Community: Reflecting as a female engineering intern

A few weeks ago, on the last day of my internship, a female colleague approached me and asked for my thoughts on the gender balance in our workplace. I considered it for a moment, and replied that, although I was aware an imbalance existed, it was not drastic enough that I had ever consciously felt it. And besides, I said, all of the women who worked with us had strong presences in the office – they were smart, well-spoken, passionate, and they made themselves heard. Exactly, my colleague replied softly –  they wouldn’t be here otherwise.

She makes a good point. Every single woman in the office was exceptional. All were well-known faces within the company, all made memorable contributions to meetings – or at least, that was my impression. On the surface, that sounds fantastic. The problem is, the same didn’t appear to be true of the men.

Yes, many of them were exceptional too, but many were also perfectly ordinary – pleasant and competent but unremarkable, with names and faces I cannot recall. I don’t mean that as a criticism: by definition, not everyone can have been an A+ student, not everyone is able to juggle three extracurricular pursuits. In any given context, a smattering of ordinaryness is very, very normal. This begs the question: where were the ordinary women?

Possibly, the answer lies simply in my own biases. As a women in engineering, perhaps I am subconsciously inclined to be on the lookout for other women in my workplace, so they make more of an impression in my memory than an entirely equivalent man would. Alternatively, it may be a question of self selection: perhaps female engineers feel obliged, consciously or not, to hold themselves to high standards – to prove in case any doubters should come knocking that yes, they are just as capable of doing the job as a man. Or maybe the answer is much more vanilla than that – maybe prospective female candidates, still, are subject to more interviewer scrutiny than their male counterparts, resulting in none but the most charismatic actually getting hired in the first place.

This not a new problem, and in all honesty I don’t know exactly which version of it the engineering profession is suffering from. I only have my own observations to go on, and those are neither broad ranging nor particularly objective. Rather than delving into that further, then, let’s take a step back from the engineering workplace and look at its precursor: university.

Within the university context, my experience as a woman in engineering has been overwhelmingly positive. From my peers, I have attracted far more judgement for my decision to study a BA conjoint than for my decision to become an engineer. In fact, the latter choice has never been called into question, not once. I have never felt like I was being treated differently to my male colleagues, or that I was at a disadvantage to them. In fact, in a strange sort of way, the opposite has occasionally been true: come internship-hunting season, as a result of social outcome targets that most large firms have started to set, it can sometimes be easier to find employment as a female engineering student.

Of course, my experience has not been an accident: organisations such as WEN (the Women in Engineering Network) pour constant (and commendable) effort into making female engineering students feel supported, and helping them to succeed. WEN’s continued existence is a reminder that gender equality in engineering still needs a helping hand to flourish. Moreover, even though my experience has been a positive one, it may not be especially representative. Outside of my gender, I am privileged in just about every other way that a person can be. I suspect that shields me – both from experiencing, and from being aware of – many of the difficulties that other women in engineering face.

One glimpse of this comes from examining the ethnic diversity within the women of my specialisation – approximately half are Asian, approximately half are Pakeha, and that’s pretty much it. It would be easy enough to chalk this up to a small sample size, or to being a reflection of the wider lack of diversity in higher education. I don’t doubt that both of these are factors. However, a small glance at the men in my class, and their (comparatively) greater diversity, suggests those are not the only factors at play.

Even taking that into account, though, I suspect that the biggest problem doesn’t lie at university; not really, not anymore. One quarter of my cohort, now in their fourth and final year, are women. When we started, in 2015, this was the highest percentage of women the faculty had ever had – I believe that figure has been eclipsed since, a trend the faculty can and should be proud of. Once here, we are, largely, treated as equals, as totally ordinary students; by our peers and lecturers alike.

Why doesn’t the workplace reflect this? I think (perhaps naïvely) that the answer here is relatively straightforward: time.  An undergraduate degree spans an age gap of four years, give or take. The workforce spans something closer to fifty. A cultural shift takes a lot longer to propagate through that many generations of engineers. But, as my cohort rise up the ranks of the workforce, the open attitude which now welcomes female engineers at university will eventually, I hope, become entrenched in the workplace psyche too.

The persisting risk to female engineers, then, as far as I can see, lies not in the workplace, or at university, but in the attitudes of everyday people.  It’s the risk that one too many people will look just a little too surprised when a girl suggests she’d like to be an engineer. It’s the risk that one too many family friends will presume to ask ‘What’s it like being in such a male dominated degree?’ rather than simply, ‘Cool, how’s that going?’. It’s the risk that young women don’t actually make it to the degree in the first place.

So, what can we do? The short answer is, we make a conscious effort to counteract these unconscious dissuasions. Groups such as robogals, people like Nanogirl, do a fantastic job of this already, by promoting Engineering as an accessible and exciting career option for girls. The more we pitch engineering as a normal choice for women – not just in our fliers, but in our actions, our smalltalk – the more it will become so.

 

To return to the colleague I mentioned at the beginning: yes, female engineers still face barriers. Through no doing of my own, I have been fortunate enough to sidestep many of them – others have not been so lucky. We’re not over the hill yet. But, at least from my corner of the world, it feels like we’re headed in the right direction.