December 6 – Women in the Engineering Profession

December 6, 2010

Over the last 13 odd years that I’ve been working in the profession, the last two of which I’m officially allowed to refer to myself as an engineer now that I’m a licensed professional, I’ve thought a lot about women engineers.  Specifically how to women engineers differ from male engineers, and in light of the Montreal massacre that I mark each December 6th, I thought I’d get some of my thoughts down.  I may also be thinking about this more now that I have a daughter on the way, but truthfully I think about these issues often.  I have also been reading in my professional engineering magazines that enrollment of women in engineering is declining recently, as is women entering and staying in the profession.  In Alberta the percentage of registered women engineers is low, much lower than I personally expected.  I’ve not seen statistics from other provinces to compare, but I believe it is lower than I would expect throughout Canada.  The reasons for this are many, and myriad, but not my topic today.  I’d like to think about why women engineers are good (not better, good) and what we bring to the profession.

It is my personal opinion that there are many qualities women bring to engineering that are incredibly useful to any company, large or small.  These qualities may not be ones that are recognized or particularly useful when we are going to school; communication, long term planning ability, and organization.   In school engineers are mostly rewarded for doing the most math correctly in the shortest amount of time. 

 The ability to communicate, and facilitate communication in the team is an extremely important skill, and one that tends to not be recognized by managers as often as it should be.  Many of the men I have worked with or for don’t like to talk, they like to stay in their office, do their job, and not be bothered.  Companies can have many work “bubbles” where communication is shared between a few people, but not to the next group over, who may be struggling with the same problem.  Myself, and other women I know, tend to have a habit of walking around “chatting”.  Sometimes our bosses don’t like this.  Until we come back and let them know all the useful information that we’ve picked up, such as how a different group faced a similar problem, and how they solved it.  In my current job I recently facilitated communication, as I picked up on how my co-workers were all frustrated about the same problem, but no one was talking about it!  Except to me, so picking up all the information from the various parties I began to circulate back around spreading information, until I managed to get them all back to a common meeting, and literally made them all talk to each other.  Worked like a charm, as once they were face to face they couldn’t hold onto their hurt feelings, and with some moderating by myself we made a list of “problems” and “plans of action” and away everyone went until the problem was finally solved.  There is also the important skill of taking a complicated technical problem, and explaining it to operators, towns people, Mayors, Council people, you name it, I’ve had to do it over the years.  This takes a long time to learn, and I’m still learning, but its a very, very useful skill, and another one that I think women excel at with their ability to talk and “read” the people they are talking to at the same time, picking up on their body language, tone of voice, etc. to adapt the conversation to the person who is trying to understand.

I think the ability to do long range planning and thinking is another un-sung virtue in our profession, especially after I had a boss who was very reactionary in his thinking.  He would only react to problems once they happened, and didn’t try and foresee them before they happened and take steps.  A good engineer needs to be thinking far down the road, anticipating problems constantly, and avoiding them.  I love planning things, in my personal life, and professionally.  What is my goal, and what are all the steps I need to do in order to get there, breaking everything down into manageable pieces.  I’m privileged to know many women that share this ability, and for an engineer it’s incredibly useful.  Many engineers work as project managers, planning and running huge projects that have millions of dollars, and hundreds of steps in their process.

Then there is organization, and multi-tasking, or the ability to keep many, many balls in the air at the same time.  During the course of a day so many of us, not just engineers, need to switch constantly between tasks, keeping our main projects going, but dealing with phone calls, emergency e-mails, this and that, that and this.  This is another reason why I love my day timer, I constantly jot down things on my to do list, making sure I don’t forget to do something important.  Although my desk is generally very messy, I usually have a lot of information readily at hand for when I get questions about projects we are working on, I can easily refer back to notes. 

These are just a few quick ideas about the important qualities that women bring to the work place, and what they bring to a traditionally male dominated field.  It’s why I think women should be encouraged to become engineers, and why they should feel once they are there that they are important parts of the team and company.  It is also why their company should value them.

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2 Responses to “December 6 – Women in the Engineering Profession”

  1. Sarah said

    Interesting thoughts. I think it’s very likely that a lot of important pieces of wisdom go unnoticed in university as we seek knowledge. But wisdom turns out to be the key very often.

  2. Heather said

    Good thoughts, Anne, Have you thought of perhaps developing these ideas a little further, maybe doing a little research, and presenting them at a conference or in a trade publication?

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