Sexual Stereotypes and Stereotyping

Sexual Stereotypes and Stereotyping

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Sexual Stereotyping: False Preconceptions and False Conclusions in Blaming Technology

  In an excerpt titled "The Feminist Face of Antitechnology" from his 1981 book Blaming Technology, Samuel C. Florman explains why he thinks so few educated women in modern society are engineers.  The excerpt was written shortly after he had visited an all-female liberal arts school, Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, to convince a few young women to become engineers.  His mission failed and his essay makes clear why he had such trouble.



Florman has more than one idea as to why young, educated women shy away from engineering as a career option.  First, he notes that America has inherited much of its culture from England, where engineering has not been considered a high-class occupation.  This is apparently so because engineering did not fully separate from craftsmanship until the mid-nineteenth century.  Florman claims that most young, male engineers come from lower- and lower-middle-class families.  He also claims that most young women who are educated in math and science come from middle- and upper-class families.  For this reason, Florman explains that educated women generally see engineering as being below their social class, and therefore do not pursue it as an option.  He supports his position with a story about how Herbert Hoover, after a long conversation, told a woman that he was an engineer and how she responded,  "Why, I thought you were a gentleman!"1  Florman then turns to the feminists and asks why they haven't taken the lead in changing this situation.



 Florman's main argument against the feminist movement is that it is fueled by a greed for power.  He suggests that women, especially feminists, are attracted to perceivable power, or power which is obvious to the cultural eye.  They want to become doctors, lawyers, and politicians.  The desire for power is also intimately connected with social class, according to Florman.  He sees this as one of the major reasons as to why so few women seek out engineering: they see it as a career without power.  Florman sees women as being "a lot more interested in the privileges than in the responsibilities."  According to him, the "ultimate feminist dream will never be realized as long as women would rather supervise the world than help build it."  Until women strive to understand the technology around them, and help to create it, they will always suffer.

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The biggest problem with Florman's argument lies in his perception that educated women lust for power.  According to him, to hold power is to have class, and to have class is to hold power.  This may be true in what we as a nation see on the television and in the news, but it is not appropriate to make this broad generalization here.  He also says that young, educated women are deserving of credit for not having been fooled into thinking that engineering holds power.  Is this to say that men are not deserving of credit for having chosen professions in engineering?  Another major problem in his argument lies within his claim that women almost exclusively want to be coordinators, critics, manipulators, and supervisors.  Florman's view is skewed by some of his own prejudices.  He discards the old ideas of sexual stereotyping as being stale, but it is exactly these ideas that lie at the heart of the problem.  Women either feel intimidated by the men in technical fields or they have learned from early on that they are not good at math or science.



The link between social class and the desire for power suggested by Florman is misleading.  Social classes may once have been driven by the desire to perpetuate power, but this argument should focus on issues at hand today.  Many families that raise the qualified women are not obsessed with perceivable power.  They are middle to upper-class families because the parents worked hard to provide financially for themselves and their children.  They did not work hard so that they could provide their children with power.  The families that seek power in the national eye are a very small percentage of our population.  The classic "American dream" is to be able to provide for your family without struggling day to day and ideally to be able to do it better than the previous generation.  It is not to take power for the sake of holding power.  To say that educated women are not interested in engineering because their middle- to upper-class families think that engineering holds no power is definitely stretching the issue.  The relation between social class and perceivable power today is not strong enough to make this argument.



Florman not only makes the argument discussed above, he says that the feminists "should by now have taken the lead in changing this situation, encouraging the elite among educated women to reevaluate their social prejudices."  He also says that until the upper class accepts engineering as a career, and the lower class strives to study science, engineering will remain mostly male.3  First of all, who's to say that the feminists even recognize that social class is part of the problem in engineering?  Social class is not part of the problem.  If it were, there would be a certain social class from which most of the small number of women in engineering comes, and that is not the case.  The small number of women in engineering cannot be attributed to that fact that upper-class women do not choose a career in engineering.  By the same logic, there would be a small number of men from upper-class families in engineering.  Yes, the number of men in engineering that came from upper-class families may be less than those from lower-class families, but it is not enough of a difference to be able to distinguish and identify a pattern.



Florman's focus on feminists and some comments in his essay hint at his own prejudices.  First of all, he wrote this essay shortly after failing to convince some young women from a liberal arts college to become engineers.  He should have been ready for failure.  He would have had a hard time convincing young men from a liberal arts college to become engineers.  The fact is that these people have already chosen their general focus in school, and it has as little to do with math and science as possible.  Florman identified the problem incorrectly.  He saw the young women as being too "ladylike" to become engineers.  "It's simply not their style."4  He failed to see them for what they were: liberal arts majors.


Florman also dismisses the standard explanations of sex role socialization, and sex stereotyping where girls are taught to play with dolls and focus on communication and boys are taught to play with trucks and focus on math.  He claims that these explanations are "stale."5  Such stereotyping may not be as obvious as it was many years ago, but it is certainly not dead.  Deep-rooted stereotypes do not come and go so easily.  Ignoring a social problem is equivalent to condoning it.  In his essay, Florman quickly passes over the idea that sexual stereotyping is the problem and quickly focuses on the feminists.  In blaming them for not fixing the problem, he unfairly lets the rest of society off the hook: we, as a society, must address these dangerous stereotypes.  Florman suggests that only feminists play a role in the career choices that women make.  Since the preschool sandbox, we have all been witness to the stereotypes we as gender groups impose on one another.  Did the feminist revolution of the Sixties change all that?  No way.  Cultural stereotyping plays a larger role in discouraging women from becoming engineers than does social class or perception of power.  Take for instance the Barbie doll that says, "I hate math!" when poked in the stomach.  Our society has taught in the past, and continues to teach today from early on, that girls are not good at math or science.  The lack of women in engineering is direct evidence of this.  Women do not shy away from engineering because they think that it is powerless or below their class; they shy away because they see engineering as being beyond their capabilities.



Florman's view on this debate is skewed by his own stereotypes.  His false preconceptions lead him to false conclusions.  The feminists are not so consumed by the desire to hold perceivable power that they are ignoring the lack of women in engineering.  And social class is not to blame for that lack, either.  If any one thing is to be blamed for this, it is the social stereotyping that Florman dismisses as being stale.





1.  Florman, Samuel C.  "The Feminist Face of Antitechnology," Blaming Technology: The Irrational Search for Scapegoats (New York: St. Martin's, 1981); reprinted in Science and Technology Today, ed. Nancy R. Mackenzie (New York: St. Martin's, 1995): 240.


2.  Florman 243-45.


3.  Florman 239-40.


4.  Florman 239.


5.  Florman 240-41.



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