April 14th, 2015

planet

thoughts on being a woman engineer leading other engineers

ironphoenix asked: Do you have any thoughts or experiences to share that are particular to being a woman managing an engineering group?

Awkward hard question because I don't like to think about that much, and was really scared to write about it, so this entry might get rambly and not make tons of sense. As engineers we all tend to say "it is what it is" and move on. And I know, being a good feminist means I have to think about matters related to gender... this is why I think a lot of women engineers aren't feminists. It's a defense mechanism to pretend like we don't see it, and an engineering reflex to pretend like "people stuff" doesn't matter.

When it might matter, it's complicated.

I have several examples from throughout my career of times I did things well. A mentor once told us to always keep a file of our "successes". So I've got that folder. Deliveries we made, projects that were saved, solutions that came together nicely and got some attention. Evidence that I could be a go-to person on a few specific technical areas. And some people ones too. When I left my last group, another group lead who I thought I'd disappointed several times shot me an email that said, "I enjoyed working with you, and I don’t say that about many people."

But in a new role, with a new group, I am still scared to death that they'll think I was put in charge just because I'm a woman.

I'm one of the younger managers in engineering but not the youngest, and that makes me feel a lot better about the situation. But do have direct reports with more leadership experience than me and way more engineering experience than me. That's awkward.

And because there aren't very many other women in engineering, I just don't see any good way around that insecurity, or any way to really truly prove that I'm here based on merit except to keep proving myself. If there were more women in my group, I wouldn't represent All women in everything I do. (and a side note: I'm not the only women on my team of 20 people, there's another one, so there you go.)

So that's why we need more women in engineering... so we can be leaders, without the baggage that comes along with also being a token. This is the reason why I'm in Society of Women Engineers, and I'm very involved in the women's network at my office, and I try to go grab lunch with the other women when I can, to encourage.

But it won't change anything instantly, so I gotta fall back on the engineer "here's where we're at" mentality and just not talk about it.

As a leader, I try to put an extra emphasis on making sure everyone is heard. Making sure everybody is helping everybody else out. If you're the expert in something, it means it's time to start bringing someone else along with you when you go fix that airplane. I know we tend to gravitate towards people we have things in common with, and we also have this myth going on in STEM fields that talent come automatically, you're just born with it. Not true. Those "part of the family" relationships are what make the team smarter, so we've got to treat everyone like we have things in common with them and actually teach each other what we know, even if our first reflex is to have the expert to just do it him/herself.

As the only woman leader, I find that I have lots of allies among the men I work with. I'm not the only person who believes that it's good to be a team player, you don't have to be a woman to see the benefits there, in fact I learned a lot of those concepts from the smart men around me. So I surround myself with those allies, they're my go-to people, and we're all doing well together.

Something occurred to me recently when I was reading an article about STEM bias against women. The amount of sexist bullshit I've dealt with has dropped dramatically over the years. As a college freshman, sexism was kind of a weekly event... no one wanting to be my lab partner, male posturing, being excluded. By my senior year, we were all friends.

Likewise my first year at work, I had all kinds of examples of guys being jerks. I was immediately introduced to the social committee with the assumption that I'd want to plan the Christmas party. I was asked to attend a meeting just to take notes, when I had other much more important tasks to attend to. I had a coworker interrupt a conversation to warn the male engineers that I was "sensitive". I had someone flat out tell me that if I did well here it was because I was a woman.

That shit just doesn't happen anymore. So if anything, getting a few promotions makes my job a hell of a lot easier... that's what I need to remember. When I feel overwhelmed, or scared, I need to make sure I'm watching out for every other woman or minority in my group, or even just the outsiders who are a little different or not from here.

So if my gender did factor into my promotion, then that's the reason... I have a lens to look out for others. And that's still worth something. There's a business case and a thing I'm bringing to the table.

I can't be insecure about it, because there isn't time. there's too much other important stuff.