I went to my first Women & Engineering panel recently, and it wasn't quite what I thought it would be. To be honest, I don't know quite what I was expecting. Everyone was open and supportive, even the women not on stage were often offering advice on the issue at hand. Here are some of the takeaways I got from the discussions:
How to be an engineer in the work force:
Having an engineering background helps out much more than just having a degree in an engineering related field. In becoming an engineer, you are taught analytical thinking and root cause analysis, basically taught how to think in a manner that is both effective and logical (something an old roommate and I used to joke about as having “man brains” as that is something so different than how stereotypically women supposedly think). You are trained to constantly check assumptions and make data driven decisions, letting the facts both of the present and probabilities into the future guide how you handle situations around you.
Breaking the “Guy Culture”:
No matter how open the company or group of guys, women will always be treated differently simply because we aren't guys. One panelist told a story of how she was going to a plant where the inspection would take them to the dregs of the facility. When everyone looked at her, wondering what her situation would be on this visit, her boss very simply stated “Don't worry about her, she always wears sensible shoes.” She commented that, to her, this was an evaluation of who she was simply by how she dressed, not the fact that she dressed appropriately for factory visits as a part of her job. Being the only woman in the room is not all disadvantages.
Being both a woman and an engineer leads to having a different perspective on problems, and life in general. While both women and men have the same aptitudes for solving complex problems, it is more likely that they will come at it from different approaches and come to different solutions simply by not being the same gender. And I have never seen a situation where only having one approach to come at a problem is a good thing.
Encouraging future women engineers:
Unsurprisingly, getting more women into engineering was discussed and once again the answer came back to our youth. Girls perform equally with boys in math up until about 4th grade, where for little reason, they typically start falling behind. Some commented that this was due to lack of female technical role models, some commented that since this is seen as acceptable, nothing is really being done to curb this. One panelist talked about how she worked with her son's FIRST robotics team. While the team had some girls on it, they were always few and were not long lasted on the team because of the culture they were in: surrounded by geeky guys. Initially she had not been asked to help the team but volunteered herself in an effort to both help her son and to catch girls early. The team's coach asked why her son hadn't said his mother could help, and her son replied “but you asked if any of our dads could help.” This is the other side of the coin, where girls don't assume that they can grow up to be engineers because their parents don't assume women are engineers.
How to have a life:
While I don't believe wanting to have a life outside of work and partake in activities not directly related to your chosen profession is something that is particularly feminine in nature, it just tends to come up more as people still cling to the idea that the home is still the “woman's world.” Rule one was to make commitments and stick to them. No matter how hard you might try, you can't make every kid's soccer game and pick up every extra project at work, and that's ok. One of the things that can help you the most is having a supportive partner, and be honest with both them and yourself. I don't know how many times my husband has looked at me and told me I was being psychotic and emotional, and there was nothing I could do but smile because I knew he was right.
I really valued the connections I made there and the fact that there are more meetups planned for the Women & Engineering alums. I also really value that all the discussions were in how to help: help us not feel so alone, help men not feel insecure that a woman is "invading their space," help girls realize they can grow up to be engineers, and help everyone figure out that the fact that we are women and engineers is really no big deal.