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.

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Next month's Spanish election is on a knife edge

After a December election failed to produce a clear result, Spain goes to the polls again a month today - but the result will likely be tight again.

In December 2015, Spain had the general election Britain was predicted to have had last year: the two biggest parties unable to form a majority, with two smaller parties playing kingmaker. In the United Kingdom, the Liberal Democrats did so much worse than predicted that the Tories were able to scrape a majority from their losses. In Spain, however, the two older, established parties performed so badly, they ended up with just 50 per cent of the national vote between them. The bulk of the remaining votes went, primarily, to two parties contesting a Spanish general election for the first time: Podemos and Ciudadanos.

The two largest parties falling from 75 per cent of the national vote share to 50 per cent was a political earthquake, but one that was expected. Over the past few years, a series of corruption scandals saw support from traditional, unionist voters for the establishment dwindle. Before the results came in, most of the Spanish media had predicted that a two-party coalition would be necessary to reach the 176 Deputies needed for a majority. However, neither the two major right-leaning nor left-leaning parties were able meet the threshold together. This was in part due to how close the final result was, but also because of 26 Deputies being split between five small, regional parties. Why a coalition wasn’t formed with some of these smaller parties needs a bit of backstory.

Of the two biggest, and most established, parties, the largest at the last election was the incumbent Partido Popular (PP). In English, their name means The People’s Party. The irony here is that a former minister in the regime of Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco, founded the PP’s original incarnation, the People’s Alliance. The dictatorship lasted from 1936 to 1975, so there still are plenty of people who remember life under its oppression.

The PP’s closest equivalent in Britain would be the Tories. Both represent the interests of the establishment, oppose regional devolution, and are deeply ideologically conservative.

I spent a couple of years living in Spain, specifically in Tenerife and Pamplona. In both the Canary Islands and Navarre, there is a strong local identity separate to that of Spain; in Navarre, there is even a language, Basque, which is completely unrelated to Spanish. What these two regions, at opposite ends of the country, also have in common, is large numbers of people with a deeply rooted hatred of the Franco dictatorship and its descendants. While there are plenty of politically conservative voters, they refuse to vote for a party with such strong links to the dictatorship.

Nonetheless, the PP won the most Deputies in the December election, which afforded them the first opportunity to form a government. Their most obvious coalition partner was the Ciudadanos party (Cs). In English, their name translates to Citizens. They were founded a decade ago in reaction to Catalan separatism, which they perceived as anti-Spanish, and three years ago they began to organise nationally. The Cs found masses of support amongst liberal and conservative voters who opposed further devolution, but wouldn’t vote for the PP.

It’s hard to find a British equivalent, but the closest would be the Ulster Unionist Party, if they had more Liberal Democrat policies and decided to field candidates in the rest of the UK, appealing to those who oppose Scottish and Welsh nationalism.

I worked for an environmental charity in Tenerife and in primary schools in Pamplona. Neither of these jobs was political in the government and elections sense, and yet co-workers and neighbours discussed the struggle between regional and national identity every day. After four decades of dictatorship, support for devolution was inevitable. But after years of nationalist and seperatist parties emphasising the divisions between their communities and the rest of Spain, perhaps the rise of a post-nationalist party should have been expected.

The Cs’ central tenet of anti-nationalism quickly became as popular in the many Spanish regions with separatist parties as it was in their native Catalonia. However, they only won 40 Deputies, which, when added to the PP’s 123, fell 13 short of a majority.

The PP’s main rival for 40 years has been the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE). Its name translates as The Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, and is, unsurprisingly, a party founded by socialists that looks a lot like the UK Labour Party. In 2016, and for at least the past decade prior, the PSOE has been far more New Labour than Labour. Nonetheless, the PSOE weathered the rise of two insurgent parties better than the PP, but still came second, with 90 seats.

The PSOE’s most obvious choice for a coalition partner was the left-wing Podemos (in English: We Can). Podemos, a coalition of left-wing parties, is best described as an anti-austerity, anti-corruption party: essentially, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. They have since formed a new alliance with other left-wing parties, becoming Unidos Podemos (UP), which translates as United We Can. UP is a larger coalition, combining communists, greens, and socialist regional parties who want independence or greater autonomy. Together, they won 71 seats, which, when added to the PSOE’s 90, left them 15 short.

This meant that the larger parties had to consider involving some of the 26 Deputies belonging to the five regional parties. The problem they encountered was that these five small parties were divided between conservatives and socialists, as well as unionists and nationalists.

On a purely left to right scale, there were 11 socialists, which meant that even if they joined with the centre-left PSOE and left-wing UP, they would still have fallen short of a majority. This left 15 conservative Deputies, which would have given a coalition of the conservative PP and centre-right C’s two more than needed for a majority. What stopped this before it could begin were the PP and C’s anti-separatist ideologies. So, while they may have agreed on just about every topic, the subject of devolution was too divisive for a conservative coalition to have been possible.

So, you might wonder, if the left didn’t have the numbers and the right did but couldn’t work together, were there any other options? Of course there were! Any three of the four biggest parties could have formed a coalition with a large majority, but, as you should expect by now, negotiations failed.

Put simply, the historic divide between the PP and PSOE made their coalition as likely as a Tory-Labour one. The Cs, positioning themselves as centrists, seemed willing to work with either of the bigger, older parties, but refused to form a coalition with UP, due to the latter’s support for a Catalan independence referendum. The PP refused to work with UP for the same reason, in addition to their massive political differences.

So, after negotiations failed, a second election had to be called so the electorate would solve the problem for the politicians. Any hope the two older parties had of the insurgent Cs or UP collapsing, and their votes being swept up by the old guard look increasingly unlikely.

Recent polls show UP has edged above the PSOE, and is now in second place. The Cs are also rising, with the PP maintaining its numbers and PSOE slightly slipping a percentage or two into third place. The gained votes are coming from the smaller parties, particularly Catalan nationalists, who have split into two parties and stand to lose seats as a result.

Next month’s result, however, may not be all that different to December’s, given Spain’s use of proportional representation to elect its Deputies. The current small swing of a few per cent won’t drastically alter the end result in the same way it would in Britain. However, all that’s needed to break the deadlock is a very small shift towards any of the 4 big players.

Based on recent polls, I predict the election next month will produce a coalition, albeit one with a razor thin majority. At the moment, it feels like the left and the right have equal chance to scrape victory, but both scenarios would result in governments that depend upon compromise, not just within their coalitions, but with their oppositions too. This is something Spanish parties have yet to master, and, until they do, Spain won’t have a government for the foreseeable future.

The effects this will have on the European Union remain to be seen, as whoever leads the next Spanish government as their Prime Minister, is currently anyone’s guess.