Women in Engineering – What? Really?!

August 10, 2012 — 3 Comments

(I encourage all readers of this post to also read my post on Empowering Women, which clarifies what I wrote here further.)

Every company has a special group (well, a few special groups sometimes) for Women Engineers. They’ve been around me a lot – everywhere. It needs to exist – it is mandatory for the morale, really.

So, when I got the first email at Google about a group for women engineers, it wasn’t surprising.  Maybe I should go to one of these. Maybe I will learn something and be inspired. Over the years, I’ve also had a few invitations to speak at some of these, which I’ve never accepted either.  I have nothing against these groups – just that it never climbed up high enough on my priority list to do it.

There is something about these groups that bother me at the corner of my brain and that is fundamentally the reason I have never put in an effort to be part of these. Are these groups making us women engineers look like we are crying out for attention? Are these “misery loves company” outlets? Are these indicating that we have a need to be treated differently? Or that we just need a venting outlet to deal with the male dominated engineering world?

I’ve always heard these rants from women on how it has been really tough to keep up with the men and be considered one of them. Someone once told me how women always have to rise up through the ranks and prove themselves out, sometimes by being note takers, in order for their potential to be seen. I feel for the women who feel this way, but I must say, as someone who has always been the “only woman in the team” and has constantly been surrounded by male engineers and managers, it’s not the only way. I find myself perfectly comfortable sitting in a room full of male engineers, many of whom I may have never met before. Or, presenting to an audience composed of hundreds of male engineers. Or, proposing projects in a room full of senior management people, where the only women are in non-engineering management. It always comes down to the confidence you can feel deep inside and whether you, as the woman, think of it as a problem in your head. I never felt it was necessary for me to start out as a note taker in order to be taken seriously or for my comments to be heard. I have paid my dues as any other engineer, but nothing that I felt was specifically attributed to my gender.

That is what I think is my fundamental problem with these groups. No question I’ve had my share of feeling the gender issues – aside from some crazy managers that have come along my way, the shift in conversation style the moment I enter a room full of otherwise male engineers has not gone unnoticed. Or, having that uncomfortable moment in leading a bunch of senior, (male) engineers.

At the end of the day, I prefer being one of the group, not discriminating myself in my own head in ways that will interfere with my confidence or my ability to lead, learn or deliver anything. There is a rush that comes with execution that speaks for itself that does not come with any type of gang chanting of the female mantra, at least for me. I’m sure there will be many more crossroads where I need to make the choice on whether to join these supportive women-in-engineering (or pick-your-favorite-discipline) groups.  I feel like a jerk ignoring them and I feel needy embracing them – but, hopefully I will figure it out one of these days!

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3 responses to Women in Engineering – What? Really?!

  1. 

    Hi Vidya,

    Interesting blog post. You do somehow echo my feelings from a long time ago. However over the years my perspective has changed a lot. Women still remain a minority in the fields of science and engineering. You mention being the only woman in talks and conferences (which is often the position of us women in research), are you not concerned about changing this ratio a little? Get more women in science? Although you have been confortable and confident talking to groups of people irrespective of their gender, do you think all women out there share the same level of confidence that you exude? And if not everyone is this way, is it not our responsibility to help them believe in themselves?

    There is probably a reason why there are specialized conferences, groups and associations for women in science and engineering. It is not to vent about the multifarious tasks that todays woman does, or to discuss recipes or scrapbooking. It is about a simple fact that the life and problems of women are different from men. I hardly see any men leaving their jobs, to take care of their children full time, or even taking long enough paternity leave. Do you know that ratio of women getting a PhD (in any field) vs men getting a PhD? Women have been stereotyped, typecasted, and been discriminated against from the very beginning – with society promoting “disney princesses” to men preferring simple delicate women for wives, as opposed to strong career women.

    I believe it is a moral obligation of women like you and me, who have crossed these boundaries – without realizing that there were ever boundaries – to go out there and let other women know that it can be done. Let them know that it is ok to stand up for yourself and believe in yourself enough to follow your dream.

    -Rutu

    • 

      Interesting comments, Rutu and I agree with many things you say. I would love to encourage more women to drop the barriers and get professional degrees and careers. I have to admit that I don’t myself know exactly what is the right balance between careers and family responsibilities and often struggle with that. The main thing about the women-in-engineering or other such women groups that are part of big corporations though, is that it is composed of women that already have professional careers and have crossed some (if not many) of the barriers you describe. Motivating students or upcoming women to be more independent and confident is definitely something all of us should be doing, no doubt!

  2. 

    hit the nail on the head, Vidya.

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