(Woman) & engineer

I had two experiences this week that reminded me that I am a *woman* in engineering. Usually, I am just *Carly* in engineering – just another person who happens to love engineering/engineering research and has a unique combination of personality traits, experiences, and skills that influence my approach to what I do. Not “oh, I’m a woman so I approach engineering like A WOMAN.”

But, as a woman in grad school in a male dominated field (~90% male*), I am too frequently reminded of the fact that I am a woman, and that I am the gender-minority in my field. Sometimes, this is a fairly neutral experience – I glance around a classroom mid-semester and think “huh, I didn’t realize there was only [0 – 5] other women in this class.” Or I see an ad for SWE (Society of Women Engineers) and think, “Ooh, maybe I should join…that meeting might have free food.” I’ve always had a nice balance of men and women in my social circle, so being surrounded mostly by men during my courses has not been as socially isolating of an experience as it could have been if I more hesitant to interact with them.

My male friends in the grad program tend to be supportive and generally don’t make remarks about my gender. The only remarks I can actually recall are one joking remark about “Wait, I thought girls were supposed to be *good* at math?” (I *am* good at math, but not so much arithmetic-in-my-head-without-paper/TI-89, so a typical engineer) and a question about whether I thought a certain prof never asked me to do engineering-type tasks because he might be a little biased against my abilities. So any gender-related remarks are often neutral or positive.

However, these reminders of my *womanhood* and <10%-er status are sometimes more negative. Last week a friend made some comments that stuck with me, a bit like an irritating bit of cheat-grass embedded in my running shoe. Nothing horrible, but just irritating enough to poke, poke, poke at my thoughts. A few guy friends and I were all out for a chat and a beer, just hanging out and complaining about the usual grad student problems. Things were just peachy til we wandered off into the subject of there being like zero women in one of the courses that a few of the guys are taking. This gradually shifted the conversation to how hard it is to find women to date without (gasp) having to socialize with non-engineers. Understandably, this is a problem because, well, it's way easier to bond over nerd-talk than try to pretend you're not a nerd while nervously chatting up a potential romantic partner. *Shudder* Luckily me husband was a run-nerd and a physiology-geek so I never came across this issue of having to chat about *normal* things with him when we were dating 😉

Anyhow, it was all fine and hilarious until one friend joked that "Anyways, once women make it through the engineering program, they're not really *women* anymore."

Um, excuse me?!? If I'm no longer *actually* a woman I'd like to at least have gotten an epic mustache or something as a trade-in…

I didn't say anything at the time because I didn't really want to kill the jolly mood, but the more this comment rattles around in my head the more irritated it makes me. I’ve heard similar comments before, so I know it isn’t just a silly idea that popped into my friend’s head and out of his mouth. On the one hand, yea, when you've hung around someone in class for 4+ years you probably view them more as a friend than a potential date. But the statement also has all these associations, like that women in engineering are "manly", or unfashionable, or too brainy to be attractive, etc. I may not be the most fashion-savvy gal, but plenty of women manage to be both brilliant engineers AND maintain a love of fashion, makeup, etc. Shockingly, these qualities are not mutually exclusive. The single careless remark that my friend made isn't really the problem. The problem is that when you hear so many of these thoughtless, "harmless" comments week in and week out, every comment seems to have a little more weight behind it and seems to stick just that much more tenaciously in the back of your mind.

That brings me to my second experience this week that reminded me that, oh hey, I'm a woman!!! And we make up only 8% of the department, yay! This second experience was actually much more positive, and involved some inspiring interaction with fellow students and a visiting professor which left me with some ideas for how I might respond to similar careless-but-irritating remarks in the future.

We were fortunate to have Dr. Susan Margulies, from University of Pennsylvania, visiting the campus on Friday. She had worked with another professor on campus (one of her former PhD advisees) to set up a breakfast meeting for the women enrolled in the mechanical engineering grad program. Nine other students and I attended. This event would have been hilariously unfeasible in a more gender-balanced department – if we assume a 2:2 women-to-men ratio, that would be 100 person breakfast meeting and a wee bit crowded even in one of the smaller lecture halls. Anyhow, our little group of engineer-tastic women sat down to breakfast together, went through a round of introductions, and then got to ask Dr. Margulies about how she approaches the challenges posed by academia and, in particular, being a woman in engineering.

Her answers were interesting, in part due to her unique background. First off, she was the only female faculty member in her department for about the first decade that she was there. She is also unique in having a two-pronged research program, with research in both pediatric brain injury biomechanics and in pulmonary cellular biomechanics. Her approach to the challenges that she’s faced were strongly based in engineering principles, which really struck me as a positive, solution-focused approach to challenges that are often emotionally fraught. I’ve summarized some of the question and advice themes below.

On handling the challenges of day to day life and the elusive work-life balance:

Her approach treated life as one big engineering problem – you have to optimize within the constraints or parameters set before you. In addition, be selective – pick a few things to do excellently, a majority of things that you will just do to the level of “good enough”, and less valuable or less productive things that you remain firm in saying “no” to.

