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FEATURE: 'If you stand up for yourself, it backfires' – female engineers on careers in a man's world

Tereza Pultarova

(Credit: Shutterstock)
(Credit: Shutterstock)

Engineering institutions are working hard to attract more women into the profession – but almost half of them will leave within a few years of graduating. We spoke anonymously to three female engineers to learn what it really feels like forging a career in a man’s world.

When ‘Lucy’ embarked on an engineering degree, she was one of only 12 women in an intake of more than 200 students. Her career choice had previously encountered doubts among her schoolteachers and peers, who questioned whether it was suitable for a girl. She persevered. And even though she sometimes felt isolated and as if she constantly had to defend her right to study engineering, she pushed through to accomplish her dream. 

“I have always thought that women in engineering don’t get the chance to just be mediocre and non-committed,” says the 33-year-old mechanical engineer. “Right from the first day you have to be really dedicated to remain there, whereas some of the guys on my course just cruised through. They weren’t particularly excited about it and enthusiastic.”

Lucy graduated with the highest distinction and won a prestigious spot on a graduate scheme in a multinational engineering company. Again, she found herself one of only a handful of women in the world of men. But she was already used to being a bit of an outlier and, while she felt that some of the social activities that her male colleagues bonded over were closed to her, she soon found her own social group in the company’s STEM outreach programme. 

She threw herself passionately into promoting engineering to schoolchildren as a cool career that enables people to make a change in the world and turn science fiction into reality. Little did she know that less than a decade later she would be considering leaving the profession she had worked so hard to join. 

Why do they leave?

Lucy is not the only bright young female engineer to have become disillusioned. A recent IMechE study called Opting Out looked at the reasons why a high percentage of women, who had no doubt worked hard and invested a lot to obtain their engineering degrees, choose to quit the profession.

Among the 2.3m UK engineers only about 11% are women. According to Peter Finegold, head of the IMechE’s Education, Engineering and Policy Unit, attracting more female talent could help plug the nation’s skills gap and also help create a workforce that better mirrors the diversity of the population. On top of that, studies suggest that mixed teams tend to perform better. The benefits of having women in engineering seem plentiful. Many women, however, admit to encountering unexpected obstacles in the professional environment.

The IMechE survey ranked the most common reasons for leaving the profession as given by a sample of 250 female engineers. While some of the top reasons might apply to men and women alike – such as the possibility of being offered a better-paid job in another sector or an unreasonable workload and high stress – some motives are clearly gender-specific. For example, 54% of the surveyed women said they felt they were being treated unfairly compared to male colleagues – the fourth most-cited reason for leaving, followed by the lack of opportunities for promotion, which was experienced by 51% of the respondents. 

Being different

For Lucy, things seemed to go well in the first years. After finishing the graduate scheme, she won a permanent position on a project of her dreams. The good-looking, soft-spoken engineer and STEM ambassador soon caught the eye of the PR team and senior managers, who started engaging her at various events to demonstrate the company’s progressive approach to gender diversity. But her close colleagues didn’t share the excitement. 

“I once got told by my manager that I had to choose whether I want to promote me or be a PR girl,” she says. “I was doing a lot of overtime and it wasn’t interfering with my work but I had to make a commitment to limit my outreach activities to once a month.”

That was the first in a series of setbacks that would make Lucy’s dream eventually go sour.

‘Vanessa’, in her late twenties, is another passionate female STEM ambassador. The self-described tomboy and army reservist has already, despite her fairly young age, managed to accumulate an impressive list of employers on her CV. Although she admits she feels more comfortable in male groups than among females, she too has experienced the downside of being different. 

“I find that men sometimes can’t differentiate between being colleagues or friends and becoming emotionally attached,” she says.

She admits that the unwelcome advances have in some cases crossed the line into harassment. “I have had weird messages over Skype, or someone bombarding me with emails and text messages. I wouldn’t go to HR. It would just create more drama. But it has been tough at times.”

Like Lucy, Vanessa had learned how to ignore dismissal and discouragement already at school and how not to take it personally when people question her abilities and her career choice.

“In my first job, I felt like I really had to prove myself,” she says. “There was an issue with one person who simply wasn’t keen on the idea of possibly working with a female.”

Ambitious to succeed in a field she says she chose because she likes challenges, Vanessa keeps her focus firmly on her goals. As she says, there will always be an issue with one person. 

