International Women’s Day: pathways to progress in engineering
In Part 1 of this article, we spoke to Julie Roberts, VP Engineering at Presidio, about the realities, the challenges, and the progress that’s been made over the last 20 years in getting women into engineering, despite its self-perpetuating image as a “traditionally male” industry. We also began to touch on strategies not only to cope with inherently patriarchal attitudes in the industry, but also to combat self-doubt, and to self-promote as a necessary strand of getting women the promotions they’ve earned in an industry often content to let them be invisible.
There’s a quote from Charlotte Whitton that famously says, “Women must be twice as good as a man to be thought half as good.” Firstly, does that feel like it still applies in modern engineering, and if it does, what would you suggest women do to establish their brand? What should their brand be to get them ahead?
I think it’s absolutely still there, because, as we discussed in Part 1, there are pressures on both women and men to believe that girls and women shouldn’t do this job. I think you mentioned that it starts young, with the divide between “pretty” girls and “active” boys. It becomes an expectation in society, and so women in engineering face both self-doubt and external doubt from others about whether they can do the job.
When I think about that quote, I think about the question on the other side of it, which is about our brand. How do you establish a brand, and what should the brand be? For me, I’m a big proponent of not just women, but everybody on my team having a brand. I do think it’s important to build your brand with validation from your actions. We can say all the things we want to say, but unless we actually show through our actions what our brand is, people won’t really understand that.
Refinement and feedback.
And I also think that when we talk about brand, there has to be a continual refinement of that brand. And one thing I think people get stuck on, and women do this a lot, is sometimes we build a brand, but we really don’t ask for feedback about that brand.
We don’t really consider what people’s perception of that brand is, versus what message we’re trying to get across or what brand we want people to know.
So it’s highly important for women to solicit feedback from others on how they perceive their brand to be, you know? And then after hearing that feedback, you’ve got to do one of a couple of things with that feedback. You either have to say “OK, well I can make an adjustment here,” or “No, I can’t make that adjustment,” but the biggest thing about your brand is that it has to be true to your authentic self.
You can’t be somebody that you’re not. So whatever your brand is, that’s the fundamental aspect – the biggest building block of your brand is the truth of you.
That’s the difference between having a genuine brand and just having marketing, yes?
And then for engineering specifically? What’s the brand that really sets you apart? What do you need to do to get on in the engineering world as a woman?
There’s a lot! We could spend days talking about this, but I can narrow it down. Obviously, you have to have the aptitude from a technical perspective to understand the technology. We live in a world where the demands of our ever-changing technology and solutions are such that what you learned yesterday is out of date tomorrow.
You may have to adjust as you go; for instance, with the introduction of cloud and other technologies, we’ve had to adjust. So, having adaptability and a commitment to continual learning as part of your personal brand is useful.
You definitely have to have a positive attitude around challenges with schedules, deadlines, and changing priorities, because that happens all the time – in engineering, we’re solving problems all day, putting in solutions, running into bugs. So being innovative and open-minded also helps.
And you have to have that indomitable spirit that means when you face a challenge like that, you don’t just throw your hands up in the air.
Support networks and soft skills.
Having a network to call on, or bounce off, is useful, especially for women in engineering, because there will probably be fewer of you in any one team or organization than there would be in other industries, but that’s not part of your brand – that’s part of how you establish your brand, having people to call on so you don’t get derailed by the unexpected, or the short notice, or anything else. Your brand is that you get the job done, irrespective of the problems that pop up along the way.
The thing is, most of that’s true of anyone in engineering. Women are likely to bring phenomenal soft skills in addition to that, that can help create genuine positive experiences for the people they work with, as well as for their clients, and that can really set women apart in the engineering industry.
Great. You’re a big advocate for what’s called self-advocacy for women in engineering, aren’t you?
Just in terms of the definition, self-advocacy is different from just turning up with self-confidence, right?
Definitely. Self-advocacy is something completely different, and it’s by no means easy.
I’m going to speak from my own personal experience again.
Focusing on progression.
The first time that I really went for a larger promotion? I did not get it, and it crushed me.
So after some days of messy cries (and those are OK. It’s OK for women – and men – to cry messy at times. It’s OK for us to have these overwhelming feelings of disappointment and frustration and sadness), I realized a little while that I couldn’t stay there if I really wanted to pursue my ambition of upward mobility. So I needed to create a plan.
And part of that plan that I created for myself was self-advocacy. What I meant by that was I knew that I had to get my brand, my story, out beyond my little circle.
The only way I was going to do that was through a combination of self-advocacy and sponsorship.
I created a plan. I put people’s names on that plan. People that might know my name but didn’t know me or my brand. And at our very next on-site meeting, I took that action plan and went and started developing relationships with people that I didn’t know. I started telling them about what I was doing.
Feel the fear and do it anyway.
It was so uncomfortable to talk about yourself in a manner that felt like you were bragging or boasting, but I felt like in order for people to know me, and for me to get other opportunities, I needed to show people and not just tell them.
But again, it goes back to that action part. You have to have the actions to back it up, right?
I was sharing my stories about what I was doing in my area, and I started to become more visible to people. So then people started knowing me, and through that process I gained sponsorship.
So then it wasn’t just me self-advocating for my own benefit. Other people – through the sponsorship of women, and especially women leaders – began to know my story, and then share my story. My name was getting out there, my brand was being advertised and it was through not just myself, but through that sponsorship. And I truly believe I’m in the position I’m in today directly based on the results of that self-advocacy and sponsorship that I got.
As you say, that’s really not something that women specifically, (but also anyone who differs from the white male cishet template of “business success”) are traditionally encouraged to do, to talk about themselves, their work, and their successes.
It was so hard.
It’s really uncomfortable when you start to do it. But there are things women can do to get better at it.
One that helped me was writing it out and practicing it out loud to get somewhat com-. No, not comfortable, but to be able to overcome that sense of conditioning that you shouldn’t be talking about your accomplishments.
Because engineering is so traditionally male-dominated, if we’re going to get ahead in this business as women, we need to build our brand. We need to be able to back it up with our actual accomplishments. And above all, we need to get over the societally programmed hesitancy we have when it comes to talking about our accomplishments.
Those things on their own might not change the world of engineering as a whole. But for individual women, they might well give a pathway to progress within their engineering career.
In Part 3 of this article, we’ll go further into the things that are changing for women in engineering – and how the future might look.
30 November 2023
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28 November 2023