August 12th, 2020

planet

being a woman in engineering

this was an entry I had scheduled out a ways, but with Kamala Harris and everything I decided to reschedule it, I'm saying a little bit about women being picked for things and it's in my head. I wrote it for a birthday question from ironphoenix:

Can you tell us one awful and one awesome thing that have happened because you're a woman in aerospace engineering?

I will always say that engineering is a wonderful job for women. True awfulness never happened to me. I never suffered sexual harassment from a boss, I never felt unsafe. I have been well paid and maintained gainful employment. Whenever I suspected that a comment in a group of men was snide or insulting, I could look around the room to verify and find a re-assuring glance from an ally that he heard it too, and I felt validated. But even those snubs were rare. There is so much work to do we don't have time to snub each other that much. I won't say it's a pure meritocracy like I once fantasized, but there is an objective standard of just getting an airplane fixed that I could always lean back on.

Airplane therapy, I call it. I tell every new hire about it. Sometimes days are tough, people are crazy, reports are boring... give yourself a break. walk out to the hangar and put your hands on an airplane. If you're in a hurry, just the white shiny paint. If you have more time, the insides. Find a component in an open panel you can't identify, get up very close and read its label, look how its hooked up, and now you will remember for a very long time where the fuel flow transmitter is. Let it take up the space in your brain.

The airplanes are like water... like creeks and rivers. Always level. Always there to fill in.

But this entry is about the highs and lows, right? What's higher than that?

Helping people. The family of all the engineers and getting along. Here is the best thing: I am pleased to say that my first ever summer intern, assigned to work for me in the summer of 2013 when I missed half his internship for my maternity leave, is still around... as are most of my interns. There's one with seven years experience now, one with six years, and so on. I gave them their first projects, they are contributing great things! I love sectioning up work for new people, training technicians, talking to customers, translating the complicated to a million different versions of a story. The elevator speech, the two hour class, and everything in between. Make everyone understand everything.

Seeing somebody nail a project that I assigned is the greatest high. I think I am uniquely equipped for delegating this out because of who I am... someone who's had to look out for everybody and figure out how to elbow in. I can help other people get in. I want everybody to find a part. I look out for them.

Does that mean I got to where I am because I'm a woman? Well yes, if being a woman made me better! But I don't know, I haven't lived any other life, I can't go back and re-do my career as a man to compare... and that brings me to the least awesome thing about being a woman in engineering. There have always, always, always been people who thought I found success because "they" were looking for a woman. The conspiracy theory. The idea that some upper manager, bowing to the pressure of feminist protesters lining the runways, closed his eyes and picked A Woman for the next opportunity, no matter how tragically underqualified. So if I'm here, and if I'm a woman, I must just be a diversity pick. There's no way to escape it. If I accomplish great things, it's luck.

It was said to me my first year on the job: "you'll probably do just fine here because you're a woman". It was said to me this year: "you know for that new position they'll hire a woman". I don't hear it every day, but I bet I can't make it six months without it coming out of the woodwork somewhere. Tokenism. "reverse discrimination". "they just wanted a woman".

I can't run from it. As long as I'm the only woman in a group, if I'm put in charge, someone will say "see, there you go, they picked The Woman." Even if they pick a man for 17 other leadership roles, even if the differences between me and the other candidates look more and more obvious someone will say it doesn't matter. That's the worst thing.

All I can do is ignore it, prove myself, and help other women along. It helps me because I won't be the only woman, it helps them to counteract the bullshit they have to deal with. The questioning.

Engineers are honest. At least with engineers, I know what they're thinking, because they say it to my face. It hurts and it's sad and I've started telling them in harsher and harsher terms that I won't accept their sexism. I've gotten to know other women leaders, and it helps because then I can explain to those guys EXACTLY why "The Woman" is in that position... I can stick up for them. I take the conspiracy theory down a notch. no, they didn't hire that woman to increase our diversity, although I think we need it, they hired her because she had great stories about kicking ass when she worked in operations for five years, and nobody else did. no, I was in the panel interviews and the idea of picking a woman was not discussed, the idea of picking someone with training experience was.

Maybe that's back to an awesome thing. We are all fixing airplanes. But being a woman, I am uniquely equipped to fix this one last thing: people's attitudes about women. full circle, full stop, the people and the airplanes get fixed in one go.