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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.

Comments

( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
lepid0ptera
Apr. 14th, 2015 12:38 pm (UTC)
It's an interesting observation that you dealt with a lot more at a lower level- do you think it's related to your rising status, or just that things have gotten better for women in general over time? Or both?

There's some evidence that stage of career development in STEM in academia matters too; they've done case controlled studies with graduate student admission and found that there was bias against women, but they've found the opposite at the hiring level for tenured positions, see: www.pnas.org/content/early/2015/04/08/1418878112.abstract

I hear from a lot of women in tech (notably the Model View Culture people) that in tech we focus too much on the "pipeline" and it's important to treat women well when they get into their careers, but honestly I wonder if the biggest losses aren't coming from earlier in the pipeline and that's where we should focus our efforts for the most gain. For computer science in particular, I'm pretty confident that having CS be a part of public school curriculum is going to have the single greatest impact on women in CS above all other interventions I've heard of.
lavenderspark
Apr. 14th, 2015 01:36 pm (UTC)
That would be a great thing to put into HS. Even as an elective.

When I was in HS we could take Computer Programming and it counted as a math credit. Sadly when I tried to sign up for it, the counselor told me to take precalc instead. I've always felt it was because I'm female, but I really don't know.
lepid0ptera
Apr. 14th, 2015 03:06 pm (UTC)
The U.K. just introduced it into its curriculum for this year! https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-computing-programmes-of-study/national-curriculum-in-england-computing-programmes-of-study

I'm pretty excited :). My high school was really good but we didn't have CS classes. My first introduction to CS was in college, and it really threw me for a loop (literally! and figuratively!). I licked my wounds and ended up graduating with a degree in biology- I made my way back into programming but it would have cut to the chase in my career path if only I'd been introduced to it earlier.
spacefem
Apr. 14th, 2015 02:02 pm (UTC)
that's a good question. it's probably half and half... partially that I HAVE proven myself to enough people that people don't question me, partially the position I'm in (we tend to not want to offend people higher on the org chart), and now that I think about it there are a lot more women in my department now than there were 12 years ago when I started.
astrogeek01
Apr. 14th, 2015 02:56 pm (UTC)
"pipeline" questions are really really complex, there's a lot of actual research out there on it in academia. It's probably different for academia vs. real world though, but what we see is that women leave at every stage (including later ones). At this point our interest is about 50-50 as incoming freshmen, but by the time they leave the numbers have dropped, then again for grad school, etc. There should be more support at all levels, which would help a lot.

CS is doing pretty crappy these days, much worse than it used to be. I know that's a current thing people are looking into.
lepid0ptera
Apr. 14th, 2015 03:03 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I know they've modelled it quite a bit :).

I was speaking more about overt discrimination in the academic example, i.e. experimental evidence shown that people making decisions in admissions versus hiring are actively discriminating.

In academia the pipeline still leaks at all levels, but it looks like at the hiring stage that might be more due to other factors than overt discrimination, whereas at the graduate level it's probably both.
astrogeek01
Apr. 14th, 2015 05:43 pm (UTC)
ah I was more talking about the last paragraph, but yeah. I just watched a crap tenure 3rd year review go down with SO MUCH of the stereotypical subconcsious crap. (and said woman is leaving the field, sigh)

Can we be lj friends? You look like someone who deals with the same kind of crap I deal with.
lepid0ptera
Apr. 15th, 2015 07:09 am (UTC)
Sure thing!
lavenderspark
Apr. 14th, 2015 01:39 pm (UTC)
I really hope things are changing. I feel like with the way the internet has gone lately, it's easier to see that women CAN do more than society would have us believe. But changing the way people think and act is harder.
hardblue
Apr. 14th, 2015 01:53 pm (UTC)
I think it is worth remembering, too, that even back in the day before women and minorities were being considered for these higher positions that politics was still a factor in promotions and hirings - a son-in-law might win a spot, for example, that another person might have filled just as well, or maybe it was just someone that was greater friend-material. Life has never been a pure 'meritocracy'. We're not that cold-blooded. Social factors have always been important - politics.
astrogeek01
Apr. 14th, 2015 02:58 pm (UTC)
Interesting you feel that the pushback has gotten lesser as you've gone up; in academia it seems like it's worse. Though maybe each level you go up you're back at the bottom again until you work your way up? I guess I've never gotten to the point where I'm at the top of the local hierarchy. Hmm.
dichroic
Apr. 14th, 2015 04:23 pm (UTC)
Good post. I may point a colleague over here.
ironphoenix
Apr. 19th, 2015 01:44 pm (UTC)
Ah, "It is what it is," an expression that kind of gets on my nerves because it so easily conflates things we genuinely can't change with things we can--or that someone can.

Thanks for the long and considered answer, and sorry for the delay in responding!

The paragraphs that sum this up for me are
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.
and
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.

Expressing sexism as a shortcoming in teamwork is a very practical perspective; I'm a fairly team-focused manager (at least as engineers go), so this gives an indication of how I can contribute positively.
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )

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