Engineering is a highly technical profession where engineers are often described as adept problem solvers, creative innovators, or “good at math, and stuff”. While these positive traits somewhat broadly portray the profession, they also highlight the currency of technical proficiency and the undervaluation of “soft skills” such as leadership. I will not digress into a rant of calling important skills, such as communication, emotional intelligence, work ethic, time management, and teamwork, “soft”; rather, this is a call to action to invest in yourself by developing and practicing leadership skills and traits early in your engineering career.
As a pragmatic engineer in training, I approach “leadership development” as a series of small steps that I can take towards self-improvement and professional development. At its core, leadership development is a practice of self-examination, assessment, and adjustment to become a better person and engineer. Like any practice, the process of continuous improvement becomes a habit when you engage in it often enough. The question is: where do you start?
Follow the Leader!
Start your personal development journey by picturing leaders you already admire. These can range from famous engineers (e.g. Julie Payette, Elon Musk, etc.) to leaders at your workplace. Whether they are great leaders or poor leaders, lessons can be learned from their example. Next, list their qualities. I believe great leaders (engineering or not), possess at minimum:
Mirroring and Skill Development
Some of these qualities can be developed, while others must come from within. For instance, character cannot be coached but ethics can. So what does it take to develop these qualities?
All together now!
Putting your plan in action can be as simple as asking for feedback at work on your communication style or asking for an opportunity to improve your leadership skills. For example, sign up to present on a project to improve upon your communication or organize an event to boost your organizational abilities. Volunteering is another great way to start putting your skills into practice if you haven’t been able to connect with the right opportunity at work.
Remember, leaders didn’t walk into their roles at the top. They started by building credibility, earning trust, and developing skills while finding their place in a community. So go for it: find your community and make a difference. After all, that’s exactly what a leader does.
I wish that I had known the powerful, the embedded, intricate weaving of stereotypes into the fabric of the world of technology. It is very hard for women professionals to understand these barriers because they are so invisible and so illogical. Stereotypes affect every area of life; they provide short cuts to enable everyday life to function. Life would be impossible if we had to rationally assess every situation we confronted.
I have come to believe that there is no industry, especially in Canada and the United States, because of the centuries of stereotypes about the suitable roles of men and women, more designed (unintentionally) for women to fail in than technology.
Understand that even when organizations, and many of your male colleagues, want you to succeed, gender based stereotypes work against those efforts because they are invisible. For example, the way meetings have always been conducted are embedded with gender preference; or the humour among men that has traditionally made work life bearable can be poison to women.
The most powerful stereotype, which has been honed in Canada and the United States, is that success in technology requires logic, objectivity and aggression; and these are qualities subconsciously thought to be possessed only by men. Women, regardless of whether they have a professional degree or not, according to society, do not possess these qualities. This means that there is an unconscious belief that you cannot be trusted to be logical when the really big problems occur; that your views are not objective because your tone of speech and the inflection of your words, all sound very “emotional”; and if you are aggressive, you will be labelled as “unfeminine” or worse.
However, when you understand that the discomfort you feel or the conflicts you experience are probably not a result of any inability but rather the barriers to inclusion that stereotypes create, you can begin to tackle those barriers: become knowledgeable about these barriers; read the books written by women who have gone before you; be engaged in women’s professional support networks; find mentors and sponsors; and commit to navigating the obstacles.
Your presence in technology is changing the gender order; it represents a desire for equity, even if reality is somewhat different. I often asked myself, and many professional women now ask me “why do I have to put up with this?” or “why me?” when the challenges seem overwhelming. After all this isn’t what you learned in school.
When you feel like giving up, remember your presence in technology does have power, like a butterfly wing, that seems so small, even invisible; but which can affect the weather currents, that then change the agricultural growing season which then can affect the economy. A butterfly wing can change everything.
On this National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, SWE TO honours the memory of the 14 female engineering students who were murdered at l'École Polytechnique de Montréal on December 6th, 1989 by an act of gender-based violence. We also commemorate the missing and murdered Aboriginal women, the trans-women and each and every woman in Ontario and across the world whose lives have been (and are still being) harmed or lost to gender-based violence. Each and everyone of us have the opportunity and the responsibility to stand up against misogyny, sexism, and hate.. It is time to create and foster the culture of respect. It is time to take action.
SWE Toronto started in 2016 when a few engineering graduates got together and wanted to make a space in the city where they could speak to other women in the industry and to discuss the issues they faced in the workplace. Over this time, there have been numerous women who helped along the way and, for International Women in Engineering Day, we would like to feature them in our blog as a way of recognizing their achievements and show our appreciation for their support.
Interviewers: Alessandra Massaro and Evangeline Philos
Interviewees: Marilyn Spink, Valerie Davidson, Helen Wojcinski, and Barbara Sylvestre-Williams.
The following interviews are the personal opinions of the interviewees and do not reflect the opinions of their employers.
What Is One Piece Of Advice You Have For New And Recent Engineering/Stem Graduates?
MS: Promote yourself and celebrate your small successes. Work hard but not so hard that you have no time to build relationships at various levels within or outside your organizations. Always keep learning!
