After a few years of working as an engineer, as a woman in a male-dominated field, I’ve grown accustomed to being The Only Girl In The Room. Often, that is literally true. When I graduated from school, I was the only woman in my class to successfully complete the Electrical Engineering degree program. I’ve had two jobs since finishing graduate school, and have been the only woman engineer on staff at both.
Being The Only Girl In The Room singles me out by definition, but I learned early on that it often means being taken less seriously by default. At the start of my first electronics class, the professor joked that he was just trying to survive until Thanksgiving break. “That’s when I’ll finally be able to kick back and relax,” he said, scribbling an equation on the blackboard. “My wife’s not looking forward to it though, because she has to do all the work: cooking, cleaning, the works. Fortunately, none of you will ever have to worry about that stuff.” He turned around and briefly surveyed the room before his eyes landed on me. “Well, except for you.”
All the men in the room chuckled while my face flushed beet red with an awful combination of embarrassment and rage.
This “joke” hit home because I had lost my mom only two years earlier, and as the only other member of my immediate family who knows how to roast a turkey, I WAS doing all the holiday cooking for my dad and my brother. I had been very proud of making awesome Thanksgiving dinners, but that asshole’s remark temporarily made me feel ashamed. That stung even more than the words themselves.
In hindsight, I probably should have complained to some higher-up at the university. But all I really wanted was a good grade, and at the time, I thought filing a formal complaint would make people think that I whined my way to an A instead of working for it like everyone else. That was the last thing I wanted. But after that moment in electronics class, I decided that being a serious engineer meant downplaying my identity as a woman. Even though it was 2005 instead of 1955, some people still assumed that as a woman, I could only be a housewife-in-training. They assumed that I was merely biding my time with this engineering stuff until I got married, and proving them wrong was on me.
For years, I thought the solution was not to talk about doing any sort of stereotypical 1950s housewife activities: “cooking, cleaning, the works,” as that wonderful electronics professor had put it. Over time, I gradually extrapolated this notion to all forms of feminine expression. While my normal wardrobe contains more than a few sun dresses and pairs of strappy sandals, my “work” wardrobe has always been identical to that of my male colleagues: button-down collared shirts, dress pants, and sensible loafers.
When I got engaged a few months ago, one of my biggest fears was everyone assuming that this “housewife-in-training” scenario was finally coming to fruition. So I decided that nobody had to know about it. My fiancé proposed to me on a Sunday and I was positively overflowing with joy when I went to work the next day, but I suppressed my happiness for eight whole hours and didn’t say a thing about our engagement to anyone. When a co-worker asked, “How was your weekend?” I tersely replied, “Oh. It was okay.”
I tried not to draw attention to the brand new ring on my finger, but as you might imagine, jewelry had never been part of my menswear-inspired work wardrobe. So my co-workers eventually noticed the ring and asked if I was getting married. I felt weird about lying when asked directly, so the secret was out. Over the next few days, I kept hearing that asshole professor’s voice in my head: “Well, except for you,” as I envisioned my co-workers’ mental image of me morphing into Betty Draper.
But even as lunch conversations occasionally drifted towards wedding stuff, none of my co-workers took me less seriously at all. It’s because after getting engaged, I’ve continued to accomplish some pretty great things at work. My co-workers continue to respect my engineering abilities because they know that shopping for a long white gown hasn’t stopped me from taking on multiple projects, creating new technologies, and submitting a conference paper. I now realize that my attempts to blend in as “one of the guys” were never the thing that caused people to take me seriously as an engineer: it was the quality of my work all along.
It’s true that when you’re a woman working in a male-dominated fields like engineering, you’re bound to meet a few dinosaurs who assume you’re a “housewife-in-training” and take you less seriously as a result. These dinosaurs are one of the reasons why I’ve been The Only Girl In The Room for much of my career. I mentioned before that I was the only woman in my graduating class to finish an Electrical Engineering degree, but I certainly wasn’t the only woman in my class to start one. I’d be willing to bet that more than one of those other women were influenced by that asshole “Well, except for you” electronics professor.
If you’re the first woman engineer that someone has ever met, chances are that they’re relying on their assumptions because they don’t actually know you yet. So ignore the haters, and show them what you’re made of instead. I know it sounds easier said than done, but when you’re The Only Girl In The Room, no one else is going to take on the responsibility of showing people that their assumptions about you are wrong. Just be yourself, and even the most closed-minded dinosaurs will learn to respect you. Don’t let their assumptions discourage you from succeeding at your career, and definitely don’t let them persuade you that things like getting married, cleaning your house, or cooking for your family make you any less of an engineer. Getting engaged taught me that I have the ability to set an example of what women engineers are capable of. If I can succeed as The Only Girl In The Room at my job, maybe it won’t be long before I’m not the only one any more.
Photo: Vivian Chen