Learning as a woman in engineering
Yvonne Paige-Stimson, 23/06/2020
Every year, International Women in Engineering Day provides the opportunity to re-ignite the conversation to address the gender disparity in engineering. According to recent figures published by the Women’s Engineering Society only 12% of all engineers are ladies. While this is a significant improvement from the 5% it used to be when I first embarked upon this profession back in the 90’s, my fellow female engineers are still a minority. I therefore have acquired some perspective on what as female engineers we encounter and have some insights I’m happy to share:
Failures are part of life
During university and early in my career I worried about acceptance and being taken seriously as a woman engineer in a male dominated domain which lead me to be scared of making mistakes. I am wiser to know that male or female, young or old, that engineers are actually a friendly and mutually helpful bunch. Everybody no matter who they are, starts from a place from knowing relatively little and mature over time. The entire engineering workplace especially in a complex project delivery is actually about teamwork, collective risk mitigation, idea sharing and experiential learning. Failures are a part of life; we learn from them and are together more successful.
Asking the right question takes as much skill as giving the right answer
I am well beyond worrying about perceived negative consequence on my gender from asking a basic question to check understanding. When it occurs there’s quite often a silence, the room pauses and then most often an acknowledgement that I wasn’t alone in missing an important point. Doubting ourselves and our intellectual equality for fear of how we look, often leads us not to ask the right question even when we are thinking it. Meeting facilitation to create an inclusive environment for everyone is a highly appreciated and valuable skill to practice.
Wise men don’t judge they understand
None of my personal planning had entertained the idea that after prioritising engineering and career development that the starting of a family when I was ready would be a challenge. For many ladies miscarriage is not an openly discussed topic and yet my male boss was nothing short of terrific helping me through this time. After some months, when I fell happily pregnant again, he helped me reorganise my duties. We cut out the risky activities like air travel and shuffled the development workload round the team even while no one else knew. I was so glad how he didn’t judge me and was super supportive.
I was very lucky and have heard some “nightmare-male-boss” horror stories from fellow female engineers. Choosing the next career step and therefore the next boss is a really critical decision for the female engineer whether pre or post starting a family. Whatever life events you encounter it will make all the difference if your boss is a decent person. So before putting in for that next career move – be sure to vet the future boss and always talk to future colleagues about the team culture and working environment.
Embrace the obstacles in the path, they are the path
Engineering businesses are always monitoring and deciding how to adapt to changing global circumstances. I don’t recall ever being prepared for how significant that would be when starting out in this career. Some happenings like new projects, new products, new factories are welcomed events while redundancies and needing to cut back and down-size less so. A career in engineering teaches us resilience through business change and also gifts amazing opportunities when these events coincide with the right timing for us personally.
As women we do have equal opportunities as our colleagues, our motives may be different. Grasping one opportunity I had the amazing cultural experience of working on a project in India in the manufacturing assembly plant for six months. On another occasion a perfectly timed redundancy allowed me to take a longer period off with my young family. It’s all a question of what drives you and seeing change as an opportunity. By our determination we can be as ambitious as we choose and still keep our careers on a progressive path.
If it scares you, it might be a good thing to try
I learned the most about myself as an engineer, whenever I have been immersed deeper and more out of my comfort zone than I had ever been before. Whenever such opportunities present is usually because someone sees a capacity in you that you haven’t yet realised exists yourself. You only have to believe in yourself and not be afraid to apply the skills, tenacity and adaptive persistence you’ve acquired into the new scenario. You might just have the most fun you ever imagined and be a stepping-stone to the next big learning opportunity.
Decorate your own soul
I remember once upon a time being quite fearful of sexual harassment horror stories. It was drummed into us by HR and a two-line whip went around the whole team before I joined my first manufacturing assignment in a factory. As young female engineers we felt the need to dress down to avoid unwanted attention in the workplace. The self-imposed female engineer dress code was positively dowdy. It was a while before I gained the inner confidence to dress for me in the workplace and was able to enjoy wearing skirts, dresses, heels and makeup. Not being true to oneself is a personal choice and being a female engineer doesn’t mean you need to make yourself appear unattractive to have your mind and intellect be taken seriously by your team and your employer.
Leaders never stop learning
The learnings and insights I accumulated during my engineering career have taught me how to respond rather than to react in any given circumstance – although I’m still learning and refining. There was once a time I was hoovering every training course on the HR career development scheme like an avid badge collector. However, learnings and experience patiently and persistently accumulate over time with each new project or product, each new company or supplier we encounter, every technical issue we unravel and with each and every single question we ask. Don’t stop making growth plans for yourself, when you reach the end of one development objective look ahead two or three more years and make a new plan.
The little things? The little moments? They aren’t little
Whether it’s the little work of glittery footprint art proclaiming “I love Mum” on the end of your desk or the moment you prioritised from your workday to see your little treasure say their one line in the class assembly, these are absolutely huge things in the grand scheme of your life well-balanced. In the modern work-place I am pleased to see my male colleagues stepping jointly into the routine of arriving late after drop-off, leaving on time for the school pick up or cutting time in their schedule as soccer-coach dad. Being a female engineer when it comes to having a family too does not mean you have to down-play the importance of family. So definitely do enjoy these moments for they are precious.