What motivates women to become engineers? Here's a piece from Shamree Howard offering one woman's reflection on her path.
As the youngest child of four, I was always trying to play with the big kids and prove that I could do anything they could do. Keep in mind that my siblings are 12, 11, and six years older than I am, and they love to push my buttons. When I was younger, whenever someone would say, "You can't do that," I knew that at least I had to give it a try. "You can't step over this electric fence; you're too short" was one of the infamous ones. I found out how short I was and how hot an electric fence shock can feel to your inner thigh.
This determination and stubbornness probably contributed to my decision to pursue engineering in college -- along with my love of math and science, of course. As soon as I was told that it was one of the hardest degrees and that very few women choose it for a career path, I knew I had to give it a try. Engineering is not the easy path in college, but to make it just a little harder, I decided to double major in French. Many folks called me crazy, but my siblings called me determined and stubborn.
While I was studying engineering as an undergraduate, I interviewed as many women engineers as I could find. I asked the typical questions about why they chose engineering, how their career paths developed, and what challenges they faced. Most of them had the same story about their love of math and science, along with the support of a mentor who got them started in the field. Every single one told me a story about the struggles of working in a male-dominated workplace. Each one had to mask, in some small way, who she was in order to fit in and succeed at work. One worked in the aerospace and defense environment and had to put up with the "female dog title" while her male co-workers were called leaders. Another woman told me about business trips and interesting choices of venues to host client dinners. It started reminding me of the Whoopi Goldberg movie The Associate.
Instead of dissuading me from engineering, these experiences made me want to pursue it even more. I could be wrong, but I think inside of each woman engineer is a rebellious spirit. I didn't just want to be a part of this innovative environment. I wanted to thrive in it. I wanted to prove that women were just as good engineers as men and could succeed. I prepared myself to work many hours alone and to curtail my social nature in order to fit in.
During my interview with Agilent Technologies, I tried to gain a sense of the work environment. However, I didn't seem to be able to ask the right questions. How do you ask, "Is this a fun place to work with team spirit, or does everyone just sit at their desks alone and focus on their work?" After much deliberation, I accepted the offer from Agilent in technical support for spectrum analyzers, and I prayed it would be a good fit.
After my first week of confusing acronyms, getting lost on site, and meeting new people, I settled into my new team. I quickly realized it was the perfect fit for my inner nerd and social nature. My team soon became like a second family to me, and they even teased me like my older siblings used to do. We had friendly competitions of who could answer the phone first when it rang on our support line, and each of us had an individual victory dance. We dressed up for Halloween, decorated offices when someone was gone, and brought back gifts from business trips. I was able to indulge my social side during coffee breaks while still being able to dive into new technology. The environment I found at Agilent was different from the picture I had painted in my head when I interviewed women engineers during my college years.
I realize now, nine years into my professional career, that there are just as many types of engineering jobs and work environments as there are personality types. In fact, some of the women I went to school with probably would not have thrived in my job. They prefer working alone at their desks to being on a team that likes to play pranks on one another. One of the best pranks my team played on me was when I heard a bell go off at work, and I asked what it was. They told me that it was an earthquake warning bell, and that I should get under my desk. Since I was from Colorado, I was getting ready to dive under my desk, because California is known for earthquakes. Thankfully, one of them burst into laughter and told me it was a joke just before I started crawling on all fours.
One thing that is the same for all women in engineering is the need to balance career and personal life. This becomes especially tricky if you are a mother who is ambitious. I had my career put on hold while I was on maternity leave, and others around me excelled during this time. However, I wouldn't trade that time I had with my children for anything. That being said, I feel like women have to play the balancing act of work and home more than their male counterparts. If a man works extra hours for his job to move up the corporate ladder, he is praised for providing for his family. If a woman works extra hours and travels a lot for her job, she is often thought to be deserting her family. Thankfully, I have a very supportive husband and family who know just how stubborn and determined I am, along with a company whose flexibility allows me to be a good wife and mother. Being a woman in the engineering environment is a challenge, but it is definitely one worth taking.