Get more women into tech? My colleagues never got the memo

Forget the motivational media campaigns - Tina Amirtha explains what it's really like to be a female engineer in a male-dominated profession.

In the engineering world, male colleagues are quick to make sure you know your place. Wanting to make a good impression on the first day of my first internship ever at a medical device company, I showed up in a pressed shirt, knee-length skirt and sensible heels. I felt ready to enter the professional world for the first time; I felt good. On a lab tour, my new manager acquainted me with the equipment that I imagined I would very soon start to use. As my head filled with possibilities, another engineer looked at my ensemble and shouted in front of everyone, “We’re not secretaries here!” All my 20-year-old self could do was reply “OK” and continue with the tour. No one ever brought it up after that.

I didn’t break any dress codes, but apparently, there was another code altogether that I had to follow, where men were men and women had to dress like men. Maybe my colleague thought he was helping me, but I knew he meant to intimidate me. Instead of giving in, I wore a skirt and heels for the rest of the summer - and the summer after that when the company invited me back.

On the cusp of turning 30, I look back at the discouraging years I’ve spent as a female engineer in the male-dominated STEM field and wonder whether doing something more traditionally feminine would suit me better. Media campaigns, like WISE in the UK, might mean to encourage women like me, but they glorify these professions, as though becoming an engineer would garner a female graduate instant respect and riches. The truth is, male colleagues put up impenetrable fortresses in the workplace, women are not entirely encouraging, and to make things worse, the popular media comes out with a ground-breaking feature every six months, telling me that I can't have it all, and I'm beginning to think so. Maybe the world is telling me that I have to downgrade my ambition to the hearth and home, or at least something more suited for ladies.

According to today’s media, if you become a woman in tech, then you get to be in Vogue, the New York TimesStyle section, make lots of money and sail to the top. They lead you to believe that the tech world expects you to show up in a Calvin Klein sheath dress and an Oscar de la Renta cardigan. Believe me; that is really not the case when you feel displaced for wearing a simple skirt. It’s not so pretty when you’re not in the boardroom.

Almost as much as the media love glorifying female CEOs, they scramble to entice young girls to study STEM subjects through various programs. You’ve read about them – ones that aim to get more girls into coding, study technical subjects and attract them into the field. They do this with reason: A Forbes career survey rated software developer as the fifth-best paying job for women in the US, but only 20 per cent of these positions are held by women. In the UK, women hold 13 per cent of STEM jobs, but the government aims to bridge a labor gap by increasing this figure by 17 percentage points by 2020. Many times, these programs spotlight the lives of female engineers, which could effectively inspire young girls to follow in these women’s footsteps. But then I remind myself that I’ve already taken these steps – I’ve obtained a bachelors and masters degree in engineering and work professionally as one – and these women’s testimonies could not seem more foreign to me.

Even though I’ve done all the things I was supposed to do, I feel abandoned by this movement. In the face of growing female concern over women exiting the workforce, the only messages for young, female professionals are vague appeals to lean in, heed the warnings of the Opt-Out Generation, have it all some of the time or settle for some of those things most of the time. It’s depressing. What I really want to know is how to survive in the male-dominated engineering world, and no one seems to want to talk about that.

Here’s something those campaigns will never tell you. Your higher-ups might still view you as an administrative assistant. In my first role out of college, as a research and development engineer, the only other woman in the office was the secretary. When she went away on medical leave, a project manager asked me to book a car for him. The next week, he asked me to make copies. While working as a product manager in another office, my boss needed to fill a gap in the serving staff at a trade show. For one week, I served beer, wine and soda to potential clients, parading around in a uniform; while the other equally qualified marketing people did their work. Aside from these setbacks, I did manage to find some sponsors and fought for good projects, but otherwise, I surrendered to menial tasks.

Truly shining in a technical profession is a political game if you’re a woman. As the lead on a pilot test in a new city, I interpreted the results with an older male engineer. To explain the anomalies in the data plot, I said, “This is coming from the 50 Hertz noise, from the power outlet.” He said that no, it wasn’t. A few minutes later, our boss said, “This is the 50 Hertz noise that is coming from the power outlet.” To that, he agreed. On another business trip, my job was to set up and demonstrate the capability of the systems that my managers and I had designed for our client. By the third day, they were having secret technical meetings with the customer in the break room, sharing a bag of potato chips from the vending machine. Those chips could have been caviar to me. I realised that no man wants a woman to explain to him a technical concept, but they would rather do the explaining and keep you out of the detailed discussions.

