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If I Were A Boy: Being a Woman in Engineering

November 22, 2010

I’m a woman in engineering, and I’m happy!

My experiences as a woman engineering have been overwhelmingly positive.  I’ve only worked for medium/large companies, and overt discrimination is simply not tolerated.  My peers are used to working with women as equals, and with the older men, I feel like my age is more of a barrier than my gender.  I’ve felt very welcomed along the way, and overall, being a woman has probably helped me more than it has hurt me.

That being said, there still are some tough things about being a woman in engineering.  These are generalizations. They don’t apply to all women, and some can apply to men as well.  However, excluding generalizations, there’s not much to say about gender in my career.  And they all apply to ME.

But there are challenges. . .

Suspicion that you get special treatment “because you are a girl”

There are some white males who think reverse discrimination is a real issue, and the credit me getting scholarships or jobs to me being a woman.  It couldn’t POSSIBLY be because I deserved it more than them.  I noticed this attitude a lot more in the Midwest then here in California (or perhaps it is school vs. real life).  It is  hard to argue against, because there is a grain of truth in it.  While I didn’t get anything because I am a woman, I recognize that it is easier to stand out as a women.  There was a clear push to hire more (qualified and smart) women at my first company, and probably many companies.  However… that doesn’t mean I’m not the most qualified person.

Tip: There isn’t much you can do to convince these people.  Being a success is the best retort you have!  This seems to have faded the further I got from college.  You ABSOLUTELY should use the fact that you may stand out more to your advantage, but after that, you are on your own to prove yourself.

I represent “female engineers” and “female engineers” represent me

No, I don’t really.  But some people think that!  If a guy works with a crappy male engineer, he’s likely to think that guy is a crappy engineer.  If someone has a negative experience with a woman, he might subconsciously start to think “women are crappy engineers”.  While this is a very real issue, it is also very short lived, and I mostly mention it so you can have a comic or two with your post!

Tip: This certainly fades as people get to know you and your work, and the larger variety of talented women they work worth.  Again, your work and personality will speak for itself, and it really shouldn’t take that long.

Lack of Female Role Models

There have been no female role models for me as I’ve progressed in my career.  In college, every single one of my engineering professors were male.  Every “mentor” I’ve had in work environments has been male.  I do work with a few woman, but none that I want to model my career on.  There are opportunities to seek out female mentors (SWE, etc.), but natural mentorships don’t develop the same way they do with men.  For my whole life, I’ve had male role models to look up to, yet I never could quite picture myself in their lives.

Tip: Join women specific networking organizations. ( I should follow this one myself!)  I’ve heard arguments that your energy should be focused on networking with everyone in mixed organizations, but I think there is a real value in finding mentors, and mentoring others.

I’m More Cooperative and Less Combative

I argue my points very differently than (many of) my male coworkers.

They are much louder, much more forceful, and much less likely to shut up and listen.  They sound more certain of themselves, even if they are just talking off the top of their heads (or out of their asses). I’m more hesitant, and rarely talk over people.

I learned quickly on that I have to jump in and speak when there is a moment of silence, because no one is ever going to ask for my opinion.  Not because they don’t want to hear it, but because that’s not how it works – if you have an opinion, you share it without being asked!  I can argue more assertively, but I’ll never be as loud and forceful as they are.  I don’t want to be, because I don’t think it would be useful.  However, I do recognize that the sterotypically male behavior of blurting out opinions is more highly valued in the culture, so I try to move in that direction the best that I can. 

Tip: Sometimes I feel like my ideas aren’t taken as seriously (both because I’m young and because I’m female), and people like to do things the way they’ve always been done.  I’ve discovered the best way to get my ideas heard is to talk to one or two key people before hand.  If the idea is good, they are convinced before the meeting is even held, then it is easier to get everyone else on board.  If I can get one senior person and/or one loud arguer on my side in advance, I still have to argue for it, but I can let the guys do a lot of the talking over one another.

What About Moving Up?

I didn’t talk about how a woman moves from the technical side into management, because this isn’t the phase of my career I’m in.  It may not be a phase I ever WANT to go in.   Is there still a “boys club”?  Is there a glass ceiling?  How much harder is it for women?  I don’t know, but statistics most certainly show that is very difficult.

In Conclusion. . .

It is worth noting that I’m not even sure I would have chosen engineering if I were a guy.  Yes, the math, the science, the numbers are gender natural.   But the fact that being a woman going into engineer was unconventional was certainly part of the appeal.  I like to be mildly (but not completely) unconventional.    I don’t look nerdy at all (looks can deceive!), so it is fun to break two stereotypes at once.  (Engineer = nerdy guy.)

