Last summer, I had the pleasure of interning for a power utility company in Kansas. The internship involved planning transmission line projects and running feasibility tests. At the end of my phone interview with my soon-to-be boss, one last statement was mentioned:
“Oh by the way,” he said. “I just want to let you know that because of federal regulations, our team works in a closed, locked room…and all six team members are men.”
I chuckled a bit before replying, “I think I can handle that.”
The internship was fantastic. The members of my team were hardworking, funny, incredibly intelligent, respectful, and very quick to welcome me as one of their own. As the summer went on, however, I was quick to notice that aside from being theonly woman on my team, I was one of the few women engineers in the entire company. Women have a significant presence in the company, but women engineers are few and far between. This is a systemic issue in the power industry. Did I ever experience outright sexism? No, but spending eight-hour workdays surrounded by the opposite sex doesn’t always make for the most comfortable environment.
At SMU, we in Lyle have the luxury of a rather high percentage of female engineers (approximately 35%; yes, this is considered a high number). Despite this, I have never felt particularly overwhelmed by my male counterparts in Lyle. They are, for the most part, respectful, extremely intelligent, and enjoyable to work with.
Why, then, do I feel the need to fight for myself so much as a woman in engineering? If the men in my field are so agreeable and usually respectful, why should it matter that I will be entering a job in July at which I will be one of two women on a fifty-person team?
Last year, SMU’s Weekly Campus published an article titled “The style of the Lyle School’s women” in which the writer asserts that “female students at the Lyle School consciously downplay their dress in order to please professors and compete with their male counterparts.” Female engineers are often unfortunately viewed as bossy, too assertive, and even sometimes bitchy for speaking their minds and fighting for their ideas. This, of course, is not how everyone views female engineers, but a certain amount of this kind of thinking still lurks beneath the surface of every engineering school and engineering firm. It is statements like these that keep me fighting as a female engineer.
Women in engineering are pigeon-holed into historically male roles in a male-dominated field. We are expected to downplay any aspects of femininity in order to appear less threatening to our male coworkers. I’m not asking for permission to wear a dress to a substation contractor meeting; I’m fighting to feel comfortable enough to be myself in the workplace. When I advocate for my ideas, I can be viewed as bossy. When male engineers advocate for their ideas, they are seen as assertive, innovative, and are often promoted.
Stories of these occurrences are not myths. Fortunately, I have never experienced losing a promotion due to undercurrents of sexism. However, I have often curtailed my ideas, softened my delivery, and carefully practiced my speech to avoid coming off as too bossy.
Again, I emphasize that male engineers are not systemically disrespectful to their female coworkers and do not actively put them down in the workplace to achieve promotions or to lead projects. However, male engineers, especially those in older generations, were taught by male engineering professors. Their classmates were male engineers. Their coworkers have long been male engineers. Some male engineers have never been exposed to project teams with female engineers. Even fewer male engineers have worked with any percentage of the large volume of young, intelligent women currently entering the industry. We are a relatively new phenomenon that has pushed the men of the engineering world into a phase of adjustment. I have seen this evolution within my lifetime.
Because of this, sexism in engineering is often subtle. It involves things like remaining silent in meetings filled with male coworkers. It involves fear of asking your male boss for more or larger responsibilities. It involves fear of criticizing male coworkers’ ideas, even when you see significant issues with them. It involves carefully considering what you wear to the workplace out of fear of being “distracting,” while your male coworkers sport khakis and polos every day of the week.
I don’t know what equality in engineering looks like and I don’t know what it will take to get to that point. Sexism in engineering is a problem with roots in our society, not just our industry. Sexism in engineering exists for the same reasons that we police what young girls wear in grade school rather than educating young boys on appropriate behavior. The effects of years of these kinds of interactions are detrimental to women and have squeezed into every crevice of society, whether we notice or not.
Unfortunately, calling out this kind of sexism often places women in the same cycle of appearing bossy, overly sensitive, or just crying wolf with sexism to get ahead of male coworkers. Fighting it is tricky and involves, above all else, education and mutual respect. Thankfully, we, as a society, have eradicated many of the overly misogynistic practices that plagued us for centuries. However, the undercurrents of these practices are alive and well and still affecting women today.
So, until we can reach a point of gender equality in engineering, I’ll keep fighting for myself, my ideas, and my intelligence. I haven’t spent four years learning circuit analysis, coding languages, and power systems analysis to spend the rest of my career in the subtle background of my male coworkers. I’ve spent four years sharpening my mind, so call me bossy, but you bet I’m going to speak it.
This article was written by Camille Aucoin. Click here to see more of Camille’s work.