Forget trying to be an average engineer as a woman. You must be extraordinary. Sometimes, campaigns go nuts with statistics that show how much better girls test than boys in school. For example, A-level class results in the UK show that girls were 1.7 per cent more likely to earn an A* in Physics than their male counterparts. Trying to live up such lofty standards, I ran myself into the ground saying yes all the time. Once, I agreed to build a central nervous system for an industrial heating and cooling chamber on top of my regular work. Even though I didn’t finish within the irrational timeframe, it was an incredible feat of engineering. All I got was a mean look from my boss. What’s horrible is that guys don’t have to work as hard to get a pat on the back from their bosses. Take for instance a group of mechanical engineers I worked with. All they did was flex their muscles and talk about their girlfriends all day, while their work was always respected. I had to work twice as hard to have the same recognition.

Other women that I have met in field have been uninspiring. At the end of my internship phase, two women pulled me into their project. I quickly saw that their jobs were vastly less technical than the stuff I was doing with the all-men’s group. Whereas I was previously free to invent moving machines in my male manager’s team, I was given the most painless job ever by these women: logging observations in a lab notebook. Unfortunately, these would be the first and last female engineering managers that I would ever encounter in my career. During that time, the female interns who were hired after graduation were the ones who gave the office something to gossip about at the water cooler every morning. They were all sleeping with the much older men on the team. I didn’t want to be a part of that culture.

Even so, the attention to sex never ceased, even after I became a full-time professional. One of the major privileges of the graduate training scheme I took part in was meeting the CEO of the company, an alumnus of our program and scion of the group. Gracing the trainees with his presence was an initiation rite into the company’s veritable royal family that would one day welcome us into its highest ranks. I watched as he circled the table, silently shaking each person’s hand. What would my turn be like? Maybe he had heard about the project I was working on. Or, he was going to tell me how he had been waiting for the perfect person to come along to build the company’s US business. He approached my chair. This was my moment.

“Tina,” I offered, as he took my hand.

“Very nice to meet you,” he said to my chest.

Meeting the other upper management wasn’t any more promising. One time, when I was introduced to a vice president, two of his associates circled around me like vultures and gave me the once-over. Again, at an informal interview, people who should have been impressed with the insight I gave to them gave me the once-over. First day in a new office, the once-over again! Sometimes, you feel cheapened by the way some men in the industry perceive you. Other times, you just feel like you sat on something.

After all of my travails, I’ve ended up in something called quality engineering. Well, my title is Quality and Development Engineer, but I keep being pushed out of the development part. The most engineer-y part of my job is coming up with innovative systems to nag people to keep their standards high. The most technical part of the software we develop is hashed out among the men, and I standby, but I choose my battles now. I’m willing to let it slide because I cannot ask for better people to work with; they treat me like family, and I feel valued. There are no avenues for progression, and my salary has stagnated for years, but I’ll let it go, at least for this year. It’s hard to put value on respect, but lately, I’ve been thinking about re-calculating my professional options. It is likely that I’ll become another statistic, yet another woman who has left the STEM field.

Ten years since I first stepped foot in the engineering world, I feel like dropping out. Perhaps I was naïve to have tried to break out of a gender stereotype by becoming a female engineer, and the best thing for me to do now is put away my computing software for good. For this movement to work, our culture needs to change. Women should keep networking. Or maybe more women should just start their own tech companies. Or move to Asia. Out of all of the places in the world where I have worked, Asia is the most respectful. As for me, maybe I’ve done my duty by just getting my story out there. I’ve learned that the industry wasn’t ready for me, but now I can say that I’ve been there.  

Annette Ashby, the first woman to be elected as a member of the Society of Engineers, at work in 1925. Photo: Getty

Tina Amirtha spends part of her time developing software and the other part, writing. She contributes regularly to The Next Women Business Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @tinamirtha.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.