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.


Lakshmi Sarah
by Lakshmi Sarah
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Born and raised in California, Lakshmi Sarah is an educator and journalist with a focus on South Asia, gender, race and the arts. Over the past few years, she has worked with newspapers, radio and magazines from Gaborone, Botswana to Los Angeles. She has written and produced for various audiences, including PolicyMic, Global Voices, Al Jazeera Online, AJ+ and KQED Arts. She is currently a graduate student at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism focusing on multimedia.

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17 Comments Have Been Posted

Six Tips

These are great tips (except for #2 as it suggests to me that the emotionality of women is both a certainty and a negative trait) for general success in life and a career. I would love to hear why we think these differences arise in the first place. Why are girls encouraged to play passively and boys actively? Why do we control female children more? Why are girls up to three times more likely to suffer from depression or anxiety once they become exposed to the life they are SUPPOSED to lead. Bravo for these ladies, how do we get more?

To me these aren't tips so

To me these aren't tips so much as how women are suppose to conform to the system. #2 is play nice with others.... and as women aren't we already socialized to please others, and make other people feel better? #4 touches on not being the emotional woman, accepting the criticism of the males in the field. Its close to saying that the criticism you are going to receive (some of it just for being a woman in the field) is okay and you just need to be gracious about it. #6 is way of saying be okay with not earning as much, the only thing that is important for women at work is that they love what they do.... nothing about status, money or power here (that's for men?). And #3 is how we are responsible for working around the bias of our supervisors?

As a female in a science field, this is not the advice I would give. How about be assertive? Don't back down if you know you're right? If you think someone is bluffing their way through the conversation, ask pointed questions? Don't be apologetic if what motivates you is status and money. Take opportunities to lead if they are offered to you. Actively reach out and mentor females that report to you. Thinks strategically about the job you want, and work actively to get it.

I'm sure there are more... but be nice and learn to fail is not the message I think we need.

I agree. Also, these seem

I agree. Also, these seem very general and not specific at all to being a minority in a majority dominated field. As a female engineer who routinely works with no other female engineers the tougher questions are:

*How to handle sexist remarks
*How to remain true to any stereotypically feminine traits you may have(for instance a love of high heels or a hobby of knitting is not going to help you blend in and make friends...)
*How to handle male/female friendships with your coworkers when they and/or their spouses may be uncomfortable with it or find it inappropriate
*How to feel comfortable having a closed door discussion with your (most likely male) supervisor
*How to deflect the constant questions about when/if you will have children (that no one asks your male coworkers...)
*How to ensure you are being fairly paid

I couldn't agree more as a

I couldn't agree more as a fellow female engineer with your first two points. Dealing with sexist comments and how I (I hate to phrase it this way) choose to present/share/express the"Girlier" sides of me is the hardest for me. All the advice in the column is sound but good advice for anyone really not just women.

But definitely don't forget, do what you love!

Math/Physics student here...

While I thought the tips were fairly helpful, I really wish that they had included "be assertive".

I'm a woman with a degree in physics who's pursuing another degree in math. Eventually, I want to get my PhD in theoretical physics. I have a good pedigree, but I still struggle with self-confidence and assertiveness. While some of this pressure is just because of my naturally perfectionist nature, I also feel the added responsibility of having to represent all of womankind and show that they can excel in technical and math-intensive fields. The pressure is very difficult to deal with. That being said, I love what I'm doing, so I'm not quitting any time soon.

This is probably a very general question, but does anyone have any suggestions for actually becoming more assertive and self-confident?

In high school, I requested

In high school, I requested auto shop and wood shop several times and was never granted either of them. When I met with my counselor, she looked at my schedule requests and said, "Wow, your interests are so well-rounded," but then proceeded to tell me how other classes would be more useful to me. Ugh. Of course, I got into the modern dance class 3 years in a row, no questions asked.

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Hooray for these women!!! It

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