What's your advice?

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There is always one question I hope I never get asked about my career. I really don’t want to be asked it when speaking to school students, when I am ‘inspiring’ them about engineering careers.

“What is it like working in a male dominated field?”.

My brain flicks between all the possible answers. This ranges from “awesome” because it’s easy for people to remember your name to “one of the most challenging things about my career” because it can feel so lonely.

I am passionate about diversity in engineering and don’t want to discourage the innocent, smiling faces of school students considering this career. So, do I pretend it’s always unicorns and rainbows and give a highly positive answer like ‘be yourself and don’t worry about what other people think’? Or do I share about the challenges and how sexist comments can be demoralising and risk putting students off?

I want to be real and open about my experiences. I wonder - can I be authentic about my challenges in a male dominated field, while also inspiring people into engineering?

This week, I was asked my most feared question by a cheerful Year 11 student. That day I chose to give some different advice.

If you are unfamiliar about the gender differences in engineering in Australia, here is a sense of it:

  • 13% of engineers in industry are women

  • 47% of woman said they had experienced discrimination on the basis of gender

  • 70% of female engineers are under 40, compared with 57% of men

  • Women earn 89% of their male counterparts’ wage

So, you could say, there are some differences between men and women in engineering.

These percentages feel much more personal after directly experiencing them at university and in the workplace.

In my Civil Engineering degree I was one of 12 women in a class of 120. This environment was very foreign to me, after going to an all girls school in Brisbane. I was the only woman in the team I joined when I started my first ever job as a structural engineer. A few years later, I was the only female project manager in a team of ten. Last year I was a design manager on one the largest road project in Victoria and, in every fortnightly technical design meeting I attended, I was the only woman in a meeting of 12 people.

It can feel intimidating and isolating to be in the minority. It takes energy to speak up and put your view of the situation forward. While I have certainly experienced and been challenged in navigating the ‘boys club’ culture, I have also been embraced and incredibly supported by many wonderful men at work.

So what would you say to this female year 11 student about working in a male dominated field? Can we reveal the whole truth and still inspire?

The young woman looked at me through her dark rimmed glasses and I thought the best place to start would be with authenticity.

I shared that sometimes engineering had been challenging for me. Often I don’t want to speak up at work in a meeting in case I say something idiotic and I am remembered as the “the stupid woman”.

There was slight relief from her. She said she knew exactly how I felt because she is the only woman in her physics class. She said this was the first time she felt like someone understood her experience.

After learning about her physics class I asked her, ‘being the only girl in the class, do you have to do anything differently, or do you notice that you are disadvantaged?”

She said yes - the teacher often tells the boys information about the physics class and asks them to pass it along to the rest of the students. The boys all talk amongst each other, but they forget about her. She gets left out.

Through further conversation with her, I learned that she went directly to her teacher and requested the teacher to copy her into emails to get the information directly. Through a disadvantage, she actually created for herself an advantage.

I said to her, “do you know you are learning things in your physics class that the boys in your class will never learn? You are discovering how relationships and social structures work and figuring out how to make them work for you. None of the boys in your class are getting this.”

She was surprised. She then went on to tell me about the other strategies she uses to manage being in the minority.

This is something I experience often in male dominated workplaces. Workarounds. How do the relationships here work? How can I get my point across, be heard and have my perspective valued as the minority? Often the workarounds are just like what this year 11 student has discovered and involve working out the personalities and relationships and figuring out the social dynamics of a workplace.

These tools and strategies have become my advantage and enable me to influence and lead. It helps me to be an even better engineer.

I loved seeing this young woman’s face light up and have a renewed energy to walk into her physics class. She wore a proud little smile as she walked away from me.

Every adversity has a victory, if you let yourself see it.

What advice will you give?

Felicity Furey