Guest Post: My Experience as a Female Engineer
Written by: Ashley
A couple of weeks ago I had one of those weeks where I burned out on the Boys Club. By the end of it I am not proud to say I was a crabby mess who just wanted to get away from work. The odd part about this was it had been a great week. I finished my first semester of my masters degree, had a fantastic performance review, and things were really going well. I absolutely adore my job, and cannot see myself working anywhere else. I just needed a break from the boys.
There are days when being the only woman in my lab is like being slapped in the face over, and over again. There is no blatant sexism, there are just the little things that seem to pile up and that week the bucket overflowed.
Ever been ogled during a data review where you are just trying to do your job? Yep, twice in a week. I made my lead go with me to the second data review since it was uncomfortable. Thankfully data reviews with that group are less frequent.
Ever had someone wave, walk right by, start to leave the room, then see your coworker and comment, “oh, so there is someone who can help me!” This was concerning things that were more in my realm too. My coworker did not even bother to send them my direction.
Ever had people listen to you pitch slides but when questions arise they address them to your coworker? My coworker was only there to see what went on in data reviews. I was the “expert” in my system.
Ever had a vendor refuse to introduce himself to you after introducing himself to all your coworkers? The vendor then proceeded to pitch his product while refusing to look me in the eye. I walked away halfway through the pitch realizing it was a waste of my time. My coworkers were all highly impressed by the vendor; I thought he was a jerk. I never want to buy products for him.
These are just some of the little slaps to the face. I have learned to tolerate most of them while working to change the tides. “Quit being such a girl about it” has already been removed from the collective vocabulary in the lab. I am still working on many other things. The other day I did something right and was given a “good girl.” Had my jaw not been busy falling to the floor I would have replied with the fact that I was not a dog. That winning line came out of the mouth of the person who has stuck up for me the most.
When backing people up for operation support I have forced myself to stand up and grow a spine. I refuse to answer to any names of the guys I am backing up since many people find it funny to say, “oh, you must be [person] today”. I am not that person, I am me. I have a name. [Person] is also not my boss. My boss is upstairs and here is her phone number. All questions about my job can be addressed to her.
Amazingly, these experiences pale in comparison to what I went through as an engineering intern at a government facility. It was there I was exposed to how bad things can be. During my internship I was not only told I couldn’t tell the boys they were wrong, I was asked what guy did my work for me, since clearly I couldn’t have done it myself. It was at that point, two whole weeks into my job, that I just gave up. I started to understand why there were no women around. If this is how they were treated I could see why no one stuck around long. I was there to be seen but not heard. They needed an image of diversity even if they didn’t embrace it. Even though this was a job I had always dreamed of, I wanted out. Add in the stares I got walking anywhere on campus and it was a fairly isolating experience. I was offered the opportunity to interview there for a position after graduation and thankfully I already had a job and was able to politely walk away.
To me part of being a woman in engineering is learning how to roll with some of these moments and keep going knowing that you are helping to make it better for both yourself and those behind you. Things are clearly still not where they should be at my current job, but they are getting better. There are also places that are better than others. Compare my internship to my current job.
Somehow that week the bucket of tolerance was drained. I was tired of looking at the hierarchy in the lab that I have yet to break into. I was tired of seeing assignments handed to the other people and fighting for interesting work. I was tired of having things taken away when I ask for help. I was tired of being invisible. I was mostly just tired of it all.
Thankfully I have a boss who is awesome. She understands this battle since she has been here. I can talk to her without fear of things trickling back to the boys. She is proof that I can do this. She even told me to go home early that Friday when I was burned out and on top of that offered to call my lead and up date him on a test they were trying to run over the weekend so I wouldn’t have to talk to him. She’s helped me learn how to deal with one of the guys, understanding I want to learn how to stand up for myself and not have someone come save the day. I know I still have a lot left to learn from her, and I hope I can continue to do so.
I hope that one day the female engineers behind me will not be facing these same battles. When thinking about the future I am always reminded of a speech Joss Whedon gave when being honored by Equality Now, on why he writes strong women characters. My favorite reply of his to the question is simple: “because you’re still asking me that question.”