I’ve been in engineering for three decades, a non-degreed woman. I’ve engineered and led incredible mega-million dollar projects. But every step of my career was a struggle, as I had to work twice as hard and long as my teams. I did the role of leading teams, but was refused the title and pay simply because I was a woman. This is my story, one woman’s perspective of being a woman in technology.
The glass ceiling is much lower than many realize. Throughout my career, that ceiling hung over me, an extra weight and burden I had to carry. I was heavily recruited, given lead roles, and sat at the table with the big corporate boys. The largest projects were given to me. Together with my team, we built incredible manufacturing automation systems.
I’ve been told that women can’t lead, men won’t follow a woman, and men won’t accept a woman in a leadership role. Yet, I was tasked with leading the teams, driving the projects, and delivering the solutions whether as the lead engineer or project manager. Wait, what? The math does not add up. But this is the reality of my career and my experience of women in technology.
A Chilling Fact
I worked with exactly seven (7) women engineers in my career. Seven. I’ve worked with hundreds of men, but only seven women.
Where are all the women?
Yes, it’s hard to work in this profession. Yes, it’s a struggle and men will try to hold you down. But you have so much to give and this profession of science, math, and technology needs you.
Let me share my story or at least highlights of it. I will preface this story by saying, it is getting better. You can help make it even better.
Women Are Not Invited – I Invited Myself
In 1984, I went to the Navy recruitment office to enlist. I wanted to go to school and learn technology. After one year in college, we were out of money and my options were limited. I could return home and work in the factory with my father, or I could make my own way. I choose adventure and the promise to see the world. But the recruiter told me that technology was not a profession for women. What?
I didn’t know that professions were divided into genders.
Growing up, my mother and grandmother taught me to be a person and not a gender. They taught me to be a rational, creative, intelligent, over-achieving, and driven person. There were no stereotypes in my young world. I had no sense of gender specificity. It was foreign to me to hear a man tell me that I couldn’t do something I wanted to do.
I didn’t know professionals were divided into genders.
He didn’t know me. I was taught to go get what you want, to be bold and assertive, and never accept limitations. He saw me as a young “woman,” but I saw what I wanted. I enlisted.
I excelled in my first school, scoring the highest they had ever had. I was called out of class one afternoon and two officers informed me that I was being transferred into the Electronics and Electricity Program. They said that I should be in the nuclear program, but that was restricted to only men. Yippee, I get to do something in technology [heart flutter].
I loved every moment of the training, which was deep into electronic theory, components, architecture, and lab work. When I was young, my mother and I built circuit boards and various components just for the fun it. Learning deeply about electron theory was thrilling to me. Seeing the waveforms on the oscilloscope brought the circuits to life. For the first time, school challenged and excited me.
Although I was an A student throughout my school years, it never challenged me. I rarely brought books home. I refused to memorize. I learned by knowing the why of it. Then it just stuck in my brain. Here in class and especially in the lab, I had to work. I loved it.
Although I was top of my school, I was honorably discharged in 1986 after graduating A School. I had come out that year, which was not acceptable for service.
A Navy Chief gave me my first opportunity in engineering. The facility where he worked was being fully automated with new computer-controlled systems. He needed a person on his team who could work with the Texas Instruments (TI) engineers and scientists to handle the transition when they left. He knew the Navy turned out top-notch professionals. He gave me a chance.
You have to be at least twice as good as the men to be invited to the project.
I worked with an incredible team from TI. They had no respect for me, a young woman with no credentials or degree. I was their coffee getter. But I made sure I was in every meeting and sat right beside them as they worked on the deployment. I asked questions and typically was ignored. But I learned.
Then one day, Linda, walked into the control room. She was an engineer working for the company that architected the entire facility upgrade. She took an interest in me immediately. I became her apprentice. She generously answered all of my questions, gave me hands-on insights about the technology, engineering, programming, and theory. The rest of her team also embraced me. I was learning from a team of brilliant engineers and scientists…finally.
Linda told me something that has stuck with me all these years later. She said:
“Men think engineering is a man’s profession. You have to be at least twice as good as they are to even be invited into the project. But they still won’t respect you. It’s just a fact you have to accept.”
