At the airport in January, preparing to fly for eight hours from Detroit to London for study abroad.

Over three months ago, on a dark rainy night, I arrived in Swansea, Wales with two huge suitcases of almost everything I owned. After an hour of running around in the dark with luggage, I finally figured out how to pick up my keys and move into my current home. It took some adjustment to get used to study abroad, which I expected. However, I was unprepared for the adjustment of a friend who had also come from Illinois to Swansea with me.

In January 2012, I decided that I wanted to study abroad in January 2013. Instantly, a good friend and fellow chemical engineer decided that she wanted to study abroad as well and would come with me wherever I went. Together, we planned our study abroad experiences for January 2013 here in Swansea, already discussing the three week spring break we would do together as a tour of Europe. At the same time, we continued to take the same classes together and also decided to live in an apartment together for the academic year of 2013-2014 with two of my best friends.

After arriving in Swansea, all of my careful planning quickly dismantled itself. My friend and I adjusted in our own separate ways to the United Kingdom. We settled into different methods of thinking and dealing with our new situations which we believed to be the “right” and “correct” way so that we failed to understand the other person. Sadly, both of us thought more highly of ourselves than of each other. This led to a lot of disagreements between us that unfortunately poisoned our friendship. I did not go on a grand tour of Europe with my friend for spring break nor will I be living with her next semester because we must now work to salvage our friendship as much as possible.

This sad personal story brings me to what, in my opinion, is one of the largest problems facing women in engineering today: Women react in unhealthy ways to competition and are more emotionally vulnerable to it. Women are catty and hold on to grudges a little too well. In my case, my friend and I competed over which method was the “best” way of living the study abroad experience. Generally men are more prone to reacting to an insult physically, exchanging a few blows and then making up the next day. Women, on the other hand, remember when someone wounds their pride all too well for weeks and make use of opportunities to exact revenge in a spiteful manner. This is a stereotype and not always the case, but it’s also mostly true.

Illinois’s 2011-2012 Society of Women Engineering Team Tech, a group of engineers who compete in a design competition that fosters healthy rivalry among women.

Engineering is a competitive program. In order to receive an A while studying at Illinois, 80% of my class has to perform poorer than I do. Being an out-of-state student on academic scholarship, I especially feel the weight of this competition and the pressure to perform. I also must confess to feeling a little¬†schadenfreude when the girls who always talked behind me in my first college chemistry class dropped the class because it was too challenging for them. Competition is currently necessary in order to make the engineering curriculum function and it’s necessary in life as well. However, it fails to encourage women to pursue engineering because the competition in engineering can cause resentment and destroy friendships, especially for women.

Should girls and boys be educated separately in math and science? I don’t think so. I’m a staunch promoter of gender equality, outside and inside the classroom. That being said, girls and boys do think and approach problems differently. Girls and boys place different values on different things. Engineering is dominated by men so it is designed to accommodate their method of thinking more than women’s. In order to promote engineering to women, I believe engineering needs to design its sense of competition to be appealing to both men and women without causing the social strain I’ve experienced recently.

This post is part of the Woman in Engineering category to be used in a future ethnography. These posts reflect feelings and experiences from a student, not concrete truth and hypotheses.

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