Top five things female engineers should know

Female engineers, take this career advice to heart.

By Rebecca Delaney, PE, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Chicago July 22, 2014

I have been on a journey to become empowered as a female engineer instead of feeling like an outcast. These are some lessons I have learned. I hope they serve to encourage my peers in the next generation of women in engineering.

1. It is OK not to blend in—you won’t, even if you try

Ladies, stop trying to blend in! As a female engineer, you’ve probably noticed you are in the minority. It is easy to focus on the perceived challenges this creates when we should be focused on the potential advantages. It’s OK to leverage the fact you are not like your peers.

A tenured female engineer once told me when she attends meetings, the men often pay close attention when she speaks; perhaps they’re intrigued to see what she will say or maybe her voice doesn’t get lost in the room. Either way, she doesn’t feel ashamed about using her differences for her professional gain.

2. Men and women are different, and that can be a good thing

Men and women are different in many ways: we look different, we communicate differently, we think differently. And that’s OK!

At the beginning of my career I thought I had to be more like the men to be respected and successful. Trying to be someone I wasn’t didn’t work for me. However, I soon discovered being different was actually a benefit.

By thinking differently, I bring an alternate point of view to design challenges that helps me stand out from the crowd. By communicating differently, I manage people and build relationships with clients in a way which some of my peers may not. In his research on the differences between men and women, Karima Merchant states women communicate with the intent to enhance social connections and relationships, while men communicate with the intent of social dominance. This key distinction allows me to excel at managing my team and clients.

3. Set clear boundaries

A young female engineer walks into an office full of young male engineers—it sounds like the beginning of a bad joke. But it’s reality for approximately 11% of our incoming engineering workforce each year. Everyone wants to be friends with their coworkers. However, friendly conversation and an occasional happy hour can quickly misconstrue your intentions.

I’m not saying interoffice relationships are bad; just be mindful of the boundaries you create. And don’t assume they are understood or mutual. Setting clear boundaries early can prevent a number of awkward conversations later.

4. Accept all comments as compliments

To be young and female can sometimes feel like two strikes against you in this industry.

First, as a female I’m mistaken as one of the stereotypical female roles (i.e., architect, interior designer) on the design team. Second, as a young person, people assume I can’t be well-versed in my craft. I’m often met with surprise and amazement when I reveal I’m the lead mechanical engineer on their project and it is clear I know what I’m talking about.

My experience has led me to believe most comments aren’t made with malicious intent, so I try to accept all comments as compliments and move on.

5. Women are your allies—at least they should be

In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandburg said, “When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less.” My experiences align with Sandberg’s findings. Some of my harshest work environments have been with other female engineers. I feel as women we are so focused on competing with our male counterparts that we start to assume everyone is our competition. By the time we succeed, we have alienated those around us.

Through pursuing relationships with my female coworkers, I have discovered I’m not alone in my workplace challenges. It’s often easier to make changes when you aren’t the only voice.

The sooner you embrace the differences that set you apart, the more confident you will be to use your talents to their full extent. Your career and the industry will be thankful!

Rebecca Delaney is mechanical team leader at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s sustainable engineering studio. She is the 2014 ASHRAE New Face of Engineering, recognized for her industry leadership in mentoring students and sharing her passion of engineering around the globe.