Female engineers as leaders
Statistics show there is a low number of women in engineering—and in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in general. According to a 2010 report from the American Association of University Women, there are several barriers to women entering STEM. And while the National Science Foundation indicates the number of women obtaining STEM degrees or jobs has nearly doubled in the past two decades, the disparity of men outnumbering women has only slightly narrowed. The number of women in engineering in the U.S. has not increased since the early 2000s, states in a report from the Society of Women Engineers.
Yet there’s good news. More high-level positions are held by women engineers: Mary T. Barra of General Motors Co. and Virginia M. Rometty of IBM are examples of women who’ve made it to the top at world-class companies. And we see more stories of excellence by women—the Consulting-Specifying Engineer 40 Under 40 program and the Control Engineering and Plant Engineering Leaders Under 40 program is testimony to that. Movements to advance women in software engineering like Girls Who Code and coderGirls are building bridges early so we don’t lose girls too soon.
In the early 1980s, as a liberal arts major from Stanford University, I began working as a semiconductor industry analyst for a leading high-tech market research firm introduced to me by my advisor. I did an internship there and went back after a short stint at IBM. There I had mentor, was given and took hold of opportunity, and left 10 years later as a senior vice president.
I saw the dawn of the internet, search, mobile, social, and now machine learning and artificial intelligence. They have all unfolded during my watch.
And yet with all these advances, we are still wondering why women are not more present in the C-suite or taking more engineering jobs. I never thought about it until my own conference celebrating keynotes from market share leaders left me with a program roster of nearly all men. So I began measuring, monitoring, speaking, and hosting a conference to promote women in the sectors I serve.
There are lessons for the next generation of female engineering leaders:
- My mom said no one ever says excuse me to a doormat. I love that line and pass it along whenever I can.
- Successful leaders take the tough jobs that no one wants, face their fear, and dive in anyway.
- The women CEOs and technical leaders I know are those who exercise their choice. Even in the face of adversity, when they’re dealt a bad hand, they make a choice to move on and do it with grace.
- And it’s well-studied that businesses with diverse executive team and cultures outperform. It’s good business to choose from our employment pool all parts of the population, whatever gender, religion, race, or personal affiliation. And if the companies we work for don’t exercise their choice for integration, then we can leave. That too is a choice.
Simply put, in the power of choice lies alchemy.
We can spend our money with companies who are diverse; we can work for them too. Do the great work and then ask for raises; build new positions; request mentors, sponsors, or training and career development. Work in sales, or program or product management. Work in innovation and take the path to leadership through functional areas combined with engineering. And we can make our own jobs.
The beauty of today’s workforce is that with little income, democratized tools, the web, online payment systems, and a few strokes of ingenuity, we are in business. Access to capital is abundant. Women in engineering have incredible skills and they can put them to work for themselves whenever, wherever, and however they want. We have the skill. It’s essential to exercise our will.
Make a difference in your own industry and follow your passion. Manage your career as you would manage anything else in life. Be purposeful. We have the wherewithal to choose our future. It’s never been a better time to be a woman in engineering, or in any industry really. So, go for it and name your claim.