing themselves, both literally and figuratively.

She says she supports the Illinois calendar project completely, that it’s great to let people know that engineering and science ”can be done by women, and by good-looking, sexy women.” The problem, though, is that just about any woman with a Ph.D., well along in her career, will shy away from what to an undergrad might seem merely a lark.

”I never felt I could get a real scientist to do it,” she says. ”I don’t believe I could get any woman scientist, with a Ph.D.—some nice, hot, assistant professor—to pose with a textbook propped up against her breasts.”

This article is for IEEE members only. Join IEEE to access our full archive.

Join the world’s largest professional organization devoted to engineering and applied sciences and get access to all of Spectrum’s articles, podcasts, and special reports. Learn more →

If you're already an IEEE member, please sign in to continue reading.

Membership includes:

  • Get unlimited access to IEEE Spectrum content
  • Follow your favorite topics to create a personalized feed of IEEE Spectrum content
  • Save Spectrum articles to read later
  • Network with other technology professionals
  • Establish a professional profile
  • Create a group to share and collaborate on projects
  • Discover IEEE events and activities
  • Join and participate in discussions