It’s hard — and maybe impossible — to define what it means to be a woman. As an engineer, I have understood womanhood in terms of what has been reflected back to me by the men who surround me. I don’t just let who I am flow freely. I act always in response to how I believe I will be perceived. I am playing a game where I put myself in the mind of a sexist and then try to tailor my behavior to rebuke whatever could be expected of me.
I’ve been sexually harassed (verbally and physically) in professional settings by men who were my colleagues and superiors, but those harrowing moments actually did not play a role in defining my identity. They were awful and traumatic, but I would argue that the more impactful sexism within engineering, the kind that has eaten away at me for years and molded me, is more difficult to identify and eliminate. My entire understanding of womanhood has been shaped by a more insidious type of sexism that would go unnoticed by anyone who doesn’t see their own gender.
My earliest memory that I can recall where I experienced the toxicity of a male-dominated environment was my physics class in high school. I was the only girl in a room of twenty students. We had a class clown who would say vulgar things every day, and one day he shouted, “Want to hear a joke? Women’s rights!” The class burst into laughter. The teacher (a man) did not correct him.
I heard that “joke” countless times throughout high school, and whenever I expressed my indignation, the response was always, “Take it easy. It’s just a joke.” To them, it’s easy to consider a remark like this as innocuous because from the perspective of a young man, gender inequality is a thing of the past! But as most women know, this is not true. They didn’t realize that they had created an environment where if I wanted to study physics, I had to endure daily reminders that my career in this field will be an uphill battle and that there will be obstacles in my path that my predominantly male coworkers simply do not see.
Reflecting on my time as an electrical engineering undergrad, I felt forced to actively confront my gender every day. I wasn’t free to just be an engineering student and focus on my own individual success. I felt that I carried the weight of all women’s success on my shoulders. In my mind, it was up to me to break all gender expectations.
In my mind, it was up to me to break all gender expectations.
Every semester, I counted the women in my new classes – 10 in a room of 80 in my Circuit Analysis class, 5 in a room of 60 in my Renewable Energy Technology course… This exercise was borderline masochistic. I knew it would frustrate me to acknowledge how few women were in my classes, but it did give me a jolt of motivation to prove to everyone that I, a girl, was the best in the class. This became my entire mission in college.
Even an average, passable performance was unacceptable. I had to be exceptional. My existence had to make a statement for women everywhere. I needed to prove that not only can women be engineers but that we are the best engineers. This thinking in and of itself is problematic and does not align with my true feminist beliefs which are that women should be allowed to be average, to be mediocre, to fail without having it determine their value or the value of their entire gender. Yet, there was always a part of me saying, “Yes, women should be allowed to be beautifully flawed human beings. Except you. You have to be better. If you fail, then you are proof that women are lesser.”
When it came to lectures, I rarely asked questions. I feared that admitting publicly that I was confused about something would break the veneer of perfection that I had constructed. Whether people actually saw me that way is another question to which I don’t have the answer, but I was scared to ruin that perception, if it existed. I was so afraid of being the dumb, ditsy girl even for a moment.
I was so afraid of being the dumb, ditsy girl even for a moment.
The persona I was building was not only meant to portray academic perfection but also hyper femininity à la Elle Woods. My freshman year, an older student (who was rejected from the college of engineering, by the way) attempted to flirt with me by saying, “Wow, I wouldn’t expect that you’re an electrical engineer. Most girls in EE are… you know… You’re not like them. You’re pretty.” Rest assured this line did not work on me because I was so thoroughly disgusted at the premise that women must be more masculine in order to be electrical engineers. Thus began my performance of the female gender.
I decided to incorporate feminine coding into every aspect of my appearance. I wore perfume, jewelry, and makeup. I wrote in sparkly notebooks with pink pencils and carried a pink water bottle, a pink backpack, and a neon pink box to hold my circuit parts. Note that I do not personally believe that Pink or Sparkly or Cute = Woman, but I wanted to use every tool at my disposal to make sure that people really saw me as a woman in the classroom. I wanted to normalize the idea of having women in electrical engineering so that the men I worked alongside would become accustomed to viewing women as peers.
