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Sexism and the Good Engineer

December 1, 2011

I’ve discussed before on this blog how female engineers are pretty sparse at my company, and pretty sparse in my department. But the weird thing is the chasm between entry level and management. If you go down to early career female engineers, there is a sprinkling of them all over. And they’ve grown since I’ve started here. Look at management and while I wouldn’t say the numbers are fair or representative, there are several female engineers in various departments. In fact I had the opportunity to work for one of them before she retired. So where are all the mid-career women?

I suppose the argument my male colleagues would toss around is that they all left to go have babies. Or that possibly there are just more women engineers now (which isn’t entirely true, women majoring in mechanical seems to have stayed relatively flat over the last couple decades). But I wonder where the trend will be in another decade. There’s a good pool of early career engineers around now. Since I’m one of these people, I don’t know whether this has always been the case. Maybe they do leave. Maybe most of them get discouraged by the industry or the good old boys clubs or want something more fulfilling. I suppose it’s possible that in the next decade I’ll see them grow into mid-level engineers. But I have my doubts.

It seems like the engineering world allows only for the fantastic female engineer. She must be twice as talented as all her colleagues. She is probably not too much of a specialist, or remains a generalist enough that combined with how awesome she is she eventually succeeds at being promoted into management. She probably takes this route because there is more resistance in moving up into a senior engineer role or senior technical specialist. Management with its "soft" skills might in fact be easier for her to move up in.

While I’ve considered management as a possible future roll for me it almost makes me want to take a step back from my situation and then figure out a way to buck the trend. Why can’t these highly successful women move into technical specialist roles or achieve the same sort of respect and seniority that many of the "expert" engineers around here have where they are the senior voice in that particular sub-topic and are allowed to move up and into that role without necessarily becoming someone’s supervisor. The problem is I think this is much harder.

I think it’s easier to get into a project management role. Organizational skills are expected from a woman whether she is particularly good at it or not. As engineers everywhere are expected to take on more than just their job many women find themselves being asked to keep meeting minutes or maintain spreadsheets or action item lists. It’s not such a bad idea to have one of your engineers taking on these tasks rather than a non-technical support staff individual, but it’s disappointing to watch these assignments always go to the female. Or if there is no female it may not even be done in that group. It’s almost an invention to keep the women busy with something like that so they don’t have the time to build up the hands on experience or technical expertise. I am certain that many in my chain of command consider me to be better than average at organizational skills and worse than average at hands on work or technical troubleshooting. The problem is they don’t base these assessments off of my true skills, but just who they think I am. And while I see my male colleagues advised and mentored and allowed to take on these very meaty assignments I am often told my priorities are elsewhere. Or that I need not worry about some particular thing because Steve is going to do that part. And turning down the soft assignments is generally not a fantastic idea in the business world. But somehow I always have time for more of those types of things, but am too busy to build a test rig work on a new design fixture.

So while I always knew gaining this kind of technical expertise was going to be a challenge for me, I’m seeing it in a different light now. It’s almost as much about moving away from the management path as it is about moving towards the technical aspects. I heard a female manager criticized the other day for not having the technical expertise her subordinates do. Her advantage of course is that she was the primary choice for management whereas her subordinates were considered to not have the correct skills for administration and supervising. But I don’t want to move up here only to find people are saying the same sorts of things about me behind my back.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. December 1, 2011 2:04 pm

    I’m still in school but I’ve started thinking about what I want my role in a company to be. I’m in electrical which might be a little different, but I feel that same dichotomy. I want to be known as a fantastic engineer, not necessarily as the boss. I have a background of those “soft skills” since I graduated from law school but I’d really like to cut my teeth on serious engineering.

    I’ve only done one group project so far and it was myself and 6 guys. Guess who organized everything and kept the group moving along? I did contribute to the “meat” of the project as well but they were more than happy to nominate me as the troop mother/secretary/project manager. I wonder what will happen as I progress in my studies.

  2. frautech permalink*
    December 1, 2011 9:17 pm

    katie- Good point that it’s often the group think that places these tasks on to women not just one person or one boss. And I too came from a “soft” background so I’m sure that doesn’t help. But then, would a guy who had gone to law school be looked at the same way? I’m not sure.

  3. December 1, 2011 9:27 pm

    Is my company just abnormal or is the high tech world just very different than other fields of engineering? There aren’t a whole lot of women at my workplace, but of the ones that are around, they do occupy some very hardcore senior technical positions. I consult with these women on a regular basis. Are they “twice as talented” as their male counterparts? No. But they are very good, which is why they sit in the senior technical positions that they do.

    It seems like we live in opposite engineering universes, where my company is both minority-heavy and have a good proportion of women in high technical positions (but not in high management positions).

  4. December 3, 2011 9:34 am

    That’s an interesting post.

    Years ago when I was still practicing journalism, an interview subject — male — remarked that a disappointment he’d encountered as an engineer was that upward mobility meant moving into management. He and most of his colleagues and gone into engineering because they wanted to be engineers, not because they wanted to be managers.

    As to the travails of women engineers, I know little (but can imagine, after way too many years in academia, where we pretend not to discriminate against women). An academic friend who is a prominent Chinese mathematician working in the US once confessed that he believed women should not pursue math as a career. He was and is very committed to improving math education in the grades and at the undergraduate level for all young people, but when comes to graduate school, he feels men are more suited to the competition than women. This guy, who is a bit of a heavy hitter, was chair of the math department at a large public university.

    That kind of attitude, rarely articulated but always there, obviously works against women in STEM, whether in academia or the commercial workplace.

  5. December 5, 2011 5:05 pm

    Just stumbled upon your blog and I’ll be back! Women in engineering peaked at about 15% of attendees in the 1980’s and is back to about 10% now. Sad but true, and the concept that women have to be doubly good compared to men is also true.

    I believe that the fact that women are not the “stereotypical” engineer because we also have social skills in many cases (apologies to the non-stereotypical male engineers who do as well) – makes us a bit of an oddity for the legions of male engineers who often do not.

    Keep trudging forward – women in engineering need good role models and girls in high school need to see more options (like pursuing science and engineering). When the few female engineers we do have in our ranks leave the field (for reasons you’ve outlined), then the situation gets even worse. We need to stick together and make the industry better for everyone – males and females alike.

    Wishing you continued success!

    p.s., I’ve written a few “Dear Daughter – lessons from a female engineer” on my blog, the most recent is at


  6. codegirl permalink
    April 28, 2014 9:58 pm

    I know this was posted over 2 years ago, but it resonates with me. I see the same thing at my company. I’m still early-career (5 years out of college), but after going through my company’s engineering leadership program, I realize I want to become an engineering specialist over being a manager. Now that I’ve been put on a specialized team, the lead won’t let me do any of the “hard” work, assigning less experienced men to tasks of which I’m capable/interested in and having me do all the work involving cross-team communication (which I probably wouldn’t mind much if any of it were more technical and remotely interesting/challenging). This is the first time I’ve really experienced sexism to a point where it’s making me question my career choice. I know what I want to do, I know what I’m capable of, and I’ve proven to everyone else I’ve worked with that I know what I’m doing. To make matters worse, the comapny is aware of the situation (up to director/VP-level) but are extremely reluctant to take any disciplinary action (or even talk to) this person about his behavior because he’s close enough to retirement that he could just “walk away and leave us without his expertise.”


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