My Uphill Path Towards Leadership As a Woman Engineer
I think of leadership for female engineers as a windy road that is slightly uphill. Windy because of society and my peers will always be pointing me towards different directions. Slightly uphill because there is a cultural gender bias against women in the workplace that is hard to pinpoint and hard to break.
As a young female engineer and a curious problem solver, I am learning how to navigate this path towards leadership. It is truly a fascinating problem. Through this Q&A article, I hope to share my thoughts and experiences about my student leadership involvement, and my approach to tackling this archaic stigma towards women as leaders.
Question: Which character traits are important in order to grow as an engineer?
Answer: Two traits that have been important to my growth are maintaining my work ethic and reminding myself of my passion for green energy and sustainability. I am focusing my career on energy and sustainability because I really feel that it is my responsibility. For the past 7 years, I have aligned my education and career decisions in this direction. My undergraduate years were full of opportunities as well as distractions.
I joined a student organization called Engineers for a Sustainable World right off the bat in my first year and became a student project leader for an international water project. There was a steep learning curve early on as the project lead. I had to learn how to manage workflow from more senior students and to delegate work that fits best with my team.
Young women really should take on leadership opportunities in college because there is so much room for growth and tolerance for errors vs. in the workplace. Becoming a leader in a student organization is a good trial run with little to no negative consequence.
I mentioned distractions because there were people that told me I could not be who I wanted to be. Staying focused was key. I believe in what is important and I will continue to work towards the engineer that I strive to be. It is perfectly fine to reshape your objectives throughout time, but never lose sight of them.
Question: Can you tell us a story about a time as the team leader?
Answer: I oversaw a water purification project for two years and our goal was to implement inexpensive, replicable, and an overall feasible water sanitization system for rural villagers in Northern Thailand. During the research design phase, the trick was balancing creativity and productivity within the team. Staying too focused and not allowing for new ideas would compromise great ideas from younger, more timid members of the team. On the other hand, allowing for too much creativity gives the feeling of not completing any tangible tasks.
My first task as a team leader was to guide and manage a productive brainstorming session. In the preliminary brainstorming sessions, it was evident what each members’ interests were. I delegated tasks based on each members’ interest and capability, and ensured they would be paired up with an upperclassman if they are younger.
You should always read into your team and understand the dynamics, even if you are not the leader. I once heard, “A good leader always asks the right questions,” and I have taken this approach since. Questions can range from probing why team members think their ideas are great, what the selling points are, to more accountability driven, “Did you get to follow up the idea you had last week?”, “Did you make any progress on your tasks?”
You should not burden your team and micromanage them because that can backfire. Through asking the right questions, I was able to hold my members accountable and opened channels for communication during difficult times.
Question: What were some of the biggest challenges that you have faced as a woman in engineering?
Answer: One time at the library, I got into an argument with a colleague who told me, “Women engineers are just not as good as engineers who are men.” I was livid! Yes, it is obvious that I am one of 10 women in my upper division engineering classes of 100 students, but I have always brushed off this gender disparity. It was not until I got into this argument with my classmate that I realized there really is a cultural bias against women in STEM.
It’s one thing to have someone tell you that you are not as good, but the harder challenge is to not believe that’s true. These internal conversations make me so much more embarrassed to ask questions at the machine shop or other situations where I don’t feel as comfortable. Eventually, I realized that engineers come in different shapes and sizes, and it is okay to have strengths and weaknesses.
I am not as savvy in the machine shop as some of my classmates, but I can design and model better than most of my classmates. When I recognized I could work on my machine shop skills, I pursued an R&D internship where I refined my design skills and developed new skills in 3D printing and rapid prototyping. I feel much more comfortable in the machine shop, but opportunities are not given – they are earned. Believe in those small victories and embrace in the skills that you are good at. Also, understand your weaknesses and make it a point to improve on those.
Question: When people talk about the gender imbalance in STEM, the “Pipeline” theory comes up. The theory emphasizes that having sufficient STEM graduates in the workforce requires both sufficient input in early education and retention through their career path in STEM. This is where some say girls and young women fall off the path from STEM fields.
How important do you think is to keep girls engaged?
Answer: I grew up in a middle-class family in Hong Kong. In my culture, academics took priority and extracurricular activities are more like pre-requisites for high school entrance exam. From math club, poetry, drawing classes, music instruments, to competitive swimming, these activities took up most of my afterschool free time. Of all of them, I distinctly remember that I was selected by my teachers to attend this afterschool class called “Rising Stars and Young Leaders.” I remember thinking, “Am I in trouble? Did I speak too much in class today, why do I have to stay here when everyone else went home?” I do not recall the details, but I remember how empowered I felt. It was only one class, but my teachers sat down with a small group of us, and suggested roles for us to take. The teachers encouraged us to step up and take advantage of our outspoken personalities.
The next year, I joined the student council. People called me “bossy” when I was young, but my teachers explained why that was okay and how to thrive on my leadership skills. Small conversations like the ones I received through this program really made a difference. Many girls and young women do not understand their potential and have a poor grasp of how to capitalize on their gifts. It is important to tackle this problem directly by joining outreach activities and supporting organizations like bootup. There is a lot of work to be done in this field in terms of developing more female leaders.
Question: How did you decide that you wanted to pursue leadership positions?
Answer: After joining my student organization for couple of years, I ran for Chapter President. I thought the team dynamics and creativity that developed within an organization are so interesting. Engineers can sometimes be opinionated and skeptical. It takes time to build trust between people, especially engineers. Communication was the key here when dealing with missed deadlines and conflicts. Traditionally, Chapter Presidents would hold cabinet meetings with positions that focused on different objectives in the organization, such as finance, marketing, information management, project management.
My previous chapter president tried to market the organization to be this career changing experience in order to increase membership, and no student believe him. As a result, membership and project growth suffered. When I took on the organization, that management style felt wrong to me to market something to the students in this way. I did not think he really understood what the students wanted.
I started exploring different management styles, restructured the committee chairs slightly at the top and took a bottom-up approach. I needed to have a deeper understanding of why the students loved this organization and what engages our student members the most. Additionally, I asked my team to identify groups of our current members and developed projects and programs to cater towards these various groups of student members. For two years, I read books and attended as many project meetings as possible. I realized it is imperative to stay connected with the technical details while doing higher-level strategic moves and managing resources up top. It was rewarding to have my members believe in me and to come to me with concrete problems since I really emphasized on accountability and trust within the organization. I just loved the entire process of working my way to the top of the organization and I look forward to this in the real workforce when I start my job.
Question: What are your short and long-term professional goals?
Answer: On the technical side, I want to stay focused and learn as much as I can about the green energy and energy storage industry. From the feasibility analysis to the full implementation of energy storage projects, I want to immerse myself in my work and grow to be a productive member of the team. Down the line, I hope to develop a specialized set of skills so that I am the “go-to” person on the team.
On the soft-skills side, I want to learn how to work with different kinds of people, and to find role models in my field. I will be collaborating with people from both technical and nontechnical backgrounds. I also want to find some professional mentors that I can look up to – I am really excited for that.
When I interviewed with this company, I noticed a balanced gender ratio in senior engineer positions, and these women often had family responsibilities to meet. That really made a positive impression with me. There is a “Women in Tech” network within the company and similar ones in the area that I plan to actively participate. In general, just being proactive in this work environment, learn and contribute, and grow as a female engineer.