Women, minorities in engineering

Both women and minorities face similar challenges in the engineering workplace.

By John Suzukida, PE, Lanex Consulting, Minneapolis February 9, 2015

Let’s consider the parallels between being a woman in engineering and being an ethnic minority. As a minority male, I don’t presume to completely understand the challenges women face as engineers, much as a nonminority woman can’t fully understand what a male minority faces. But drawing parallels between the two may help some female engineers work through tough situations.

Good or bad, people are more likely to remember you. It is a reality: You’re more easily remembered when you overwhelm people with competence. There’s no need to project impatience or an attitude; just come to grips with the fact that you are a minority and some people are not used to working with you. It  may take them some time to adjust. Once they do, make pure competence their memory of you.

Initial encounters are not always focused on you or your abilities. There are times when you realize that what you’re saying is not really being heard. In my case, people might be thinking, “Where did he learn to speak such good English?” In a woman’s case, they may be thinking, “I wonder how she chose to be an engineer?” The latter is speculation, the former has actually been verbalized, which is interesting, considering I was born in the U.S. and speak only one language. Those who are working with female engineers may have to overcome the novelty that a woman is speaking on technical topics. Once they get past that, most adjust, so women shouldn’t be too sensitive to others’ initial reactions. Rather, give them a little time, and the situation generally will work out well. The fact that you’re a women or a minority can be taken out of the equation as long as you focus on the facts and solve problems. Don’t wear your gender or ethnicity on your sleeve or make it an issue—even if it is one at the start.

Don’t let yourself be overlooked. This phenomenon is one most people face when they’re young or new to a career, regardless of gender or other status. More experienced veterans may talk over you or ignore you. Over time, most people develop confidence to deal with that, but sometimes women or minorities may feel that the process is prolonged because a veteran doesn’t know how to accommodate their input. One way to help with that is to pick a key point to ensure you are clearly heard. Push through in a calm and insistent manner by making eye contact and holding your ground—you have a right to state your case. As you speak, make sure you don’t fall into the trap of talking too much when you have the floor. Be aware of the impact of your words and make sure you are on target. Don’t think of this opportunity as if it was your only time to talk.

Take the long view. When you’re dealing with people who have not been exposed to diverse work situations, you might hear language that is not politically correct. The best solution is to roll with it to the extent that you can tolerate. Only you can determine how far is too far. However, pointing it out any controversy publicly could just make the other person uncomfortable and avoid communicating with you in the future. Before reacting, check your filters to determine if the comments are truly gender-related and offensive. Sometimes, what comes across as blunt or insensitive is often benign in nature, so rely on your largesse in overlooking a poorly worded comment and giving someone a chance to get used to relating to you. That person will soon see you as you—for what you can bring to the table.

John Suzukida was Trane’s senior VP of global marketing and strategy prior to founding Lanex Consulting in 2002, which focuses on strategic planning and product-to-solutions business model transitions. He has a BSME and distinguished alumnus award from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Read more career advice at www.csemag.com/careersmart.