Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Only Girl in the Room

This week I spent time in two all day meetings that were long and exhausting. But on the first day it didn’t take me more than five minutes to realize something significant about the group. I was the only female engineer in the room. Not just engineer, the only female. Sure we had a female office administrator setup the meeting (and that’s a discussion for a whole other day), but when she left, I was the lone female. The only girl in the room.

Now I have to say in general the divide in engineering is getting much better. In the last couple years my group alone has more than doubled its number of female engineers from two to five. And this past summer we had two female interns. Sounds awesome right? Not quite. In a growing group of thirty five plus engineers, this is not an accurate representation of the world. When you go to the grocery store or the mall or the gas station you don’t look up and say hey I’m the only female here. So why is that the case in a large engineering corporation? And what message does this send to up and coming females seeking out technical fields?

Without a single person opening their mouth, the room says, women aren’t welcome. Now I’m not saying that’s actually the case. Every person in the room respects me as an engineer—a respect that I unfortunately had to work long and hard to earn. And on the surface, they don’t treat me any differently than anyone else. But there are comments that sometimes inadvertently alienate me as a female. And as the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words”. So in a room full of men, how do we show women that they are welcome? Because when I’m the sole female representative, I don’t even have to notice that I’m alone to feel that pressure to prove myself. To prove that I know what I’m talking about, to prove that I’m good enough, to prove that I belong. And that is exhausting.

All it takes is the realization that I’m alone, for a minority to go to that place where they feel isolated in a room full of people. To feel like they don’t belong. Like they aren’t qualified. And as a society I think we can send a better message just by changing the dynamics of a room. I’m not saying hire someone or bring them into a room to fill a quota. We should be hiring the best and the brightest no question. But just being aware of there’s a problem is a huge first step. Realizing that sometimes the uneven dynamics create isolation that may not be visible on the surface. And showing the future of STEM fields that this is the reality right now, but it doesn’t have to continue to be this way.

Women are strong enough, smart enough, and are qualified enough to fill the room. We belong. We shouldn’t let the look of a room tell us otherwise. We shouldn’t give up just because we are alone. One day we can change the look of the room. One day I will look up and realize, I’m not the only girl in the room.