International Women’s Day: Women in engineering
The problems of inequality usually highlighted on International Women’s Day aren’t only problems one day of the year. They’re systemic issues that devalue or undervalue the contributions of women in every sphere. In particular, there are industries and commercial environments which have been “traditionally male-dominated,” like engineering. That “traditionally male-dominated” trope is still used even today as a self-fulfilling prophecy to dissuade girls and women from training, pursuing, and enjoying careers in those industries. We spoke to Julie Roberts, VP Engineering at Presidio, to mark progress made, acknowledge existing issues, and chart potential remedies to the patriarchal problems of modern engineering.
Now and then.
What’s it like to be a woman in engineering these days? And does it feel different to how it did when you started out?
For me today, it feels absolutely amazing to be in engineering. In fact, it’s probably the most optimistic time of my entire engineering career. I attribute that to probably two reasons. The first one is that with Presidio being a global digital service provider, as we are, we have lots of clients across different verticals.
So there are so many opportunities for me and my team to provide the technical solutions that can deliver very impactful business outcomes. We know that we’re making a big difference in many people’s lives, so that’s very exciting. The second reason is the progress that we’ve made in embracing diversity, equality and inclusion, not only in Presidio, but across many of our partners and our clients over the years. There’s a realization that bringing women into that mix is providing diverse thinking around some of our approaches as an organization.
With these different perspectives, we’re able to solve challenges and provide solutions that allow us to understand our customers’ requirements and to gain better outcomes by doing that.
The second part of that question – has it always been this way? No, it has not. Back in 2000, when I was starting out, I was assigned to a project where I showed up and the client actually refused to allow me in to perform the engineering services, simply because I was a woman.
But these days, I don’t see anything like I experienced 20 years ago.
How did you deal with things like that when they came up? From those full-on blanking moments to some of the other commonly reported episodes of sexism in engineering. How do you react when something like that happens?
So first, I mean obviously when that happened, I was angry, right? I was like, what do you mean? What do you mean, that I can’t come in there? I can perform the services just like anybody else!
I was fortunate enough to have some colleagues around me at that time who were like “Julie, it’s really their loss. We know what kind of engineer you are. We know what kind of work you do. So you just have to be confident in your capabilities and you know, let that go and put that on the side and realize that if there’s any kind of reflection you need to do or any adjustment you need to make, make it, but if you don’t need to make the adjustment, just move on and keep doing what you’re doing. That was how I dealt with it back then.
And you say we’ve made a lot of progress since then. Have we made enough progress?
No, absolutely not. We have to do a better job especially with education around perspectives and intentions.
Women are still perceived differently to men. Examples of that are for instance if a woman leader is really engaged, it may be perceived as her trying to micromanage her team. Or maybe if a woman leader is providing coaching, it can be interpreted as her being demanding.
Now in reality, that could be a positive thing, a strength that helps get things done – and in a man it would be seen that way. Similarly, if we try to advocate for ourselves or other staff, in men that’s often seen as strong leadership, but in women it’s too often perceived as aggression or anger. So there’s work to do, because a lot of the mainstream perceptions of women in these “traditionally male” professions are made and shared without looking at the true intent behind what’s going on.
And we as women also have to look at whether there are any adjustments we can make in order to change those perceptions.
The plague of imposter syndrome.
That seems to speak to a very patriarchal view of behaviors – what is passion in a man in a mostly male peer group is interpreted as aggression in a woman, and so on.
That surely must intensify the sense of imposter syndrome in those environments. After all, the idea that “Girls and women don’t do that” is inculcated into both sexes from an early age, so by the time you’re a woman in engineering, you’re dealing both with the societal programming that can bring self-doubt that you should be doing it in the first place, and the external pressure of men also doubting that you can and should be doing it.
Absolutely. We absolutely deal with that today, and really, we talk about progress, but I don’t know that this will ever really go away completely, even with all the DEI initiatives, because like you said, there’s internal and external pressure on this.
So when we get in a position, like when we get promoted or we get a new job or what have you, and we think we’ve done it on our own merits, there still may be others that think there’s a check-box of “Oh well, they needed a woman here. So they filled in a check-box because she was ‘good enough.’”
When someone thinks that someone is in a position that they shouldn’t be in, usually that person has to work harder and have more stress in their life because they’re trying to please others who don’t believe they merit their position. So there’s absolutely some external pressure there.
The self-doubt syndrome.
But then internally as women, we tend to get something, a job or promotion, and then we start that whole self-doubt thing and it all sets in. And you begin to question whether you really deserve this and whether you can actually do what this job is supposed to do, and whether you can live up to the expectation of others. I’ve had personal experience of that.
When I was promoted to the Vice President of Engineering, I was super excited, super happy. And then the very next day, I was like, “Oh my gosh, am I going to be able to live up to what it is that they want me to do?”
So it absolutely is there.
How do we combat that?
For me, when I got this role, I had to remember that I had a whole support system of women and men who knew what my accomplishments were, knew what my achievements were, knew what my capabilities were. And you know, I did spend some time talking to them about my self-doubt after I got this promotion. So I was able to get that encouragement that I got it for a reason, not just a box-check. That I earned it. That meant I could move forward – so having a support system definitely helps.
When we talk about fear and doubt, many times, either we press the easy button ourselves, or we allow someone else to press the easy button for us because we don’t put ourselves out there.
So I think how we continue to learn to deal with it and to overcome it is we need to learn to be more risk-tolerant and instead of viewing rejection as completely negative, to view it as an opportunity for growth, right? We have to continue to look for ways to challenge ourselves. To acknowledge and celebrate our accomplishments and many times, we hold ourselves to a higher standard than anybody else does. We feel like we have to work harder than anyone else to avoid that “check-box” judgment from others.
We’ve got to let go of that idea of having to be perfect and just know that our achievements areenough, that we are good enough, and that we are confident in our abilities to move forward.
In Part 2 of this article, we’ll dive into the importance of self-advocacy and building a personal brand to avoid being overlooked, even in a patriarchal industry.
21 September 2023
20 September 2023
20 September 2023