Every March 8, we talk about what it means to be a woman in society and why representation is so important. Every year the conversation is different because representation is not such a simple matter. My journey to becoming an engineer illustrates why this is the case. Here are four stories that explain the lack of female representation in my field.
1. Many girls do not anticipate having to deal with gender bias.
If you grew up like I did, you might have thought that women ruled the world. I come from a family with more women than men. During my 10 years at an all-girls school, nobody ever told us what we could not become. They didn’t say anything about certain careers being unsuitable for us, or us being unsuited for certain careers. We truly believed that our sincere efforts were all that we needed to succeed.
If you spent the first 18 years of your life doing exactly what you wanted, with your parents and teachers showing faith in you, and encouraging you to choose your own path, you would be very surprised by how different “real life” turned out to be. And anyone who was brought up like I was would have difficulty understanding why these biases exist.
Not everyone is as lucky as I was to have amazing female role models growing up. But the truth is that many girls are influenced by the strong opinions held by their relatives and teachers and friends, about what careers and life choices are “good” or “bad” for women.
2. Women do not have much incentive to fight these biases.
As I embarked on the path of becoming an engineer, the presence of women was greatly diminished in my everyday life. My undergraduate class was comprised of 70 boys and 18 girls. On the first day, the boys all sat front and centre, while the girls huddled together in the last line of benches. I could not see from the last row, so I moved to the front and called my friends to come sit with me. Nobody did. The professor walked in, looked at me and asked, “So you turned into a boy today, huh?” I could hear laughter surrounding me.
Out of the 18 women that graduated from my engineering class, only four of us went into engineering roles in our first year of work. As for the rest? Two went straight into marriage. Seven got teaching jobs in my hometown and got married in the next two years. Four pursued their MBAs and got rid of engineering for good. I do not know what happened to the remaining one.
3. As gender bias drives women away, there are not many female peers to connect with and relate to.
On training for my first job, the instructor said, “You probably don’t understand this, but we were mandated to bring in more girls. So why don’t you girls just pick any team and observe the boys?” While it was certainly a struggle as an Electronics and Telecommunication Engineering graduate to be learning C++ on the job, it was far more difficult to deal with a sexist trainer who only wanted to teach the men.
Out of the 78 people in my training batch in the company, 20 were women, and three of them went for coding assignments in projects, while the rest either went for into testing or left engineering for good.
Luckily, despite being the only woman in a team of five, my first team and mentors trained me well; but while they taught me nearly everything I know as a Mobile Engineer, at this point, there were no indications things would get very difficult once I climbed the professional ladder.
4. The work environment gets toxic as soon as a woman attains power.
Fast-forward two years, and the men in my team had issues reporting to our manager who was a woman. “I don’t want a woman using that tone with me, Ma’am!” one said. She resigned a few months later citing personal reasons.
When it was my turn to lead, warm smiles turned to smirks. Questions like “so, what did you do to rise so quickly?” were the only topics discussed at lunch. That team of six had four women, but by the time I left a few months later, I was the only one that remained.
I have been in countless meetings where my comments were ignored only to have the whole room cheering a male colleague as he made the exact same point 5 minutes later. I have been introduced to men who shook hands with every man but just nodded in my direction when it was my turn. I have had to make the effort to cross the room to force that man to shake hands with me. I have to remind the men who interrupt women mid-sentence that interrupting people mid-sentence is very rude and unprofessional.
I have seen most of my female friends leave their jobs because this extra emotional labour is so tiring to deal with day after day. I’m not saying that most of the men who act like this are bad people, but they have never had to stop and think that this kind of behaviour is wrong, and nobody has made them realise it.
Each time I was in a toxic work environment, I left in pursuit of something better. But as I’ve illustrated above, a lot of women can’t find opportunities that exist without these challenges, and so the workforce is stuck in that same pattern – with relatively few female engineers.
When women enter engineering, help them stay there!
Now you might be wondering, “why aren’t the women standing up for themselves?” It’s often because they second-guess whether they are even being treated badly, and before reaching out for support, they convince themselves that they are overreacting. Most choose to leave quietly and not create a scene because they didn’t have strong female role models in their lives to provide them with the tools to handle these situations.
The unfortunate pattern here is not only the poor representation of women in engineering, but also their numbers dwindling even further because they become frustrated with the challenges that come along with their lack of representation. Why? There is little support for them to grow. Although we enter the workplace with a mindset of equality, the gender biases are very strong and women are uncertain of how to proceed in the face of these challenges.
When women rise, we lift everyone up with us
Studies have shown that greater female representation makes businesses better. Supporting women to become leaders – and an example of leadership to everyone, including men and boys – is part of the solution. We need more female role models because it is far easier to become what we can already see. I love my career, and hope to see a new generation of girls pursue their passions in male-dominated fields with far fewer obstacles.