At all levels in your career as an engineer, you will find that women are a minority. Sometimes it is difficult to navigate the almost all-male environment of engineering. During the various stages of my career, from my time as a student to being a mid-career civil engineering professor, I’ve encountered different challenges.
In this post, I share my best tips on how to address the challenges women in engineering face at all stages of their career. These tips are related to navigating an environment that can be hostile to women at times, to improve the conditions for all women engineers, and building our legacy as trailblazers.
Tips for female engineering undergraduate students
While I had started engineering school with a high grade on the entrance exam, I had a hard time adjusting in the first semesters. Living away from my family, adjusting to the amount of study material, and suddenly being in an almost all-male environment made the transition from secondary school difficult. If you are starting engineering school, consider the following tips:
- Find a mentor: As a young female engineering student, you may feel disoriented. If your university does not assign a faculty member to be your mentor from the beginning of your studies, look for a professor who is willing to advise you whenever you have doubts.
- Study together with your classmates: Don’t isolate yourself from your classmates. If possible, look for a group of like-minded classmates, and get together to study throughout the year and towards the exams. Compare notes, ask each other questions, and be mutually supportive in your learning.
- Look for a safe space: Many universities have networks for women in engineering. Since gender-based bullying and everyday sexism are still prevalent in engineering schools, you may want to find a safe space early on. If ever you need to report a problem, you will already know which group can help you.
- Speak up: You don’t need to grit your teeth and smile if your classmates make unwanted comments about your looks because you are a woman. Learning to speak up and standing up for yourself, or vent about the issues in a safe space is necessary.
Tips for female engineering graduate students
Graduate school was mostly smooth sailing for me. My classmates during my master’s quickly realized I was a good student, and welcomed me into the group. During my PhD, I had a great time in the lab, and only an external provider asked in surprise “Is all that concrete we come to deliver for that girl?” If you are starting graduate school, you are often entering the stage of life during which you may be starting a family and feel ready to settle down in one place. Regardless of your family plans, you may want to consider my previous set of tips, as well as the following:
- Get additional communication training: If you struggle with confidence in communicating your research (both presenting at conferences and writing your journal papers), know that many universities offer training to improve your communication skills.
- Join a women’s network: Many universities have dedicated groups for women in engineering. Your graduate study years are an excellent time to lean in to these groups to develop your personal network.
- Learn about feeling like an imposter. Women are more likely to feel like an imposter. Learn about this topic, and get adequate training to improve your confidence.
- Take a workshop on gender bias: Did you know that reviewers tend to rate papers with a female first author lower than those with a male first author, or that women instructors consistently receive lower rating from their students? Gender bias in academia and engineering is still wide-spread. Understand the bias, and if possible, take your male colleagues to a workshop as well.
- Volunteer: Increase the visibility of women in engineering by volunteering for a wide range of activities: volunteer to give lectures on your research, make your research more visible by teaming up with the communications officer of your university, and by working on outreach activities for school-aged children.
Tips for early-career women in engineering
During my early career as an engineering professor, I was often mistaken for a student (and it still happens). My students also assumed that I would be a soft grader because of my gender, and put less effort in the class I teach. Course load reduction to get more time for research required more publications from my end than for my male counterparts. In addition to my previous tips, I recommend the following for early career women:
- Build a network: Whether in academia or outside, having a strong network is important for your career. While you may find networking intimidating, know that it simply is a skill you can learn. For example, you can have a set of standard questions you ask a new acquaintance to get the conversation started.
- Focus on work relationships: You may feel like the odd one out at work, but to become a trusted part of the group, you need to work on your relationships: with your colleagues, your team, your supervisors, and management.
- Protect your time and tasks: Gender bias seeps in at work when your colleagues ask you to organize an event, or a meeting, go make copies or bring coffee. All of these small tasks can add up and take time away from your work priorities. While you can chip in every now and then, don’t default to take on menial tasks.
- Critique your own biases: If you notice yourself critiquing the hair, dress, voice, or whatnot of female colleagues or students, stop yourself in your tracks. Instead, flip the script and think how wonderful it is to see another woman in your field.
Tips for mid-career women
As I’m now solidly in the mid-career stretch of my working life, I have gained a solid reputation for my research, and also still receive biased comments (such as: “You, a professor of concrete structures? Haha). For those of us who are mid-career women, I recommend the following (in addition to my previous suggestions):
- Mentor: Become a trusted person for other female engineers who are early in their careers. Be available for them and give them advice on how to navigate office politics, choose between projects, or prepare for their next career step.
- Pay it forward: Actively support the careers of other women. Suggest women be team leaders. Appoint women reviewers. Think of how you can promote the work of women around you.
- Improve your workplace: Your company may not be designed with women in mind. Talk to upper management to improve your workplace for women: from care leave (and have upper management set the example of taking on care duties regardless of their gender) to making sure your workplace has an assigned space where recent mothers can pump breastmilk. (I am proud to say that the Civil Engineering building of TU Delft has a lactation room because I asked my supervisor about it, and he set everything in motion to develop this accommodation).
- Accept that change is slow: The wheels of administration spin slowly. Change in workplace culture does not come from one day to another. Sometimes, you may feel like wanting to scream into the void. Take a deep breath and know that you’ve set something good in motion, but that it takes time.
On International Women in Engineering Day, we take a moment to acknowledge the achievements of women engineers. In this post, I explained what women at all career stages can do to support their careers and the careers of those around them.