VD: Discover engineering by exploring as many opportunities as possible.
HW: I truly believe that you have not fully joined the profession until you get your licence. It is vital for new graduates to get those four years of relevant, engineering work experience and make the effort to get their licence as soon as they’re eligible. I cannot stress the importance of this enough.
Another piece of advice that is related to getting your license is ensuring that you research and pursue employers who encourage and support EITs in obtaining their licence, and even better, have a formal training program. It is a great way to assess if they value the licence. One of the goals of the PEO 30 by 30 task force, PEO’s response to an Engineers Canada initiative to raise the percentage of newly licensed engineers to 30% women by 2030, is to engage employers in creating welcoming environments for newly graduated engineers, especially women, in pursuing licensure and staying in the engineering field!
Some other tips: join your PEO chapter, OSPE, or other engineering organizations; get involved in the industry; network and meet other professionals; find a mentor and a sponsor; get your license! And when it seems hard to get through all the licensing process, don’t give up! Reach out to your network to help you get there. Your Professional Engineering license is important and valuable for your engineering career!
How have mentors or sponsors helped you throughout your career?
BSW: Mentors were never obvious. They emerged here and there. 20 years ago there were no programs or groups like SWE. At my age, I enjoy mentoring. Many do not realize I get many lessons and observe tremendous force coming up with the new generation. Not just young professionals but future engineers that are connected to issues in a very specific way and able to solve problems many of older age were told to ignore, or deal with alone.
VD: Mentors were key influences in my decision to pursue graduate studies and to continue on a career path in engineering when I finished. My early mentors were male and they understood the culture – academic and professional – in ways that I did not. They encouraged me to explore different opportunities, to recognize my strengths and to follow my own path.
How do you think men could play a bigger part in supporting women in the engineering industry?
HW: For far too long women have been expected to solve the gender inequity problem in engineering. This is problematic as the root of the inequity faced by women in engineering are attitudinal and behavioural in nature and engrained by societal norms. It is also unreasonable to ask the underrepresented group to solve an issue that is not necessarily understood or acknowledged by the larger majority.
For gender equity to be realized in the profession, men must be onboard with solving the issue and willing to be part of the solution. I was fortunate in that I had many encouraging men throughout my career. My main motivation to study engineering occurred in high school when my brother-in-law, who is an engineer, encouraged me to go into the field because he loved it and thought it was a great profession. Later, I had the opportunity to work at the Ministry of Transportation for supportive male engineering bosses and mentors that encouraged me to pursue and continue in my engineering career. If it was not for these men who were supportive and progressive in their senior roles, I might not be where I am today.
However, there were very few women in senior engineering positions at that time to act as role models. Even today, there aren’t enough women engineers in senior roles. We cannot expect these few senior women to mentor all the young women engineers and EITs. We need more men in engineering taking young women under their wings to mentor and sponsor them. We also need to modify the way that we mentor and sponsor to not only make it more inclusive, but to also more formally integrate it into the workplace and HR policies. Although it must be visibly spearheaded by senior engineering management, HR could also be a key advisor in developing mentoring programs.
Early on in my career there were some senior engineers that would take junior male EITs to the golf club and later mentor them in the clubhouse. Women didn’t really golf that much back then as decisions were being made at the 19th hole. During one of my summer employments, the company I worked for had a golf club. When I asked to join they told me “sorry, it’s only for men”. These attitudes are no longer acceptable but still some of these behaviors, though subtler, remain. It is therefore important for men to find inclusive ways to mentor junior EITs.
How do you envision an ideal world for women in STEM?
MS: Wish#1 - That the “male mad scientist” stereotype of a person who has a passion for science and math no longer exists so young women see themselves as “scientists” and pursue, without hesitation, careers in STEM. Wish #2 – That the leadership of organizations who hire engineers increase their diversity – culture, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, etc. With increased diversity, it is proven that organizations make better decisions. In engineering, there is a business case to address the needs of their technical talent. Workplaces that support parents will retain them throughout their child raising years. As we know it is women that often take the majority of the burden in child raising.
Have you ever had a major failure or setback in your career? How did you overcome it?
BSW: Absolutely. It happened early in my career where I was in a hostile work environment. I felt alone, without support and surrounded by bullies. At the time I thought "if this is what engineering environment is then I rather not pursue it!". I would like to point out that throughout my undergraduate studies, I worked each summer at various industrial companies and never met with such environment. It can take years to recover and gain confidence back. I left the position and the company. I emerged alive and am successful in my career as a professional engineer. Be kind to yourself! I told myself I would never abuse my status and be a better engineer, opposite of how my career begun. I promised to excel, to teach upcoming generations and, most of all, to create safe and respectful work environment.
Tell us about an accomplishment that you are really proud of.
BSW: Ok here it goes: I completed my graduate studies in 2 years with A average, while working full time, published before my thesis was submitted, defended my thesis 6 months pregnant and was nominated for Governor General Medal for my studies and thesis work. I had a very supportive supervisor Prof. Mehrab Mehrvar. My latest achievement: I am very proud of being able to solve a 3x3 Rubik's cube in under 3 minutes…and now I am a TRAILBLAZER!
