How to Raise a Female Engineer
I recently attended a luncheon honoring 25 exceptionally successful women in the energy industry. As I sat listening to the impressive track records and articulate advice from each honoree, I was surprised by the immense pride, emotion, and excitement I felt by being even a peripheral part of the club.
If you know me at all, you know I am not a crier. My husband affectionately calls me ‘the robot’ for my ability to weather even the most heart-wrenching Christmas commercial entirely unfazed.
Noah: “How does this not warm your cold, black heart? It’s a SOLDIER. He wasn’t supposed to make it home for Christmas. He SURPRISED his ENTIRE FAMILY on CHRISTMAS MORNING and also it is SNOWING.”
Me: “They’re trying to sell you coffee.”
But put me in a room with 1,200 people rising for a standing ovation in honor of 25 badass women who have made it to the top of our industry in spite of setbacks I can only imagine, and I’m going to need a hot second to pull it together. These are women who are running Fortune 500 companies. These are women who leaned in to their careers before there were any books telling them how to do that. Without anyone telling them it was OK to do that. Without older women to look up to as mentors. Without privileges like maternity leave or enforcement of anti-discrimination or harassment laws. These are women who had determination and laser-focus like I could only dream of, and most humbling, these are the women who have paved the way for me to chase my dreams without so many of the hurdles they faced. I wept into my cheesecake.
The speaker who opened the event threw out a surprising statistic: while the percentage of people entering highly esteemed fields like law and medicine is ~45% women, the same statistic for women entering engineering is under 20%. This left me with a few questions. Namely, why is this still so low? And how can I help? And is it cool if I still eat this cheesecake?
I’d love to say I’m raising the next generation of female engineers, but we only make boys in my house. While I will certainly do my part by raising young men who respect women and view marriage as a 50/50 partnership in terms of housework and child rearing, I’m going to need my friends to carry the torch when it comes to encouraging girls to enter STEM fields. So inspired by the women mentioned above, and conveniently coinciding with engineering week (or E-week as we cool kids call it), I offer you:
How to Raise a Female Engineer in 5 Easy Steps
I should start by saying that I know engineering isn’t for everyone, and I’m certainly not suggesting it is. But I also know this: engineering is a 4-year program, and in many cases no graduate level study is required. Engineers are compensated at a level equal to programs that require 6+ years of school and multiple degrees. Engineering is a great career for a woman who wants kids, as many jobs are available requiring minimal travel with fairly standard working hours. And finally, less than 1/5 of the people taking advantage of these benefits are women.
Instead of reciting a laundry list of challenges preventing young women from pursuing engineering, I decided to try to figure out what women who did enter engineering have in common. I reached out to a handful of other female engineers in my life whom I respect to see if I could find any similarities in our upbringing that played a key role in leading us to careers in engineering. Here are 5 commonalities I found.
1. Expose Her to Engineers
While the way in which we were introduced to engineering differed, most of the women I spoke to mentioned either a specific engineer or a specific experience with engineering that was instrumental in interesting them in the profession. Kat and Su-May have parents who are engineers. Cathy, who initially majored in sports management, found herself drawn to the engineering majors in her dorm. Kristen has a specific scene from Apollo 13 seared into her memory:
For me what really sparked the passion was when I saw Apollo 13 as a kid. There's a scene when the astronauts are stranded in space and the Houston team is trying to figure out how to get them home. They're all gathered in a room and someone comes in and just dumps the contents of everything that's available to the astronauts in space, and effectively says, “This is what they've got, figure out how to save them.” It's a total mess of items, but they all roll up their sleeves and immediately get to work- and I thought, “Wow, I want to be someone in that room. I want to be the engineer that figures out how to save the astronauts.” To me, that kind of problem solving was heroic, and so I set my sights on engineering.
And Amy, who doubles as my younger sister, had an older sibling to lead the way (she also had a weird and very long overall phase):
I always had an over achiever guiding my path, so when it came time to dominate my peers in times tables in 3rd grade… I hiked up my overalls and got down to business. I was always mentally prepared to be successful, not only because it was an expectation in our house, but also because I had someone who looked like me, thought like me, and played Barbies with me to show me I could do anything I worked hard to accomplish.
So what’s the common thread? Nothing groundbreaking- simply that each of us knew someone or saw something that made engineering seem tangible, attainable, and appealing. It doesn’t have to be a parent- or, in Kristen’s case, even a real person.
2. Make Math a ‘Girl’ Thing
Another common thread I noticed from each of my friends is that their parents had high expectations for them in school in all classes, math included. We all simply missed the memo declaring math a subject for boys. Somehow it never occurred to me that I shouldn’t excel in math, which in hindsight I realize was a huge blessing.
One barrier to becoming an engineer is by the time people get to college and pick a major, many have already deemed themselves ‘not math people.’ This seems especially true for women. Here’s the reality: MATH IS HARD. Unlike memory-based subjects like history, or interpretive subjects like literature, math requires you to hit your head against the proverbial wall for a while as you wrestle with concepts. For some reason, we convince ourselves we will never use math in the real world and think it’s fine to be bad at it. What if your child came home and said, “I’m just not a reading person?” You would likely get them tutors and refuse to let them give up on such a critical subject. So if math doesn’t come naturally, then congrats! You’re probably doing it right. Keep trying!
