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What Matters to Women in Engineering?

By Jessica Gomez, CEO, Rogue Valley Microdevices

Women in STEM. It’s a topic that ranks consistently high on the media-awareness-meter, yet the number of women in engineering fields is still woefully low. Over the past few months, I have participated in women in engineering-focused events at major industry conferences, ESC Boston (May 2017) and SEMICON West (July 2017). Speakers at both events addressed common themes such as the low percentage of female engineers, a high career dropout rate, salary inequality, tenacity, and hostile work environments. As a panelist in the Women in Engineering Panel and Networking Session at ESC Boston, I captured some intriguing responses to Moderator Suzanne Deffree’s – and the audience’s — questions.

 

Here are the highlights of the Q & A:

Moderated by Design News Editor-in-Chief/UBM Content Director Suzanne Deffree, with panelists:  Jessica Gomez (Rogue Valley Microdevices), Asmita Khanolkar (CeQur), Jessica Levenson (TechTarget), Nita Patel (L-3 Warrior Systems), and Angelica Perzan (maxon precision motors, inc.).

 

Moderator: Why do women represent only 12% of engineers?

Jessica Gomez: There’s a bit of a PR problem with women in engineering. Many do not feel confident in their own ability. They tell themselves, “I don’t know if I have the math skills or maybe I’m not smart enough.” In most cases, it is just not true. That’s why there’s a big trend to support STEM education.

Jessica Levenson: All the way from childhood through high school, it did not occur to me that engineering was creative. I ended up in front-end development since that combined creative and technical aspects.

Nita Patel: From early on, there is a fear of math, science, and technology. I am mentor for a robotics team, and there are only four girls out of 50 students. However, get them involved in the creative side, and soon the girls become leaders and help the boys to get involved in design concepts.

 

Moderator:  A lot of women enter college in engineering, so why is that women filter out after five years?

Gomez: Entering an engineering field requires working long hours, sacrificing time at home with family. I think that is why some women engineers filter out earlier. As women, you have finite time to have children, and the work required of a new parent can be significant. To return to the industry 5-10 years after having children is extremely difficult. Companies can help prevent that kind of attrition, providing more opportunities that fit the schedule of new working moms. When my two children were babies, they came to work with me every day, but that is not possible for many women.

Khalnokar: I went to an all-girls high school. Once I went to university, I became involved in Society of Women Engineers.

 

Moderator: Salary seemed to have a lot to do with leaving the industry. There were several takes on the issue:

Levenson: Women need to learn to negotiate. They have a tendency to talk about the team instead of themselves, which can be a detriment.

Patel: A pay-scale difference depends on the position you are in. It’s very difficult to go into management. Through mentorship, we need to ensure a path for women to get into leadership positions.

Gomez: This is a tricky, subjective, and tough subject. In some cases, pay inequality does exist and it is valid. You might have someone who gets all their work done in six hours and for someone else, the same amount of work may take 12 hours to complete. At our company, some of our best engineers happen to be women. They make top-dollar just like everyone else. Many women, however, do not negotiate up their salaries while their male counterparts feel more comfortable with that process. I believe this could be part of the reason we are seeing pay inequities in tech.

 

Moderator: Is there anything in particular that made you stick with it?

Patel: It’s so much fun. It does not have to be a linear path. There’s no other space where you can take your ideas and turn them into something.

 

Moderator: How can we inspire more diversity and move that 12% up to 50%?

Levenson: We have a responsibility to put a face on it. Show up at career day. Connect your businesses, and get the sponsors to make that an option. Open up the discussion and figure out the culture.

Gomez: It starts with education. Engineering is problem-solving. In early education, past second grade, there is a move to do abstract academic work. This can prevent students from seeing that math correlates to something that you design and build. Always seeing that as part of the broader picture is important.

Asmita Khanolkar: We need to focus more on the women who are in the field. Each of us has a responsibility to encourage children, but more importantly, to encourage a co-worker or a friend to take the next step. If we bond together as a community, we are going to be stronger.

 

At the end of the discussion the Q&A brought several good questions to the fore, including:

 

Are work environments hostile?

Levenson: In college, I was the only woman in computer science. I was an oddity, and I was treated like an oddity. Some guys were great and some weren’t. I started interning at EMC and I stayed with them until I was 25. There is subtle messaging surrounding what a geek looks like, and when language is male-specific, it is hard to get around that. I can say that things are changing.

Patel: The military is predominately male, and I’m used to operating in that environment, so I haven’t experienced it. I don’t allow it, and people know that. Don’t accept it.

Gomez: Diversity matters. In a room full of 100 women, the conversation is different than in a room full of 100 men.

 

What if someone does not want their life to be that difficult? How do you respond to that?

Patel: All positions have challenges. Do you want to control which challenges you face and have the opportunity to have an open array?

Gomez: When we first started our company, I spent the first three years crying under my desk. It was a disaster. You get used to it. Your tolerance level for dealing with challenges goes up, and you become more confident. The more that you exercise that muscle, the more capable you become. It is just like working out.

Khanolkar: Challenges are good because at the end of the day, when you overcome a challenge, you are going to continue to go further.

 

What is the one thing that you wish you knew when you graduated from engineering school?

Khanolkar: They don’t teach you how to deal with people. How do you ask for mentorship? How do you ask for a raise?

Levenson: Failure isn’t necessarily bad. Do it now and ask for forgiveness later. Getting that message is important. You can’t accomplish many things without a struggle.

Angelica Perzan: Another female engineer at my company taught me that asking questions is important. I may not be great at it right now but I will be great if you let me.

 

How can I head this off the lack of diversity – moving forward?

Khanolkar: We need to focus more on the women who are in the field. Encourage women to do the next thing. Kids will see that women are in leadership roles. Each of us has a responsibility to encourage some kids, but more importantly, to encourage a co-worker or a friend to have them take the next step. If we bond together as a community, we are going to be stronger.

Patel: We need both women and men both to care about diversity because they see the benefit of it.

 

What is the one thing that you wish you knew when you graduated from engineering school?

Levenson: Failure isn’t necessarily bad. Do it now and ask for forgiveness later. Getting that message is important. You can’t accomplish things without struggle.

Patel: Another female engineer at my company taught me that asking questions is important. I may not be great right now, but I will be great if you let me.

 

How do you inspire yourself to have that confidence level?

Gomez: Find a mentor. That can help a lot, although I personally struggled with this issue over the years. I wish there were an easy answer. You develop confidence over time as you grow into your career.

Khanolkar: Take something that really interests you, and that will help you to develop your confidence level, because you will have this area of expertise even if it begins small.

 

There are some great resources on women in engineering, including this IEEE site, IEEE WIE.