But engineering professor ‘Jane’, now in her late forties, warns that an issue with one person can easily grow into a career-threatening problem, especially if one is in a minority – a single woman in a world that some men believe belongs to them.

Culture change needed

“There are many people who claim to be very much in favour of women in engineering,” she says. “They like having women at lower levels because it looks good for them. It’s no skin off their nose to have women at lower levels but, once these women reach higher levels, it becomes somewhat weird.”

For Jane, problems started when she was already well established. After completing a PhD in physics, she held several research positions in physics and electronic devices. At the age of 32 she became a permanent lecturer at a university, at one point the only female in an engineering department of 60 lecturers. Five years later, she was promoted to professor. Her progress was unexpectedly halted by the arrival of a new head of her institute. 

“It seemed as if this person basically decided that they weren’t going to work with me,” Jane recalls. “He said some derogatory things about my work, and the way he organised the institute essentially put me out on a limb.”

Jane first tried to ignore the situation but soon learned that some of the work produced in her research group was being spun out into a company without her knowledge, with all credit given to a male postdoctoral researcher in her team.

“On the one hand, the institute director was saying that my work was of no use, and on the other hand he was picking out the bits he wanted,” says Jane. “It was as if I didn’t have any rights to my work. The feeling was that, because I am a woman, it couldn’t have been my work, it must have been the work of the man in my team.”

Jane’s attempts to discuss the situation with her managers fell on deaf ears. 

“My manager would keep telling me that the problem didn’t exist,” she says. “That it was just my perception. I would hear that I was not the right kind of person and that I needed coaching. I was made to look like the troublemaker.”

Jane was eventually forced out of her position. She still struggles to come to terms with the experience, and admits that at the early stages of her career she would never have expected something like this to happen. She blames the male-dominated culture that still somehow views a woman as an intruder. 

“If you, as a woman, achieve certain success, people need to be continually persuaded that you deserve to be where you are,” she says. “That doesn’t happen to a man. If something bad happens to you, people say that you deserved it because you obviously weren’t good enough.”

Career hopes blocked

Lucy’s experience strangely mirrors Jane’s words. The bright, driven STEM ambassador working on a high-profile international project received an award for outstanding young women engineers from a major professional body several years ago and was propelled into a rather public role as a model for future generations, the one who could help change the stereotypical image of engineering as a dirty job for men. On the surface it appeared as if she had everything going for her. But Lucy admits that her accolades did nothing for her actual career. 

“I wasn’t promoted for three years when everyone around me of the same
age and similar roles was getting the next level of promotion,” she says. “My line manager kept saying that it was entirely at his discretion when I got promoted. And he wasn’t ready to promote me yet.”

Her increased public profile made matters in her workplace worse. Eventually, she gave up fighting for the promotion and found a position with a different team, this time working as a manager. But, despite meeting all her milestones and delivering on time, the struggles didn’t end. 

“I kept hearing comments like ‘you are not a leader because they are not scared of you’,” she recalls. “They were saying: ‘you lead by example, but they are not scared of repercussions if they don’t meet their deadlines’.”

She finished the job at hand but the company didn’t deliver on its promises to promote her into a bigger role and demoted her instead. And then she got pregnant. 

“It felt as if I was contagious,” says Lucy. “They wouldn’t give me anything important to do and, when I was leaving for maternity leave, I had no clue what I would do after I returned.”

Now a mother of a little boy, Lucy is reaching the point where she disappointedly admits that the profession she spent so much time promoting hasn’t treated her well at all. Throughout her maternity leave, she wasn’t able to gain any clarity on what her next role with the company would be and is now seriously considering quitting engineering. 

“I am just tired of fighting for things that I think I deserve, and I have proven over and over that I deserve them,” she says. “At some point you just lose the will to keep fighting. I think there could be an environment where I could see the rewards of my hard work materialise much faster and a lot easier than the one I am currently in.”

The intentions of high-level organisations might be noble. But they have little power over the actual culture that dominates in workplaces. Jane says that women in engineering usually have no female role models who would help them learn how to navigate the environment. And what they learn from men doesn’t work, since they are really not expected to behave like men. 

“There is all this stuff that women do not ask for pay rises enough and that’s why they don’t get them,” she says. “But if you are a woman and ask for a pay rise, it frequently backfires. If you stand up for yourself, it backfires.”

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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