If you want to read more about this by someone who actually knows what they’re talking about, try chapter 8 (Rice Paddies and Math Tests) in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. One of the most interesting conclusions he draws suggests math skills are more a function of a person’s willingness to be meticulous and thorough than things like quality of education or even IQ.
Not helping matters is the tendency of girls as a breed to hate making mistakes. We live in a culture expecting women to act, look, and speak perfectly; when faced with a subject best learned through trial and error, this presents a challenge for people (of any gender) who strive for perfection. Fear of failure can be detrimental to advancing in STEM subjects, because so much of it is experimental. I like how Kristen suggests we counteract this:
Teach girls that it's okay to fail and help them learn how to frame setbacks as opportunities for growth. Engineering is hard; there will be a lot of setbacks, you’ll get stuck solving problems, you'll perform badly on tests every once in a while, and you will need HELP. All of these things are a sign of someone that's developing into an engineer, and even the brightest ones benefit from study groups and office hours. Teach them how to ask good questions, and praise them when they do.
The bottom line here is just about anyone could convince themselves they are not a ‘math person.’ Encourage your future engineer to keep trying even when it is hard. Get them help when needed. Praise hard work, consistent effort, and trying again in the face of failure as much as (or more than) you praise successes that come naturally. And if you hate math? Try not to let it show. In the same way we are recognizing women with body image issues can pass them down to their daughters by speaking badly of themselves, I imagine having a parent plant the seed that math is hard or useless can be contagious.
3. A Lack-Luster Social Life Never Hurts
I say this in jest, and want to be clear that the ladies I interviewed were, and are, much cooler than I am. This tip is based solely on my experience, so take it with a large grain of salt- but as I reflect on my formative years with a shudder, I realize how instrumental they were in becoming who I am today. Because I started school in Canada and they do things the Canadian way, after I moved back to the US in 1st grade I was perpetually a year younger than everyone else in my class. We’re talking really young: I turned 18 November of my freshman year of college. Because of this, I spent most of high school bumming rides and was always physically small and probably emotionally immature for my grade. Also, I rocked the French horn in the marching band and was a girl scout well into high school (nothing I won’t do for cookies). Each of these experiences was great and each generated lifelong skills and friendships, but let’s just say I was never mistaken for one of the cool kids.
As much influence as my parents had on my path to engineering, I think my identity amongst my peers had just as much. I was not the cool girl. I was not the popular girl. I was certainly not the sporty girl. But I did have a shot at being the smart girl, so that is how I identified. Good grades were my thing. Class ranking was my state championship game.
I’m entirely convinced in many cases we are what we think we are, good or bad. I’m not suggesting painfully awkward middle school years are a prerequisite to a successful engineering career, but I do think believing you’re smart and capable of passing hard courses is a huge part of actually being able to do so. It is so tempting to see a darling little girl and compliment her clothing or beauty- it is my very first instinct every time. But I think if girls heard more affirmations of their intelligence and capabilities and tenacity, we might end up with more women who identify as smart. Smart and pretty. Smart and athletic. Engineer and epic Goodwill shopper. Identities don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
4. Teach Her to Confidently be Herself
One of the best things about being a female engineer in 2019 is the world is realizing not only is including women in the workplace the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. There are all kinds of studies demonstrating how valuable diversity of all kinds is, particularly in leadership and boardroom capacities. Women and men have different strengths to be sure, but if you were building a company, wouldn’t you want each of those strengths represented? I would.
So as you raise that future engineer, based on my experience there is no need for her to fit a specific mold. The qualities that differentiate women from men have their place in business. Here’s how Su-May sees it:
I’ve worked with a lot of female engineers and all of them are smart, vocal, and technically sound engineers but they also exude soft skills that are often times lost or disregarded as unimportant. As female engineers we should not shy away from “non-typical” corporate behaviors such as the ability to listen and not speak at every meeting [and] giving credit and recognition.
And lest we ever forget, excluding women from decisions is how we end up with products like this:
Just in case you still think engineers need to fit into a box, please allow me to present Exhibit A: me, the engineer with a craft blog who knits in bars. That Venn diagram has a VERY small overlap region.
5. Tell Her she Can Do It
Great news: I saved the easiest for last! Of the six women I talked to, five independently mentioned the impact their parents had on their career paths simply by telling them they were smart enough. Su-May’s dad refused to let her say, “I can’t do it” and gave her pep talks when she thought she wasn’t good enough. Lindsey’s dad gave her 3 career options he deemed worthy of her (doctor, lawyer, or engineer). And my dad told me in the car on the way to soccer practice in 7th grade that I would be an engineer one day.
So how do I put a big bow on this? After all, I do love a good bow. Nobody says it better than Kristen:
Sometimes it just takes someone to say "you know what, I think you could be an engineer when you grow up. You're smart enough."
Maybe it’s your daughter who needs to hear this. Maybe it’s a friend or niece or an acquaintance. Or maybe it’s YOU! Just in case there’s no one in your life telling you this: YOU ARE SMART ENOUGH to pursue the life and career you want.
What a privilege to be a woman in this generation. I can’t wait to see what we do.