If I Were A Boy: Being a Woman in Engineering
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.
- Jacq of Single Mom Rich Mom — Accounting, 40s
- Fabulously Broke in the City — Consulting, 20s
- Stacking Pennies — Engineering, 20s
- Musings of an Abstract Aucklander — Publishing, 20s
- Little Miss Moneybags — Publishing — 20s
- Dog Ate my Finances
- Young and Thrifty — Public Sector, 20s
- Paranoid Asteroid
- Insomniac Lab Rat — Science, 20s