While this may seem like a tenuous excuse to pass off fashion as political activism, it actually is illustrative of a pervasive problem within engineering. A study conducted on women technologists in San Francisco showed that “‘conventionally feminine’ women [had] less success fitting into male-dominated teams” and that “they reported experiencing a range of micro-aggressions in their interactions with male co-workers. These ranged from relatively minor things such as the failure to make eye contact or more aggressive questioning, to more serious experiences of actual aggression” (Alfrey and Twine 2017). So in retrospect, I was doing important work by trying to cultivate my aesthetic.
Near the end of my undergrad, I started regularly studying with a group of boys. We grew quite close, and I remember eventually telling them about how I felt as a woman in engineering. The way I count the women in every room. The general experience of relentlessly being confronted by gender expectations every day. They admitted that what people expected of them as men in engineering had never crossed their minds. They didn’t think about it. They didn’t see themselves as gendered beings. They were just engineering students. I hope this conversation was a moment of introspection for them, a moment when they recognized their place of privilege, and I hope they’ve gone on to correct gender discrimination when they’ve seen it. But if not, I wouldn’t necessarily blame them. I think it must be easy to forget about gender inequality when the world is built for you, when everyone looks like you and speaks your language, when the concept of engineer is synonymous with the concept of man.
I think it must be easy to forget about gender inequality when the world is built for you, when everyone looks like you and speaks your language, when the concept of engineer is synonymous with the concept of man.
With all that said, I think it’s important to emphasize that my feelings don’t necessarily represent all women in engineering, but they also aren’t just my neurosis. I do believe my own personal cocktail of excessive competitiveness and pride amplified the pressure I felt to be a perfect woman engineer, but it isn’t just me. A study by Cadaret et al. (2017) found that “stigma consciousness was a barrier for women attempting to study engineering — women who had greater awareness of the stigma associated with women studying engineering reported more struggles coping with barriers and lower academic self-efficacy,” which honestly, made me feel seen. I consider myself to be a generally woke person, and I think that I doubted whether I would be able to succeed because I was so aware of everything that I could be up against in this world. I remember in my senior year of college, crying on the phone with my fiancé because I was afraid I wasn’t cut out to be an engineer — mind you, this is after winning the Outstanding Student in Electrical Engineering Award at my school two years in a row. Imposter syndrome + worrying about gender expectations = fun.
So finally, what do I mean by navigating contemporary woman-in-engineering-hood?
I have a love/hate relationship with the term “woman in engineering.” It makes me feel like the alternative to the default engineer, but now that I have had the time to reflect on my experiences and unpack what was happening to me while I was in school, I have come to realize that it is imperative that people recognize that I am both a woman and an engineer. There is no separating one identity from the other. Being a woman has framed the way that I perceive the world and the way the world perceives me.
Being a woman has framed the way that I perceive the world and the way the world perceives me.
In my life thus far, my identity as a woman in engineering has been entirely built upon reacting to external expectations, and realistically, I think it will always be this way to some extent. As long as gender bias exists in engineering, I foresee that I will continue to view my person as a canvas for political activism.
But I’m a year out of college, and I am already tired of this cycle. I wonder who I would be and how I would be if I looked around me and saw the faces of other women looking back. I can only imagine the freedom I might feel to express myself and to create and to ask questions and to admit failure if there were other women to take the weight of gender expectations off my shoulders alone. So currently, navigating womanhood as an engineer to me means figuring out how to help other women succeed and how to build community. I hope that focusing on bringing other women into engineering will allow me to rediscover myself as I authentically am and give a new meaning to being a woman in engineering.
References are from the 2017 Society of Women Engineers Annual Literature Review