The ladies of the club

The few. The proud. The women on your engineering team. CONTROL Managing Editor Nancy Bartels interviews successful women engineers working as CEOs, entrepreneurs, team leaders and industry authors.

By Nancy Bartels

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Weiss adds, “I think appropriate self-promotion is something women are less inclined to do.” 

Lockhart agrees that “it can take people aback” if a woman is forceful. “It’s a balance between being professional and assertive. My approach has always been to sit, listen, think, and absorb rather than just jumping in. If someone doesn’t hear what I’m saying, I’ll repeat. I want to make sure everyone has time to say something, but I make sure I do too. It’s a more consultative style, but having said that, we’re not always working in a democracy. ”

The Elephant in the Room
Sandra Vann, a technology specialist at Dow Chemical, Midland, Mich., says, “In manufacturing, a woman has to demonstrate she’s competent. A guy is assumed to be competent until he makes a mistake.”

This is what Schweitzer calls “the unspoken prejudice of ‘can a woman possibly be qualified?’ ” That is an issue women face “every minute of our professional lives, ” she says.

Janice Abel, director of marketing for pharmaceuticals and biotechnology at Invensys Foxboro, Foxboro, Mass., says when she came on board at what was then the Foxboro Company, the first question colleagues would ask was what degree she held, something that rarely happened to her male counterparts. “I had to prove my credentials in a way that the guys didn’t,” she says.

Women may also carry the added burden of feeling responsible for their younger counterparts. “It’s the idea that if I make a mistake, it’s not just me. It reflects on the other women behind me,” says Schweitzer, adding that this lack of confidence may be a function of experience as well as gender. “The younger you are and the newer you are in your workplace, the higher the risk. After building a solid reputation over time, both I and my colleagues view an occasional mistake as a learning opportunity. Now I can say, ‘Well, I got that wrong. Let’s fix it and move on.’ ”

Not One of the Guys
One of the biggest frustrations for women engineers is their inadvertent exclusion from the community. “There’s this thing that happens when you walk into a room,” says Schweitzer. “The conversation may suddenly stop.”

Sometimes, she adds, it’s a matter of the men attempting to be courteous. “They’ll say, ‘You weren’t supposed to hear that,’ meaning they were telling a story they think might be inappropriate for me to hear. When that happens, I thank them. I try to positively reinforce that awareness.”

But Invensys’ Abel says that when men suddenly stop talking she enters the room, questions arise. “Was it a dirty joke? Just some guy thing? Something they don’t want me to know? What? Are these guys my peers or not?”

Sometimes bridging this gap is as simple as sharing a sandwich, Vann says. “You can get a lot by going to lunch. It shouldn’t be the boys and girls going separately. There should be that interaction on a personal level, which makes it easier to work together.”

The Line
Which brings us to the complicated issue of “The Line,” the business of maintaining that delicate balance between being friendly and inviting inappropriate behavior, between wanting to be “just one of the guys” and sending the wrong messages.

The solution, say these women, is simple, if not always easy—be professional; be yourself; dress professionally; act professionally—and make the line a very hard one.

“I was extremely professional and extremely knowledgeable about my job,” says Bauer. “I was always focused on work, and never talked about my personal life at work or with customers. At one job I had, they never even knew I was married. My whole goal has been for my being a woman not to be a factor. I don’t want them to think of ‘that girl in marketing.’ I want it to be my performance they remember.” 

     Diana Bouchard

Diana Bouchard, formerly of the Pulp and Paper Research Institute of Canada (Paprican) and now a freelance technical editor.

It’s Not So Bad
In spite of such challenges, these women all say their experience working with men has been largely positive. With some spectacular exceptions—one admitted to being groped in an elevator and another got nasty emails when she became pregnant—their male colleagues have been supportive.

Diana Bouchard, formerly of the Pulp and Paper Research Institute of Canada (Paprican) and now a freelance technical editor, says, “I encountered very little overt or intentional discrimination over my career. More of it is unintentional and unconscious—habits of the mind that slot women and other people into categories and make assumptions about them.”

Sheri Worthington, president of Telesian Technology, a high-tech service provider, says, “I’ve been blessed with a great crew of male associates over the years. They treated me fairly. If I did a good job, they let me know. If I mucked up, they let me know!”

At the same time, these engineers see the glass ceiling. “The old boy network is still in place,” says Schweitzer.

“It depends a lot on the company you work for,” adds Bauer. “There are a lot of good examples of technical women running companies, but at some companies it’s going to take women longer. It can be a very white male-centric world. People still want to hire people that look like them.”

Part of the problem is not overt discrimination, but demographics.

“I’ve seen a number of glass ceilings for women, but I don’t know as I’ve seen one in technology. The challenge is more that we don’t have a lot of women in engineering in the first place,” says Worthington. “Unfortunately, I don’t see more girls getting interested in science and engineering in high school or college.”

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