Overall, I think my industry is quite welcoming to women engineers, at least at this stage of my career.  There is generally good work/life balance and reasonably flexible hours.  I’ve only worked for medium/large companies, and they simply won’t tolerate discrimination.  Most things that work against me are the way girls tend to be socialized, and are not rules that I have to follow.  They are things I can choose to overcome.

“If I were a Boy” Carnival

This post is part of a series of bloggers sharing their candid experiences or observations about women in the workplace which is not at all meant to be a male-bashing expedition whatsoever.

Please head over to these other wonderful bloggers and read about their experiences.


24 Comments leave one →
  1. November 22, 2010 8:51 am

    Acting more like a man has helped in terms of personality. Speaking out more, talking confidently.. these are things women are not taught as little girls. Seen but not heard being the motto.

    What a great insight. Being a woman makes it easier to stand out, but being a young woman makes it harder to be taken seriously. I have to lie about my age sometimes or at least pretend I’m in my 30s.

    • November 22, 2010 9:54 pm

      Yeah, i definitely think age is at least as big of factor.

      I don’t want to “act like a man” all the time – I think a cooperative style is very very useful in actually getting things done. But men don’t necessarily recognize that, so it’s a constant balance!

      I went to these conference where some very very high powered CEOs were talking about leadership (CEO of yahoo, former ceo of xerox) and they said that once you reach the top, your sex falls away, and you are just a good leader (or not). But getting to the top… that is where the difficultly lies.

  2. Virginia permalink
    November 22, 2010 11:44 am

    I just found this website and look forward to reading it. I am also a woman in engineering and have found it to be very rewarding. I have heard that women tend to make salaries closer to their male counterparts in fields that are male dominated. I wanted to find the study so I could reference it but no luck.

    Congratulations on your career choice and keep up the good work!

    • November 22, 2010 10:09 pm

      I’ve heard that, but I also think it still isn’t 100% on par. I think this is mostly due to less ballsy negotiating, but perhaps some discrimination as well. I hate salary negotiations. I’m sure everyone does, but my husband randomly throws out numbers that he thinks he’ll get paid, and sometimes i think they are absurd! But he’s probably more right than I am.

  3. November 22, 2010 2:41 pm

    Wow..very perceptive, especially the part about one bad egg makings the rest of us look bad. I think that is also true of other minority groups as well.

    I’m also a female engineer and have had a great career as well.

    You may not be old enough to have experienced this, but something does change when you settle down and start having kids. You’ll start getting asked questions about “who’s the trailing spouse”. Many of the female execs I know have spouses with very flexible schedules who work for themselves (contractors, etc), or stay home with the kids. If you have a spouse that also has a career, that might be a bigger blow against your prospects than your gender.

    I think regardless of gender, it’s very difficult to get to an executive level without one spouse taking the back seat on their own career.

    The only time I experienced any kind of discrimination was when it was cultural in nature. In fact, it didn’t even occur to me why I was clashing so badly with this person because I had never experienced it before. (A great testament to my former company) Then, another female from his culture explained that the reason wasn’t listening to my suggestions wasn’t because of my crappy communication skills, but because I was a woman. Then when I looked at his background it made sense. We are good friends now so it’s all good.

    I didn’t find going into a male dominated work force at all intimidating either. When you’re outnumbered 5 to 1 in your engineering classes, by the time you’re out in the working world you’re used to it.

    Fun fun post. Thanks for writing. I only wish I could have been part of the carnival.

  4. November 22, 2010 8:56 pm

    How much do I love that our posts cover almost the same things? And I had both of those comics in my grad school binder – a reminder to work hard, not just for me, but for all the girls who come after me.

    I still hear about the “oh she flirts with the manager.” From other girls, even! Thanks for the slut shaming, ladies, you’re doing wonders for everyone!

    • November 22, 2010 9:57 pm

      Ug, it can be so annoying! But I think it is about 1 million times better than it once was, and I’m thankful for those that were before us!

  5. November 23, 2010 12:28 am

    I love your comics 🙂 I totally admire you for being a female engineer. It must have been tough not to have a female role model in your career field to go by. Perhaps the female engineers need to make a compilation of successful female engineers that can be circulated to engineering schools?

    I think the previous President of my University actually was a female engineer and she said the same thing in a bio of herself 🙂

    You’re right about sometimes guys talking out of their asses without thinking twice about the consequences of what comes out of their mouth. Though some women do the same too. It might be just a personality thing.

