August 30th, 2021


women's groups

seattlejo asked me this question for my birthday: What are your thoughts about gendered professional development associations like Women in Aviation. Helpful? Segregating?

I love gendered professional development associations. I'm a lifetime member of Society of Women Engineers (SWE), I've been to the Women in Aviation conference at least once, I was once president of the women's networking group at my company.

I wouldn't call them gendered or segregating, because they're open to everybody. You have to support the mission of these groups to join, of course... they're usually along the lines of supporting and promoting women's achievements, recognizing the power of diversity, etc. Men can do that!

My SWE section even had a "Best Male Member" award that we gave out at conference banquets until we realized we, uh, needed to rename it.

Here's my way of thinking, and why I like women's groups:

1) Engineering takes a lot of smart people. a lot of different people, different ways of thinking, different intelligences. Engineering needs to listen to everyone and be open to change.

2) We won't have the most talented engineers if we chop half the population off the candidate pool right off the bat. We will be missing brains. The same thing happens if you only hire from one small town, or only hire the boss's nephews. Limited selection forces you to lower the bar.

3) It's hard to do your best when you're the only girl in your group. Not only do you miss a lot of lunch invites, but somebody is always going to look at you wondering if you're just there to represent females. If there are more women in your group, you become normal. It's not "the woman said something". If there's a 50/50 split and you get promoted, nobody can say "oh sure they picked the ONE WOMAN". But as long as you're the only woman, you will be the Token Woman.

4) Engineers do not take classes in school about how to encourage women or boost diversity numbers. We are taking 13 hours of calculus. We do not know how to ask questions about microaggressions or put into words why we feel uncomfortable. We can't solve the gender imbalance problem with thermodynamics.

5) Lastly, I think women deserve engineering jobs. They're great jobs. I love what I do. I find it very disturbing that society just "happens" to pay much lower salaries to jobs that are traditionally held by women. One way women can counter that is to pick non-stereotypical jobs. But I think reason #2 (engineering deserves women) is a much bigger and more noble cause than #5 here, so let's move on.

Once you admit that the gender imbalance is an issue, women's groups are a great way to counteract it. Get all us women together to talk about our experiences, conduct research, help each other, provide friendship and mentoring. Make the next woman who just joined the company feel like part of the family.

I never want to be one of those women who looks around and shrugs and says "well I made it so there must not be a problem. must be something weird about those females." I think if I have found success, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to work by previous generations, and I should pay it forward. Ask questions, admit we have room for improvement, join a group and go out to lunch every once in a while.

I told the men I work with that if they want to start a men in engineering group, I'll join it! but the cubicles that day already looked like a men in engineering group, so nobody found the need.

That's my logic.

Oh and last last bit - I'm also in these groups because I love these women. I have met some of my greatest friends through SWE. We are the same. We get along amazingly, we talk on the same level, we want the same things. When I first started working I'd get invited to these engineer wife gatherings and as much as I needed to make friends, they weren't fun. The engineer wives would joke about their dorky husbands, and I related to the wrong side of the joke. I was plucky comic relief. The outcast. Not so with SWE. We get shit done. I'm in an engineering moms facebook group that is the hands down best moms group too. Why can't I be BFFs with the men in engineering? I don't know. There are some great men, and I have managed to get those lunch invites. But it's not the same as having female friends, and if I'm not careful I can go days, maybe weeks, without talking to another woman.

my basic advice to women in engineering...

1. find your male allies. keep an eye out for the progressive ones, who'll meet your glance if you look around for help after being snubbed, who let you talk in meetings, who train you. you need them. they're everywhere.

2. join swe.