Keeping Hope Alive as a Woman in Engineering

Janet Y. Tsai Posted on September 18, 2013 by Janet Y. Tsai
Keeping Hope Alive as a Woman in Engineering

Photo by Jennifer Wu [CC-BY-2.0], via Flickr

When I was an 18-year old college freshman, I stumbled across my classmates making a list of the top 10 smartest people at school. Since there were only 75 students to choose from, I knew everyone on the list and the fact that only two women made it on there was an immediate sign that this list was bologna. It took me about seven years from that day before I figured out how to deal with people like the list-creators—how to be myself and realize that while my “smarts” might never be recognized by some people, I can use them to my advantage anyway.

I became enthralled with engineering as a high school student thanks to an effervescent math teacher who was also the coach for my school’s FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics team. He was unceasingly encouraging and the culture of my team was supportive—despite a few boys who condescendingly asked if I’d like to work on the decorative side panels instead of the guts of our robot. I learned quickly, and by my second year I was in charge of leading brainstorms and settling disagreements about system priorities and designs. It was these early experiences that made me fall in love with the engineering design process, especially the steps involved in making robots capable of achieving specific tasks. I still love seeing something that I worked on come to life, whether it’s a robotic actuator arm, a whirring vacuum cleaner or a toy.
 
I applied to several engineering colleges, including Olin College of Engineering. During the admissions process, I learned that one of the goals of the inaugural class was 50/50 gender balance—a far cry from the typical lopsided male/female ratio that holds true nationwide. I thought it was amazing that I was admitted alongside all the other qualified, smart, diverse people for the chance of a lifetime: to be part of the college’s first-ever class, and on a full-tuition scholarship worth some $160,000.

After orientation, I saw that notable characteristics among the students quickly emerged: who raised their hands, who was slow to understand, who loved to hear themselves talk, who brought a rice cooker to school, who liked basketball and of course, who was "smart." In high school I was valedictorian, so arriving at a college where I felt like I had to prove my intelligence and competence to my peers was humbling and often frustrating. 

During that first month, my fellow students and I were faced with an equation that made little sense to me: About three times more men than women applied to Olin, yet somehow an equal number of men and women were admitted. Many of us assumed that the only way this math made sense was if women were given preferential treatment, and that meant that we were less qualified (and less smart) than the men. As both a minority and a female, I counted doubly for the diversity of the college. Did that mean it was twice as easy for me to get in than a white male? This did nothing to help my feelings of inferiority. 

I investigated, and the deans helpfully explained that female applicants were more self-selecting than the males, since women who don’t think they’ll get in do not apply, whereas men are more likely to apply regardless of their qualifications. That made sense, but I didn’t really think about the implications of those words until 2004, when I joined a weekly discussion “co-curricular” group called Gender and Engineering, led by Olin professors. Each week we discussed a paper or current event about women or gender roles in engineering, comparing our responses and sharing our opinions. These meetings rapidly became the highlight of my week, as each topic we discussed opened my eyes to see parts of engineering culture that had never been explicit before. For instance, I discovered Nancy Hopkins’s groundbreaking study about the experience of women faculty at MIT, first published in 1999, and it shocked me in 2004 because it seemed so current. The group gave me words and concepts to use in making sense of my frustration about needing to prove my worthiness as an engineer; about all of the little “molehill” obstacles, negative comments and contrary assumptions I had experienced that were adding up to make me distinctly aware of engineering’s chilly climate toward women.

As I entered the workforce, I thought the best way to deal with being a woman in engineering was to ignore it—to assimilate through tough shoes, jeans and polo shirts to look every bit as much of an engineer as my male colleagues. The first day of my first internship at an engineering company, I looked around and was confused at all of the friendly older white male faces that looked back. How was I ever going to tell all of the bearded, glasses-wearing guys named Bob (there were 3), Scott (2), Jim (2), Mike (2)… apart? There were no other engineers there named Janet.

After three years working at this company in its Asia and the U.S. offices, I had proven my competence to my coworkers and felt comfortable: I had a great group of friends in the office, who helped me laugh off the stupid things, offensive comments and insensitive jokes that circulated at work. Without them, my frustrations with feeling disrespected and purposely excluded likely would have erupted much earlier than they did, on one morning in 2009.

I arrived at work before 8 a.m. for a critical team meeting in which we were proposing solutions to a crisis that was costing the company a fortune; the production line was shut down awaiting a system redesign. At the meeting, the mechanical team referenced an entirely new design which had developed early the previous evening and had, over the course of the night, become a front-running candidate. I had never heard of this design. I grabbed the computer of the engineer seated to my right and found an entire e-mail chain I had been left off of. It included extensive details as well as discussion among the entire team, including the interns!

At what point does being forgotten about become personal and become being purposefully excluded? Is it the first time, the third, the fifth, the tenth, the twentieth? At some point it’s too much, and the molehills of slights become a mountain. I bubbled over, screamed and threw a plastic robot piece at the table in front of the engineering manager who seemed to derive particular enjoyment in excluding me. I remember my words: “I’m on your #@!!* team!” I started crying, shamelessly, in front of everyone. I was angry and fed-up. 

Soon after, I quit my job, moved home to Colorado and made a list of 15 alternate careers to pursue because I was fed up with engineering culture. I wrestled with my list, wondering if I was ready to let go of the identity I had held onto since I was a teenager. I made it partway down the list (basketball blogger, yoga teacher, basketball statistician) when I thought back to the Gender and Engineering group. For the first time, I considered being the author of papers like the ones we’d read instead of the reader, realizing that I could actually do that research and still be an engineer while making a difference in the field.

I applied to graduate schools and for fellowships, winning a grant from the National Science Foundation to do research into adjusting the culture of engineering to be more inclusive and supportive. Upon returning to engineering school (and engineering culture), I stopped trying to fit in with the boys in my tough shoes and polo shirts. Instead, I made the conscious choice to be myself, in skirts and dresses, letting people judge me based on how I really am instead of some Dilbert-ified version of myself. 

Some 11 years later, I am now pursuing a PhD at the University of Colorado Boulder in mechanical engineering. I study how students construct hierarchies among themselves, differentially awarding “smart” status to peers and faculty alike—and that this has serious consequences for who ends up staying and leaving the field. I’ve learned that while I’m strongly attached to engineering, the opinions and views of coworkers, bosses, faculty and peers affect how my work is perceived. The purpose of recognizing how others impact me is not to be scared or discouraged, but instead to see how I can be maximally effective in the engineering community—how I can sidestep obstacles or misconceptions to get to where I want to be. I’m done with wasting my time fighting losing battles. Now I want to win.

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