Gender was never a differentiator or boundary in my home when I was growing up.
We were all expected to help out with all chores and all family activities – dishes, cooking, cleaning, pets, yardwork … I was encouraged to be whatever I wanted to be – my wish list included veterinarian, school teacher, astronaut, adventure travel guide, National Geographic photographer, (my Dad not so secretly suggested President – LOL) … reach for the sky.
I had lots of ideas and interests and found all sorts of learning intriguing, but as my formative years progressed, I found I had a natural affinity for science and mathematics. I also realized that I was not cut out for scientific research, where I might spend years proving or disproving a hypothesis. My desire for quick results was a better fit for applied science and mathematics. Hence engineering.
My first exposure to computers and microprocessors steered me immediately towards electrical engineering. I was accepted into an engineering co-op program which allowed me to get hands-on engineering experience during my college years by alternating work semesters and college semesters. The hands-on experience allowed me to apply what I was learning in a meaningful way, and confirmed that electrical engineering was a good choice. Computer and sensor technologies were advancing at a rapid rate, making abundant opportunities for creative “invention and problem solving”.
The co-op years also gave me a glimpse of the work environment. Definitely not a gender neutral place, it was full of politics, power struggles, and complex relationships. Being a female in electrical engineering at college, I did get singled out and noticed – usually by being called on by name or admonished for having been absent the previous day, the obvious side-effect of being one of 3 females in a class of 100 students. But the focus was still on learning and getting your college degree. We all had a similar agenda.
In the workplace, understanding people and their motives became an important factor for navigating “life”. I believe in people and their potential to be amazing and to accomplish more as part of a team than as individuals. Not everyone believes this. I met people who used others as scapegoats and stepping stones. In order to navigate “life”, my people skills and political skills needed some focus. And in many cases, I needed to be more observant of other peoples’ motivations and biases to do so. In retrospect, I had to be better than my male counterparts to earn and maintain respect and advancement. But that just meant I need to always bring my “A game” to the table, and that is not a bad thing … it’s just a thing. I have an “A game” and I also expect to do my very best.
Over time my career has evolved from Design Engineer, to Project Manager, to Engineering Manager, and most recently into Business Development. I loved my years of deep technical challenges and contributions and found that when working with a team of mostly engineers, our focus was on technical problem solving and gender disappeared. In broader, less technical settings there is more gender-related posturing, but over time navigating those settings has become just another negotiating and relationship management skill I needed to develop. And those negotiation and relationship management skills are key to encouraging my co-workers and team members to “reach for the sky – TOGETHER”.