VD: I am very proud to be the founding Chair of the Ontario Network of Women in Engineering (ONWiE). ONWiE is a unique collaboration that includes all of the schools and faculties of engineering in Ontario. Members offer a number of outreach programs to dispel stereotypes and show young girls and their parents that there are amazing opportunities in engineering. Since the first Go ENG Girl event in 2005, the number of applications by female students to Ontario engineering programs has tripled. I think I was a catalyst in helping ONWiE get started but it is the continued commitment of the members to collaboration and the leadership of Mary Wells (ONWiE Chair 2013 -2018) that are keys to its success. ONWiE’s achievements demonstrate the value of collective impact and I think this is a strategy that should be considered for other WiE activities.
What do you wish you were able to do that you think will be easier for future generations of women?
VD: I wish that I had a superpower to eliminate human prejudice and the implicit biases that contribute to stereotypes and societal attitudes that are incorrectly framed by gender. Unfortunately these preconceptions affect personal choices that women make at an early age (e.g. will I be popular if I do well in math? should I study engineering?). They also influence STEM workplace culture and hiring and promotion decisions. I realize that complete elimination is an ideal but we need to be persistent in challenging these biases so they do not continue to restrict the number of women who pursue STEM careers.
HW: My main objective for 30 by 30 is that the call to action on addressing this inequity is fully embraced by PEO, and by all men and women engineers. Responsibility for this issue needs to be owned by the entire engineering profession and not just a small group of women engineers. I’m hoping to engage men so that women no longer have to talk to each other about the same issues over and over again.
I’ve been fighting this fight for a long time. In 1990, just two years after obtaining my Professional Engineering license I joined PEO’s Women in Engineering Advisory Committee (WEAC) because I was already dealing with these issues and I was passionate about making positive changes in the profession. Almost 30 years later, it really disheartens me when I hear stories of young women today experiencing many of the barriers that I and my female engineering colleagues faced. I feel like my generation let them down, we did not get the job done.
I believe that one of the biggest barriers facing women engineers is still in the workplace. While more work needs to be done to encourage young women to enroll in engineering, I think we also need to focus on what happens to them once they graduate and how difficult it is for them to find a pathway to licensure and to stay in the profession. In today’s industry, inequity sometimes isn’t felt until after women get their license, perhaps even before that, while they are an EIT. It’s still not as welcoming a career as it can be for women and this needs to change.
While numbers matter, I also believe we need to focus less on the numbers and more on the attitudinal and behavioural issues preventing us from reaching the 30% goal. We need to work on getting women to the finish line of licensure, building up their engineering experience and onward to senior leadership. I’m hoping to pass the baton to the next generation of women leaders like the women in SWE Toronto to carry this issue over the finish line.
Have you ever felt like leaving engineering? Why? What made you stay?
HW: Oh yes, the very first time I walked onto a construction site, the site supervisor told me “you don’t belong here”. I had a really tough introduction to my career because I worked in such a male dominated and often times hostile work environment. There were virtually no other women, no one to look up to or to provide a safe sounding board. I would often ask myself, “why am I doing this to myself? There must be easier ways to make a living!” However, despite wanting to throw in the towel on many occasions, I loved working in the field and seeing how infrastructure was built. I thought it would make me a better engineer.
In fact, I ended up staying for several reasons:
This month we are going to talk about the importance of a having a mentor in our career!
Many accomplished individuals credit their mentors for their successes. There are many examples, some of which include Oprah Winfrey- Maya Angelou and Bill Gates- Warren Buffett. A mentor can teach the mentee the responsibilities of the job, provide guidance on navigating industry’s policies & practices, and create networking opportunities for the young individual.
Many women in STEM fields can benefit from mentorship to help them achieve a long and successful career. It is often challenging to establish a relationship with a mentor, whether formal or informal, often due to lack of female leaders or perceived inaccessibility of mentors. To bridge the gap, we need more women as mentors, and also to foster a culture of mentorship.
For our coffee club discussion, we’ll be focusing on the value of having a mentor and ways we can achieve effective mentorship relationships. Please check out the links below and send us some of your comments!
Questions to think about this month:
Check out the links below for some valuable and handy resources:
This month, we are going to talk about the role of male allies in the battle for truly gender-equal workplaces.
Gender inequality is not only a women’s issue, but we don't hear a lot from men. If men are blind to the gender gap experienced by women, we can hardly expect them to care about it, or to be partners in helping to close it. However – we are never going to achieve an equal workplace if we don’t have those male allies leaning in to meet us partway.
We as women talk about these issues frequently, though often by doing this we leave men out of the conversation. Sometimes, males who do care and have the best intentions still don’t know what to say, or are terrified of being reprimanded for saying the wrong thing – and that is where we can step in.
During our March Coffee Club, we will talk about starting the conversation with our male colleagues, and making sure our voice is heard equally.
Questions to think about:
Check out these articles for some more thinking points!
Men As Allies: Engaging Men to Advance Women in the Workplace
Want to be an ally to women at work?