For example, she was dedicated to making it home in time to prepare and sit down for dinner as a family while here daughters were growing up. She also knew that leaving at 5 or 6pm meant sitting in traffic, essentially wasting time. So instead, she committed to leaving work at 6:30, in time to arrive home by 7pm, and could then whip up a 20-minute meal and sit down and eat with her family every night. She doesn’t go into the lab on weekends and doesn’t expect her advisees to run experiments on weekends either. Instead, she might take a stack of papers to grade or articles to review while taking her daughters to the mall. When she’s stuck waiting for them to try on piles of clothes, she has something to do between the “hey mom, how does this look?” fashion shows. By focusing on being there and involved during the optimal times, she can focus on work during times when her presence is less vital in her children’s lives.

Her advice to us was to look at what is really important to us, and then figure out how to get there within the constraints of our environment/circumstances. Her two-pronged, and very successful, research program sprung out of a compromise made in order to live with her husband during his residency. This compromise led to a shift in focus during her post-doc away from what she’d been working on during her PhD. This shift actually turned out to be an advantage later on, when she was able to tie the concepts and tools back into here original research area and maintain both research foci as a PI. Lastly, she told us not to beat ourselves up when we fail to be perfect. No one actually does ALL THE THINGS. It is IMPOSSIBLE.

The idea of being able to compromise in some areas, while still achieving major goals, and the idea of giving up perfection and of refusing to be ashamed of failing to be “everything for everybody” really resonates with me at the point in my life. It’s tempting to just give up on my career aspirations when I feel like they damage my ability to be a perfect wife. Her story gave me some hope that there IS actually a workable solution out there!

Her second major piece of advice, which ties more closely to the start of this post, was on how to react to the thoughtless comments that people make regarding women and other engineering-program minorities:

Her advice? Utilize humor to your advantage! Her take on this was that these annoying comments detract from one’s focus on being an engineer first. She views herself as an engineer, and wants others to see her as an engineer first, not as a woman who happens to be an engineer and should probably take the meeting notes/make the coffee/be the nurturing one in the room. When some clueless person makes a sexist/racist comment, a lack of response can be seen as an endorsement. However, responding harshly can actually lead the commenter to become more entrenched in their way of thinking. In addition, a harsh response may be disadvantageous if you are responding to someone who is in a position of power relative to you. Instead, Dr. Margulies recommended using humor to point out the absurdity of the person’s assumptions while effectively diffusing the situation.

This approach isn’t really one that I’ve heard recommended before. I don’t think it’s appropriate in every situation – pointedly vile comments or obvious harassment may require a more direct approach – but it seems like an excellent option for responding to oblivious comments such as the one that my friend threw out earlier this week. If I’d responded with some excellent, witty comment, maybe he would have been able to realize that what he’d said could be construed as insulting, but wouldn’t feel attacked and defensive. It would also have been less stressful for me to throw out a joking response rather than a more serious response. We were all joking around and a more joking response would have made me feel less like an over-sensitive freak, going claws-out on a friend just for them blurting out a comment that rubbed me the wrong way.

Getting some direct, open advice from a successful engineering researcher who has managed to balance the expectations of being a woman with the expectations of being a high-performance academic was amazingly helpful. It was reassuring to hear that it is possible to be both an amazing researcher/engineer and an involved wife/mother. And it was amazingly refreshing to hang out with other women in my grad program and help each other come up with hilarious comebacks to all the discouraging comments that we’ve all had to deal with! Now I just need to come up with a nice little repertoire of witty, educational, anti-sexism comments for every occasion. Next time, I’ll be prepared 😉

*The stats for black, Native American, Pacific Islander, and other minority women in the program are even more depressing (<1%). If I feel lonely sometimes, the sense of isolation that comes with being a double minority in freakishly-white Utah is likely even more severe. I’ve heard stories from other women that have been subject to double discrimination and comments of both the *delightfully* sexist and racist variety. Ugh :-/

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5 thoughts on “(Woman) & engineer

  1. Love this post, from beginning to end.

    The bit about optimizing your life from an engineering perspective resonates with me as well, and reminds me of this awesome article I stumbled on a few years ago by a woman who started a tenure-track position with Harvard’s department of computer science: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2013/07/21/the-awesomest-7-year-postdoc-or-how-i-learned-to-stop-worrying-and-love-the-tenure-track-faculty-life/ She had a similar take, one I’m trying to emulate now with my faculty position.

    And about the culture of the white-male-dominated fields of engineering / math / computer science, it’s remarkable how comments that are seemingly innocuous (to someone who doesn’t take two seconds to think about it first) can actually contribute in a big way to maintaining the status quo. I read a book not too long ago called “Unlocking the Clubhouse,” revolving around decades-long sustained efforts at Carnegie Mellon to study and attempt to address the under-representation of women and minorities in computer science. It’s an incredible read; I’m trying to keep it all in mind as I try to encourage everyone who has an interest in the math-ier sides of academia.

    • Thank you, I’m glad you liked it!

      The article that you linked is excellent – I love seeing examples of people who buck the trend of miserable workaholism and still succeed (while actually enjoying life! what???). Definitely saving that one for future reference 🙂

      I’ll have to check out that book as well – sounds like an informative read! Thanks for sharing.

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  3. I would have just told your friend with the “Anyways, once women make it through the engineering program, they’re not really *women* anymore.”, that “once men make it through the engineering program, they are not really men anymore, either! they are engineers!”

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