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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.

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

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.