I refused to accept it, but I adopted her “twice as good” advice. I invited myself to the projects until I was indispensable and they needed me.
I never realized how right she was. I had to be more than twice as good as the men on my team. I had to invite myself to the projects until I was indispensable and they needed me.
Women Can’t Lead – Watch Me
I was the lead engineer with the lesser title and pay. The assigned lead engineers quickly relinquished control to me, as they knew I would drive the project to completion and deliver results. But “technically” (meaning by “technicality”), a man was in charge.
I was told: “no man will ever follow or listen to a woman.”
When I asked my boss why I was the real team lead but was never promoted to that position, he (my bosses were always “he”) told me: “no man will ever follow or listen to a woman.” I was passed by for promotions simply because of my gender.
Our formula is wrong here.
On every project, I was the actual technical lead and doing the role. The teams listened to me. I ran the meetings. I set the schedule. When someone got out of line, I dealt with it. We were a team, a multi-disciplined team of electrical and software engineers, architects, and trade craftsman. I was the only woman. I was leading. I did a damn good job of it. I spoke directly with our clients and they were happy. Projects shipped in budget and on-time. I kept getting assigned the role without the title or pay.
I worked longer hours than most of the team, putting in 90-100 hour workweeks. I could stand toe-to-toe with anyone.
It was common for meetings to turn confrontational and even physical in one company I worked for in the early 1990s. Our Vice President of Engineering, Mike, insisted upon leading with an iron fist. He liked to yell, get in your face, and even throw things at you in meetings. I remember one meeting where a stapler went flying by my head. That was the environment I worked in.
Mike and I got along, as I understood him and wasn’t afraid to stand up to him. I held my ground, explained and debated with fact and reasonable thought. He respected that.
He was informally mentoring me, as he invited me into the executive meetings and on trips to the larger clients’ meetings. At times, he let me take the lead or would call on me to provide more details. Sitting with all these men at the big boys’ table, I was getting an education.
After four years, I walked into Mike’s office and demanded to be promoted to the position that I had been doing since I was recruited to join the company. He sat me down and told me:
“We will never promote a woman to that level, as men will not accept a woman in that role.”
He told me that I should be “thrilled”, as I’m the only woman they’ve ever hired and the only one to ever run projects at this level. He said I should be thrilled to be given this honor.
Let’s break his words down and read between the lines.
- I’m good enough to directly lead the projects and run the teams.
- You believe in me enough to put me in a chair at the table and talk with the big dogs at the largest clients.
- But because I’m a woman, I can’t have the title or pay.
I have the role, but not the title. Does that make sense to you? [Hey, you better be shaking your head from side-to-side.]
Women can lead. People will follow anyone who is a true visionary and inspirational leader.I left shortly after that conversation and accepted a position as Engineering Manager. Mike was furious when I turned in my notice.
Women can lead. People (including men) will follow her when she’s a true leader. Women must be recognized for the contribution we bring to this world.
Women Can Do Anything – Recognize Us
Yes, discrimination runs rampant in engineering. I rarely ever saw another woman in the trades, project management, or engineering. Women were in support roles, HR, or Marketing. But most of the time, it didn’t bother me. I loved my work.
The men I worked with saw me as one of them.
I earned their respect by knowing my stuff, backing them up, and being a charismatic leader. They knew I had their backs and, together, we built amazing solutions for our clients. To my teams, that’s all that mattered. Rarely did I run up against someone who challenged me simply because of my gender. We worked together.
And when I moved into management, the men followed. When I left that company to start my own consultancy firm, the team I built quit and came with me.Women can lead & engineer. We are brilliant & creative. We have much to contribute. #womenintech Click To Tweet
Listen up, World. Women can lead. We can engineer.
Women can lead. Women can engineer. Women are brilliant and creative. We have much to contribute, innovations yet to be imagined, and solutions yet to be built. We are half of this world. When we choose to step into science and technology (or any profession), we are valuable members of the profession. When we choose to stay home and take care of our families, we are valuable members of our community and world.
Listen up, World. Stop seeing us as just here to support your ambitions. We can do anything. We are here to help build a better world…with you.
The world needs diversity to solve complex problems.