We come from all walks of life, but we have one thing in common: a common passion. We have a drive to create, to solve problems, and to make the world a better place. And thus, we became engineers. Each of us had a unique route here. Perhaps you always knew you wanted to be an engineer, or perhaps you only learned about the profession at a career fair in high school. Regardless, you ended up here.
For many of us women in engineering, we thrived in the classroom; solving problems and learning calculus and physics (or whatever your subjects of preference were). We were thrilled to enter the engineering world and start actually applying all our hard-earned skills to make a difference. Yet, things did not work out quite like we planned. No, it wasn't all the meetings and documentation and red tape that threw us off - yes those can be annoying, but they are simply parts of the profession we love. It was the attitude we faced. The invisible barriers that kept us down and prevented us from making the impact of which we were capable. We were often left questioning our abilities. Meanwhile, many of our male colleagues seemed to be thriving. And thus we would think, "it must just be in my head" or "I guess I'm not as good as I used to be."
Perhaps the struggles you faced were blatant: outright sexual harassment in the workplace or vocal dismissal of your ideas because of your gender. But for most of us, it was quite a bit more subtle: people talking over you in meetings, no one listening to your ideas until a male colleague repeats them as his own, or constantly having to prove your capabilities and qualifications while male colleagues were just assumed competent. Each slight in and of itself is minor and easy to write off. But think of it this way. Imagine that every time something like this happens, it is like someone flicking you on the arm. If it happens once then it is a little annoying, hurts a little, but goes away pretty quickly and is easily forgotten. What if that started happening multiple times a day, every day, in the same place. That spot would probably get pretty sore. And you would probably get pretty frustrated about it. And imagine if every time your tried to tell people about it they would dismiss it ("oh, it doesn't sound as bad as you're making it out to be" or "it didn't mean anything, no big deal, just move on"). But these built up over time and eventually, you just can't take it any more. And thus, a significant proportion of women in engineering end up leaving the profession mid-career. Not only is this troublesome and demoralizing for the women facing these problems, it is also a huge loss of wonderful talent from the engineering profession.
Now, people are not typically entering the workforce with the intention of committing these minor slights, but they happen just the same. It is called implicit bias and we all have it. Often times, your implicit biases came from general ideals and values that were instilled in you when you were just learning to talk. You didn't even know it was happening; it was simply how your brain was wired by the world to which you were exposed. And the vast majority of the time, you are completely unaware that you have these implicit biases. And thus, completely unaware of the effect that these biases have on the world around you.
Here at SWE Toronto, we found each other through our shared experiences in this field and through our desire to try to make a difference. To help ourselves, to help other women facing similar problems, and to improve the field of engineering at large. Day by day, we are working to inform, to connect, to build a community, and to help. If any of this resonates with you, we hope you reach out to us and join our community! We are continuously working on new initiatives to try and improve the engineering world and we would love for you to join us in our quest.
About the Author
Kate Brockman is a Professional Engineer with a bachelor’s in Nanotechnology Engineering and a master’s in Chemical/Biomedical Engineering. Kate has five years of industry experience and is currently pursuing her MD degree and intending on applying her engineering background to medicine.
Kate is passionate about translating research into real-world applications. She uses this passion to help women, men, and organizations find ways to improve gender equity in the workplace to drive success and shares her thought with SWEsters every now and again through the SWEster Blog!