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Women in Engineering – From Gen X to Millennials

Earlier this year, I attended a University of Michigan Society of Women Engineers panel event about women in engineering.
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My Thoughts after Attending a University of Michigan SWE Panel on Women in Engineering

This post was originally published on The Huffington Post.

By Sofia Ghori Salem, technologist, educator, writer, travel enthusiast, Twitter: SofiaGSaleem

Sitting amidst a group of fresh faced, soon to be grads, my interest was piqued because my profile read like some of those women in that panel. I have twenty years of work experience, have served in multiple multinational software consultancy organizations, taught in college and taken some time off to raise a family.

Experiences of Women Engineers

I was curious to see if their stories resonated with mine, and if this resonance of cumulative experiences and knowledge could be passed down to the next generation of women engineers. The demographic was evenly split between older and younger women on the panel. The young moderators, women in their final year of engineering school, asked turn by turn questions such as “What was the most challenging time you faced as an women engineer?” or “How do you accomplish work life balance?”

The panelists were upbeat about their experiences, pushing their interviewers further, suggesting that every question that focused on challenges, should have a counter question recounting the joys of being a woman engineer.  A few of these women had worked for several decades in the same organization, giving examples of overcoming gender bias with tenacity and stating that over time they built bridges of professional trust and team spirit.

As the panelists shared a broad range of experiences, I found a common thread in many of their stories such as their heroism with breast pumps and how they held their ground and charted their own course as a minority in engineering. There was humor in some situations, like travel encounters to “men only” places with no women’s bathrooms and how they salvaged these situations with grace.

United by a Love for STEM

Many of my women co-workers, who chose the fields of engineering, were driven by a love for STEM subjects and from an innate desire to build, create or change.  One of the very first things I feel that we must build together is a culture of women engineers. We seem to still be in the process of defining what constitutes our culture, of finding our brand and of determining our points of cohesion.

As a vibrant community of women engineers with our own distinct culture, we can collaborate and reach out to those girls in middle school who are hesitantly contemplating this journey, and draw them into the fold. Amidst the confusion of teenage self-discovery and the entrenched ideas of distaste or disdain for math, it is necessary to help that young girl find herself and discover her latent talent in STEM if she possesses it. When we look at facts and figures of girls that get inducted in STEM every year, the needle still hovers at 30%, a number that has held steady for many years and that is significantly behind other nations.

In my seven years of travel across the world, I have worked with girls in economically disadvantaged societies, whose passion for a career in STEM is rooted in a desire for upward economic mobility as much as a love for those subjects.

Fixing the Leaky Pipeline

 The “leaky pipeline” phenomenon of women quitting STEM fields at later stages of their career would also benefit from the mentorship of a diverse and dynamic women in engineering community. Listening to stories that demonstrate the value of knowing how to prioritize and compartmentalize are vital lessons for professional and personal advancement. The more we engage in and share stories of work life balance, the better equipped we are to fit into or mold the culture of the organization that we work for.

So do the Gen X women in engineering have a legacy of work practices and stories that resonate with the women millennials? The answer is a resounding yes.

Attending conferences such as this one creates a tremendous sense of empowerment and belonging. While it’s true that in today’s evolving society, some of that older narrative that applied to Gen X engineers has changed, what’s also true is that the specifics may vary but the abstracts still remain the same.

Because no one knows what or where the engineering jobs of the future are, an important page from the Gen X’s book is learning how to deal with ambiguity. So, while international travel may no longer challenge women with restroom inadequacies, it will still test their ability to think on their feet, beyond what they can anticipate or train for.

Inspirational Stories

The story of the woman who has been in an organization for thirty years ago may have limited appeal and applicability in todays’ fluid organizations, but it’s her overall message of tenacity that’s inspiring. And the breast pump stories will always inspire, as motherhood transcends generations, and will continue to present itself as an option for women during a certain window of time in their lives. It’s important to have dialogues such as this to help provide a vision to upcoming engineers, and give them sense of what the journey is about.

The biggest nod to the women in engineering cause was its ability to attract a male audience.  A row of young men sat together in a corner of the room, hearing out the more intimate personal details of gender bias in one woman’s life. Some may have been there to play a supportive role and perhaps there were others who were drawn to the panel for what it could offer – good, solid “engineering jobs” advice across genders. I see this as a promising sign that the entrenched gender stereotypes are blurring.