Growing up I never thought it was strange that a woman would work in a STEM field. I never lacked strong female role models in my life. I had one grandmother who worked in aerospace and my other grandmother was a rural doctor. In fact, my own mother studied electrical engineering and now works as a software engineer. As a child, these were the stories that shaped the foundation of my world view.
Yet when I first changed career paths from UX Design to engineering, it didn’t take me long to come to two uncomfortable realizations. The first: how few women there actually were around me. And the second: how rare it was in society for women to be taught to be demanding and outspoken.
A Culture of Design
As someone who originally studied UX/UI design, I found these realizations especially jarring. Within the design field there was always a relatively equal mix of genders. It wasn’t uncommon at all to see people of all genders in positions of leadership, and collaboration was a massive part of the culture. It’s almost impossible to create good design in a vacuum so we learned to defend our own opinions, challenge each other’s assumptions, and embrace critique. In our classes we analyzed the influence of biases from gender, race, and socioeconomic status on both our design work and in our personal life. Designing for accessibility and equality of access for all were corner stones of the design culture and mindset.
Designing for accessibility and equality of access for all were corner stones of the design culture and mindset.
From Design to Engineering
Later I decided to pursue a career in engineering and made the jump from UX design to software design. Only then did I understand just how uncommon this kind of experience was. Not only did I find myself vastly outnumbered by males in all my classes, I also saw how my peers in engineering did not receive the same education in considering issues of ethics or unconscious bias.
What It Means to be a Woman in STEM
Of course, I was always aware that, statistically, engineering was a heavily male dominated field, yet it wasn’t until I sat in a room full of men and realized I was the only woman on a project that I truly understood what all those statistics meant.
It’s not just as simple as being the "only one" in a room wearing make-up and heels. It’s the isolation that comes with not having peers who can share my experiences. It’s the self-doubt in knowing that some people will dismiss my input based solely on my gender. And more than all these things, it is the quiet responsibility of knowing that, in many ways, my actions will affect the lives of the countless future girls that come after me.
It’s the isolation that comes with not having peers who can share my experiences. It’s the self-doubt in knowing that some people will dismiss my input based solely on my gender.
Creating a Welcoming Culture
When we talk of encouraging girls to study STEM, we can’t simply speak in terms of enrollment numbers or retention rates. Certainly, everyone knows that women are underrepresented, but knowing and noticing are two vastly different things. After all, having women on the team won’t mean much if they don’t have a voice.
This is just as much an issue of culture as it is of numbers. Culture is nothing more than the sum of our customs and norms. So each of us has a role to play in creating and maintaining a culture that embraces greater collaboration and equality, not just for the sake of women, but for everyone.
Having women on the team won’t mean much if they don’t have a voice.
How We Can Help
There are three simple things that all of us can do to cultivate a collaborative culture.
- Learn to Listen: A collaborative environment is one where everyone feels comfortable sharing their ideas and opinions. As a designer, I learned that the best way to learn and gain insights is to listen, and the best way to listen is to be quiet. So even if you disagree with someone, try to take a moment to seriously consider their opinion. They may still bring up some good points.
- Be Your Own Advocate: Especially to the women reading this article, I would say that the most important thing to do is to speak up for yourself. We want to create a welcoming culture for everyone, but if women are invited to the table to talk then it’s pointless if you don’t make yourself heard.
- Keep an Open Mind: Considering new view points is hard and can be a little intimidating. Sometimes it might seem easiest or safest to just keep doing things the way we’ve always done them. But I urge everyone to keep an open mind when it comes to new ideas. Sometimes entertaining wildly impossible ideas will inspire others to come up with something truly amazing.
Nancy H. shares her experiences of being a Muslim woman in the world of engineering and business, and how it led her to empower other women to keep pushing for what they believe in.
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