  6. November 23, 2010 1:01 am

    Jumping in with my opinion during a quiet moment is definitely something I’m learning to do in science as well-I usually like to think things over more before I speak, but I’m learning that sometimes it’s better to just get the thought out there (like my male coworkers, and my more bold female coworkers), and work out the details as the discussion continues.

    That’s not to say I blurt out every little thought that pops into my head, but I realized that I used to take a lot of ideas home with me, because I couldn’t work out every detail in time to share with the group, or felt too shy to share a different idea, and some of those ideas were probably good!

  7. November 26, 2010 2:21 pm

    Great article! I especially agree with your insights about having to put your opinion out there and some people generalizing about women based on your abilities/behavior. It sounds like you’re taking it all in stride though. I’d definitely try to find a female mentor, even if she’s not in your specific field. It can be really great to have a more experienced female to bounce ideas and experiences off of.

    • November 29, 2010 7:35 pm

      Taking it in stride is also kind of a girl thing, huh? Rather than “fighting” for things. I really need to be more proactive about mentors in general, but it is a little out of my element!

  8. Sara permalink
    December 28, 2010 12:47 pm

    I am fortunate to have many females, even top execs in my company who I can look up as a female engineer. My mentors also tend to be men, so I have gravitated towards SWE as an org that has helped me connect to some fabulous women who I trust to give me advice from a good place. I tend to be more aggressive in general, so while I will sit back for a while, I will also speak my mind as my male colleagues will. Be bold! There really is no harm in it, even though as woman we tend think every battle is important. Most males do not pay any attention to individual battles of will and won’t even keep the same tally as us. Take a read at Businessspeak (S.H. Elgin)and you will see many truths in that book, even though it is several years old.

    I too have found that being young is usually worse than being a woman engineer. Many times I have to tell my operators they are not old enough to be my father even though many do have children my age. It is true, even, as my father is 40 years older than I! I also look like I am still in college although I am in my 30s and have my PE. Continue to do a good job and be happy!

  9. December 28, 2010 2:13 pm

    I work in the construction industry and have had as many issues with my age as I have with my gender. I too work to be older, count my internships as work years of experience in conversations and forcably explain that this isn’t my first day out here.
    At 27, I spent a meeting on a job for a contract I was running watching the older male owner of another company respond to my questions by answering to my boss (an older male). At the break in negotiation, he inquired if I was enjoying my internship.
    I’ve had women undercut me and men ignore me. But normally it is a self-fufilling prophecy.. be “female” (cry, get emotional, appear wishy washy, talk about shoes) and people start to discount you. Be direct, hardworking,passionate without being emotional and people forget about age and gender.
    Besides, there’s nothing quite like being underestimated and proving how wrong they were.

    • liz permalink
      October 15, 2013 2:31 am

      Hi M,
      I empathize with your experience. I currently work in the steel fabrication industry. This is a shop environment, though most of the time is spent in meetings there is a good deal of shop/tradesperson interactions. (about 80/20 ratio).
      I am in my thirties and young looking and often get mistaken for a college student. There is very much underestimating my abilities, sexism, etc. I get along with 90% of the people I work with, but there are a few bad apples that feel this way and unfortunately try and influence their peers to feel the same way.

  10. February 20, 2011 3:16 pm

    I agree with a lot of what you are saying here. If you are the only girl in your engineering classes (which I am), it’s hard to not only do well, but keep yourself away from the female stereotype. However, I’ve been lucky to have a personality that allows me to get along with guys pretty well and to show them up in most cases. I totally agree that if you can act more like a guy in situations when you should, it helps with your colleague relationships and with how they respect you. I have found too that it is necessary to act like a girl in other situations. Some of them just need a girl’s intuition.

  11. Sammy permalink
    July 17, 2012 5:48 am

    I’m a female engineering student in first year and I can identify with the lack of female role models or influence in my studies in general. I am shy so being the only female, I feel like an outsider of the boy’s club. No one talks to me unless they have to. The isolation has affected my grades, I get performance anxiety and I feel like I’m being judged for being female. I have no one nearby to relate to! Next year, I plan to transfer to science. I guess I’ll keep programming as a hobby.

    • July 21, 2012 2:03 pm

      Sorry to hear that it has affected you so much that you can’t transfer. Are there no females, or perhaps a shy male, who might be your ally? I had a few close male friends in my program and there was one other girl that I got along with well. It actually was a lot easier in college than in the work place, because everyone was the same age and grew up mostly working with girls. Not that there weren’t jerks… but there were enough good ones.

      Anyway, good luck with whatever you do!


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