Lakshmi Sarah

Producer, Educator & Writer

Six Tips From Women Working Male-Dominated Engineering Fields

One of my greatest high school regrets is that I never took an auto shop class. I would have had a chance to learn some practical skills like changing oil and changing a tire. At the time, I doubt it fit into my schedule, but entering a class of mostly boys scared me as well. It’s not that I was afraid of boys—I considered myself a feminist despite not fully understanding what that meant—but it would still have been intimidating to walk into a classroom full of dudes.

When does this happen, this point where men are encouraged in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math and women are left out? My mother teaches kindergarten; in her class, all the kids seem equally excited by counting and banana slugs. But somehow, by the time women reach the higher echelons of education, there is sorting out, if you will, in which mostly men go in one direction and women in another.
Bitch has covered the reasons behind the lack of women in science and technology fields before, but I wanted to get a personal perspective on what it’s like to work in a predominantly male discipline. I called up two women with advanced degrees in engineering fields and put together a list of five big things they’ve learned about working in these male-dominated fields.
The women I spoke with were Maura Raburn, a Silicon Valley tech worker who has a Ph.D in Electrical and Computer Engineering from U.C. Santa Barbara and Rebecca Batchelder, an LA water engineer who did a Masters in Environmental Engineering at Tufts University.

Raburn said she liked being a gender minority most of the time in school because she did well in most of her classes and had a more generous scholarship than most of her male peers. “I felt I was representing well for my gender, both during my Ph.D. and post-doc,” she says.  Batchelder’s choice of career combines her passions: She decided on Civil Engineering initially because she liked “building things and was good at math,” and chose the environmental track after her involvement with environmental activism. In graduate school, the majority of Batchelder’s classmates happened to be women but all of the professors were male. “It was difficult. In part because grad school is difficult, but also having male professors was challenging,” she says. Batchelder recalls a classmate complaining that when she told her advisor she needed to finish her PhD in four years so that she could begin having children, he replied that he had children while he was getting his PhD—and failed to recognize that he had a stay at home wife.

Batchelder now works at a company with a majority of women, and two male bosses. “I usually find myself as the only female engineer at meetings, even though on a daily basis I interact with women regularly,” she says.

So what have they learned? Here are six nuggets of wisdom:

1. Make friends with your colleagues, both male and female.  Your network is your biggest asset.  Seriously.  This might not seem the case now, but it really matters who your friends are in your field.

2. Learn to take criticism well—consider the validity of the feedback without getting too wrapped up in emotion.

3. Go looking for general career advice. A good source for those starting their careers is the Manager Tools/Career Tools series. Some managers are afraid to give women the feedback they need, for fear of hurting feelings. Read and listen for your own mistakes.
4. Take up a sport where you lose sometimes. Get in the habit of picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and starting again.  Raburn’s years of judo helped her lose some of her unhelpful perfectionism.
5. Life is too short not to be treated professionally. If someone with power over you is treating you unprofessionally, try to change the situation, get them to be held accountable, or get out as soon as you can. There will always be other opportunities.
6. Do what you love. That is more important than anything.

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This entry was posted on February 18, 2013 by in B*tch Magazine.


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