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On being a woman in engineering (again)

July 24, 2019

I’ve worked in engineering for about 12 years now, excluding the one year I tried out business consulting.  All and all, it has been a positive experience, with my most recent job being the best.

Currently, I work with some of the most forward thinking and liberal-minded people in the world.  Most of my work takes place in very liberal  and diverse geographic areas that attract open-minded personalities.

I have a nice selection of female role models. Several leadership positions on my long-term project are women, with women regularly leading up highly technical efforts as individual contributors.  Many of these women have families and children.  The men who with young children frequently mention family related commitments, from being home with a sick kid to having to leave early for some kid event. The work culture is respectful that people have lives outside of work – kids or something else.

I often observe male colleagues acting as advocates/allies during meetings, proactively affirming points made by teammates (including women), and amplifying and giving credit for repeated ideas. I’ve heard people use phrases like “I want to amplify what ___ said”, which are the types of things you might read in a blog post on how to be an ally. There usually is not an argumentative style when vetting ideas.  Instead,  people are supportive and respectful of each other’s positions, even when presenting conflicting ones. This is notably different than the one of the projects I worked on at my Fortune 50 engineering job, where colleagues would have “friendly” technical arguments in a style I have a hard time matching. (I can do it if I have to, but it makes me frustrated and impatient because it seems more about bravado and personality than technicalities.)

Jerks are not tolerated, at least not for long. I had a run-in with an asshole a couple years back. He’d ignored several polite emails, so I followed up when I caught him in person. He basically blew up at me and claimed he’d given me all the information I needed. He was extremely rude, condescending, and utterly unhelpful.  His boss was careful to take me aside, captured the incident for records, and let me know this guy was a serious problem they were actively working to replace him. I wouldn’t have thought to raise this incident to anyone (“dealing with it” is expected), but my lead happened to overhear him and flagged the event. It made me feel safe and supported to know leadership didn’t consider rude behavior to be acceptable. This guy was an indiscriminate jerk to men and women alike, but proactively dealing with assholes contributes to healthy culture overall. How women act within their industry can be the canary in the coal mine.  I don’t think of it as a woman-friendly culture, but rather a human-friendly culture.

My smaller project at work last year was lead up by a young woman, who is a fantastic leader and role model. The two of us together were in charge of the project (with her being the ultimate authority), and we were both in varying stages of pregnancy for the culmination of the project. That wouldn’t have happened 20 years ago.

My latest project is headed by a young enthusiastic white guy, with an older experienced (extremely talented) white guy as the project manager. Still, the team is filled with technical women doing various leadership tasks, and the team culture is the tolerant, positive, and welcoming.

I intend to write separately about my experience being a working parent thus far.  The short version is that my work has been extremely supportive, despite the systemic issues with the lack of support for early parenthood on a broader level in this country.

All of this is to say that my experience as a woman in engineering has been overwhelmingly positive, particularly in my current job. I might have encountered more frustration had I stayed on a more traditional corporate path, or maybe I would have found a good team there. The path I’m on right now pays a bit less, in no small part due to the better culture and better work life balance.  This absolutely is worth it to me, but there is a cost for taking a job with temporal flexibility.

Is your field dominated by men or women, or relatively equally?  How about at leadership levels?  Is your work culture friendly to humans?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 25, 2019 4:32 am

    Your company sounds like a dream! That’s awesome you’ve found such a supportive environment to work.

    Both companies that I’ve worked for were heavily male, and there were very few to no women in any kind of top ranking position. In my last job, my grandboss (VP level) was a woman and that was really amazing to see, so our department was near gender parity. But engineering? C suite? Oof. The culture was always polite and felt less gendered than my time in consulting, but still there was that constant “I’m more technical than you are” machismo and shuffling all the admin work to women.

  2. July 25, 2019 8:12 am

    This warms my heart! I work in a female-dominated workplace (public library) that is also supportive of work-life-family balance. Since men are so outnumbered, a “male” style of doing business has no chance of success. We do have a couple of male managers who try to hire more men, as if they were an employment equity group (ha!) The culture is supportive at the management level. I do think the managers and supervisors could do more to combat negativity, gossip and bullying. But they have made a start.

  3. Jane permalink
    July 25, 2019 12:50 pm

    This was wonderful to read and so encouraging. My career (1965-2005) in Engineering & Computer Sci was not like that but this is what I hoped and worked to have exist in the future. Thank you for sharing. Progress brings hope.

    • July 28, 2019 4:49 pm

      I will say I think it is very much not the norm. I think things are better in general, but there are tons of places that are not good.

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