Monday, March 24, 2014

Perspectives from a Female Engineer

Though I hardly paid any attention to being specifically a 'female' engineer while I was at school or in the workplace, I realized my perspective on the topic might be helpful to someone, particularly since I never even considered the thought of being an engineer even once until the month before I started college. Maybe (hopefully) the situation has drastically changed by now, but up through high school, I didn't even really know what an engineer was; if someone would have asked me, I would have probably said a train operator. ;p  So, how can you know what you want to be when you grow up if it isn't even on your radar?

I was always proficient at math and science, but was the only one in my senior year high school math class who didn't initially sign up for a field trip to tour the engineering school at my local university. When I realized that everyone in the class was going on the day, I think I decided, 'why not?' & scrambled to get on the bus after all. I had been interested in just about everything at school but had no particular career path in mind. (Unfortunately, I was too scared of being an entrepreneur at the time, so never considered you could potentially forge a responsible career for yourself in something like writing or photography. Another blind side on the ol' radar, for another post …)

But anyway, I realized that the engineering degree plan looked essentially like my standard high school class schedule. And also, almost all of the classes were mapped out (only two or three elective slots the entire four years). Since I was bewildered at how to put together my college class schedule to work towards a degree, I found the defined plan of the engineering curriculum a relief. I thought there was no reason I couldn't give it a try to see what happened. By that time, I had figured out electrical engineers did things like work on computer chips. The Pentium had just hit the market and I thought it would be really cool if I could work on something like that one day. (And six years later, I found myself doing exactly that. :)

Being Female in a Mostly Male Workplace

The first class I took where I was the lone female among a classroom full of guys, I quickly realized that if I did the work and showed I wasn't getting any special handouts, the topic of gender in the engineering environment was absolutely a non-issue. I was a bit nervous initially, thinking I might be belittled or bullied or something, but I can't even say I noticed a hint of any negative undercurrent related to me being female at all. Discussions almost always centered around some sort of problem solving with everyone focused on the task at hand. That continued straight through from college, grad school, and into the workplace.

I think there was one comment in my 18 or so years in an engineering environment where one person asked me something about my hair after a meeting. (In a nice way, just totally off topic.) It actually threw me for such a loop that I probably paused for several seconds honestly trying to figure out what language he was speaking. ;p I was probably thinking through all the engineering acronyms to figure out what something called H.A.I.R. might be, and what it had to do with our project. Ha, ha. So yeah, while on the job, very rare to be talking to fellow engineers about anything other than engineering, in my experience.

The only real effect I noticed about being the lone female in a room full of engineering guys is you stand out more. I suppose that is added pressure. Sometimes it's fun: unexpected people wave hi to you as they pass by & you're pretty sure they are in your class or on your team, but can't place them, so you just wave hi right back (and try to remember more people for next time). On the other hand: I was highly motivated to be as useful & sharp as possible which I think did take a hidden toll, but that was my issue, nothing anyone else did or said. (I was the kind of person who would have thought a 'C' was failure, an indication I was on the wrong track, but most of the guys would probably have interpreted a 'C' as 'average', and continued on with no problem.) I suppose in an age where some extra scholarships were preferentially given to females, I was highly motivated to show that my grades were what got me there, not any special favors.

The Worst

I can honestly say that the worst treatment I ever received as a female in the field of engineering was from a women's support organization: WISE (I think it stood for Women In Science and Engineering). I was usually so busy through college that I didn't even think to join any special groups outside of class, until the last few months before graduating when I'd heard a recommendation to join this women's organization which was offering $500 for being in their program. Since it involved attending a few meetings, writing a few essays, and doing some outreach, I thought: Why Not? So, I completed all their checklists and received a mock $500 check at the final banquet where they touted my academic accomplishments as if they were their own, and then … they of course refused to honor the check, quoting (rather hostilely, I might add) some bureaucratic mumbo jumbo. They were just using me. What a waste of time and human spirit. And I had been banking on that $500 to buy supplies for grad school, too ... sigh. I would not recommend any fake support groups to anyone in college. Just do the work to develop your own character and capabilities, because that's all you need to apply for grad school, or a job, or anything really.

Actually, there was one other bad situation at work where a creepy old guy sent me an offensive email; but I replied via email (so it was on record) telling him not to ever contact me again, and that was the end of that. I think there are a few guys from older generation who are honestly bewildered to see a female in engineering, but if they comment at all, it's usually something like: "Golly Gee Willikers, a female in engineering? Never would've thought it." Which is totally benign: amusing actually. It's as if they honestly can't believe their eyes.

The younger guys don't even seem to give it a second thought. (Now, there are definitely some jerks out there, but I'm not counting them as part of this blog topic if they're jerks to everyone.) Maybe I was fortunate, or just listened to my gut to maneuver myself into good teams, but most of the people I worked with were absolute gems. Many became good friends. (I still remember going to see the Ballet around Christmas one year with about four engineering guys. Looking back on that, it's kind of funny, but at the time, it just seemed like hanging out with my work buddies.)

Summing It Up
So, if you're wondering what it's like being a female in the technical field of engineering, I've found that if you just do the work helping to solve problems, the guys are happy to see you. If anything, you're just changing things up a bit to make it interesting. That's my experience anyway (in both electrical and computer science engineering). One caveat is that I always steered away from management positions (which may be a different story); the politics of it just never interested me at all. There might be some lingering machismo good 'ol boys attitude in upper management, but since I have no experience there, so it's not fair to comment. I was always interested in solving technical problems, so kept maneuvering 'sideways' in my career to keep learning new technical skills (probably not to the benefit of $$, but certainly for my soul). It's just what I was drawn to.

But in general, if you've never considered engineering as a career option, know that the coursework in college is essentially just an extension of high school. If you can do it there, you will most likely have no extra troubles with it in college. Engineering is basically a big vocabulary lesson; after that, it's common sense and problem solving, as with any career, I suspect. And if you know someone who might be intimidated at the prospect of being a lone female engineer in a room full of guys working on a technical problem, in my experience, it's all about the work and nothing about appearances. As it should be. Go humans!

Blog Post by Laura A Knauth

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