“It was common when female engineers graduated that you did not wear your wedding or engagement ring to job interviews,” says Dawn Schweitzer. “You didn’t wear them until you had the job, and sometimes even for several months after you were hired, the assumption being that you were going to start a family and leave.”
That was then—the early 1980s. This is now. If that prejudice still exists, nobody’s saying it out loud. Good engineers are too hard to find.
But engineering is still a boys’ club. In Control’s 2007 Salary Survey, 6.4% of the respondents were women. Best estimates are that 10% of the engineers on the job are female—up from about 5% in 1983, according to IEEE. The chances are growing that at some point at least one woman will be on your engineering team.
Kim Miller Dunn, director of sales development and support at Emerson Process Management, and 2008 president of ISA.
What should you expect when it happens? To find out, I interviewed an even dozen successful women engineers. They are CEOs, entrepreneurs, chief engineers, team leaders and published authors. One, Kim Miller Dunn, director of sales development and support at Emerson Process Management, will take over as president of ISA next year. Their backgrounds are just as varied: Five have degrees in chemical engineering, three are double Es, one has an MS in analytical chemistry, one in computer science, one in biology and psychology, and one in—of all things—art history.
Here’s what they have to say about their professional experiences and what they wish the men they worked with knew about them as working partners.
Girls Like Us
Tina Lockhart, the new director of engineering at Moore Industries International, North Hills, Calif., presents the bottom line: “Women engineers are not really much different from men. They want to be treated as equals. I approach the job not as a woman, but as an engineer.”
All those interviewed say the most important traits for an engineer—the ones they look for in themselves and others—are gender-neutral.
“The classical things that you want to see in a good engineer are hard work, smarts, tenacity and creativity. It’s not gender-specific,” says Joy Weiss, electrical engineer and president and CEO at wireless sensor networking components provider Dust Networks, Hayward, Calif. “You’re really constantly in problem-solving mode, and the best are doing that in ways that result in newer capabilities and lower costs. It’s an ability to pull things together in a way they haven’t been done before.”
Schweitzer, currently a control systems engineer at Eastman Kodak in Rochester, N.Y., says a good engineer has to have integrity, honesty and a sense of humor—all gender-neutral characteristics.
What matters is results, says Kathleen Waters, principal engineer at biotech leader Genentech, San Francisco. “You have to have passion and want to own the problem. You have to show results,” she says.
But It’s Not Quite the Same
Having said that, the engineering workplace is different for a woman. “Men and women communicate in a different way. When you’re the only woman in the room, and you’re driving decisions, you have to make sure your message gets across,” says Waters, adding, “It may be a matter of establishing creditability. It may not be just a male/female thing.”
On the other side, male colleagues may be suspicious of women, says Angela Summers, president of SIS-Tech, a safety consulting firm in Houston, and a 2007 inductee into Control’s Process Automation Hall of Fame. “There’s a certain suspicion men have. They don’t understand where you’re coming from. Sometimes, I just have to get my agenda on the table first and say, ‘Look, there’s no ulterior motive here. I just want to get this job done in the best way.’ ”
Tina Lockhart, the new director of engineering at Moore Industries International.
Lockhart points to what she calls “the more consultative” style of women, saying that while certainly some men use that style, it comes more naturally to women, adding, “Men can sometimes be a little be more direct and outwardly forceful.”
She also thinks women tend to be better at multitasking and at “not always thinking like an engineer. Having been involved with customers and sales, I think it’s important to be able to translate engineering language for others.”
Alicia Bauer, director of global marketing for control systems and products at ABB, Wycliffe, Ohio, concurs. “I don’t try to look or talk tough. I can bring other gifts. I can explain tech to non-techies. I don’t know if that’s a female skill or an Alicia skill.”
Dr. Bianca Scholten, a partner at consultancy Ordina Technical Automation, the Netherlands, says it’s a personal struggle for women to make sure their accomplishments are acknowledged. “Culturally men are allowed to say they are good at their jobs. They can be overtly proud of themselves. When a woman says she is good at something, she is seen as arrogant, especially by other women.”