Like A Girl

Pushing the conversation on gender equality.

Code Like A Girl

The experience of a woman entering a male-dominated industry

“You’re too pretty for that!”

“Don’t worry, you’ll get the job. There’s a lot of hype around women and diversity right now.”

“Wow! A woman in mechanical engineering; that’s uncommon!”

Throughout my life I’ve been told that engineering wasn’t a career for someone like me.

In high school I was constantly reminded, “Women belong in the kitchen.”

Media paints the picture of successful females in STEM with glasses, wearing gender-neutral clothes and acting like “one of the guys.”

Although I spent most of my time ignoring it, I didn’t fit into the car obsessed, Star Trek/Wars-watching engineer stereotype.

Thankfully, the explicit jokes have faded from my every day life — but the reminders are still there as I come to the end of my Masters degree.

“Don’t worry, you’ll get the job. There’s a lot of hype around women and diversity,” tells me my inferior engineering skills may not hold me back as much as they used to.

“You’re too pretty for that!” tries to remind me my value to society as an object to look at, is greater than what I can contribute with my ideas.

These kind of messages do get to me. And still, to this day, make me question where my career is going and whether I can ever really be successful in what I’m doing.

Do I really belong in engineering? Can I even call myself an engineer?

“I’ll probably just end up in management. I don’t really see myself as a mechanical engineer,” I would proudly explain as I tried to push myself into the stereotype I believed people would accept.

I often felt squashed by the idea that I’m going to be less effective because I’m different.

Engineering education had involved many male professors lecturing me, reading textbooks written by white males and watching male CEO’s presenting the next ground-breaking technology in the industry.

I realized that this “squashed” sensation was coming from a feeling there is a set of skills and behaviors that make engineers successful.

I thought, in order to be successful, an engineer had to master these equations, behaviors and tools — and apply them.

These traits I was trying to fit were a reflection of the generations of white male engineers. These skills and tools I was trying to master were built by them, too.

Of course I was going to feel inadequate! I was comparing myself to a yardstick used to measure an “idea” of what a good engineer was.

When actually, this “idea” really isn’t innate to our universe — we built it.

We built the idea of what it means to be an “engineer” and transcribed it into a dictionary, along with textbooks to use as guides to its mastery.

I spent so many years despairing that I already felt so far behind. I felt different and wanted to give up.

I could barely even call myself an engineer. I haven’t had any internships at big engineering companies and I haven’t been working in my garage, hacking a motorized skateboard.

However, there were glorious moments I thought, “Yes! This is what I want to do; this is what I’m meant to do!” That kept pushing me forward.

Like that of mentors’ trying to explain to me how creative and important my perspective and ideas were.

My classmates asking for my carefully crafted notes, and getting exams back with the highest scores in my class.

Feelings of accomplishment after meetings at my entirely male company, where I’d lead discussions creating a plan for what we need to focus on.

I still don’t fit into the hoodie-wearing, car-obsessed, tech-guy stereotype — and I never will.

But my idea of what it takes to be a really great engineer is shifting.

I have been starting to see more clearly now the unique and crucial value I add that makes my teams successful. I only wish I had seen it sooner.

Now, instead of feeling like being different makes me less of an engineer, I suddenly feel like this difference is my superpower.

I feel the full weight of the value and perspective that I’m ready to add to the world.

Engineering has been shackled by stereotypes (and laws) that have sidelined more than half the population for generations. We are now finally being represented on the playing field.

The coaches are realizing our value and turning around to see a whole team of us waiting on the bench with fresh legs, ready to go.

It hit me like a wave when I realized. This is our time to change the game.

Women before us have proven it’s possible and paved the way, allowing us to be educated, have our voice heard and given a fair shot.

Now, we have the opportunity to stand up off the bench and show the world what we’ve got.

I remember a distinct moment during this summer. I was riding my bike home from my internship when I realized…holy shit.

We’re about to have a whole new generation of incredibly talented, hardworking and different people enter every industry.

Companies and economies are finally realizing the obvious business and societal value of these different perspectives and the incredible power of diverse teams.

Holy shit. I thought to myself. The idea that I had to conform to the crusty old white male way of engineering NEARLY sucked my passion and super power right out of me.

I don’t have to stress over the fact I haven’t memorized the stupid formulas!

I don’t have to pretend to be interested in the debate over Star Trek vs. Star Wars.

I don’t have to laugh along with sexist jokes in order to prevent my male colleagues from feeling uncomfortable.

I am different, I am valuable and my perspective and ideas can change the world. I am a great engineer right now.

I’m not “great” because I had to go against the stereotypes to get here. I am not “great” because I’m in the minority and I’m certainly not “great” because you didn’t expect me to be this good.

Women are great engineers because we can look at the world’s problems, consider all the possibilities and find creative ways to build a solution.

We are so great it’s depressing to think that only around 9% of the engineering workforce are women.

It’s maddening when you realize we’ve essentially disempowered half our population for generations, depriving society of amazing, creative and ground breaking ideas

So I ask, the next time you speak to a woman studying or working in a male dominated field, resist the urge to just emphasize how surprised you are, and instead, offer up phrases like:

  • “What projects are you working on?”
  • “Good, we need more women in these industries.”
  • “That’s great. What kind of problems are you going to solve?”

Tell young women their choices DO fit into your expectations of what they can be.

I, and all the young women entering male dominated industries, don’t need you to tell us how hard you think we must have worked against the odds.

We need you to challenge us to think bigger.

We need you to ask us how we’re going to change the world.

And we need you to genuinely want us to know that we can do it.

Vicki Powell — Mechanical Engineer. Connect with me via LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram or email.