Engineering Success: Biases that women engineers face, and roadblocks they demolish
Science and technology are no longer only men's clubs, as lots of women now choose science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields as career options. However, the opportunities in these industries have not kept pace with the influx, and while there’s been a lot of improvement over the years, there’s still more that needs to be done.
As we mark International Women in Engineering Day (#INWED) to celebrate the hard-working women who dedicate themselves to innovating and progressing the engineering fields, we need to look at the current situation. INWED, started as a national campaign by the UK's Women’s Engineering Society in 2014, has grown enormously since then, receiving UNESCO patronage in 2016.
People Matters spoke to women tech leaders /engineers to find out how the engineering landscape is changing for women across several industries, roadblocks and biases they faced, how they can overcome them and what can companies do to drive substantial change when it comes to diversity and representation of women in the workforce.
The future looks promising!
When Jhilmil Kochar, Managing Director at cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike India, started her career journey, there were a limited number of women taking up studies in engineering. She had to persuade her parents to let her pursue a career in STEM.
However, she says, it is encouraging to note that the situation has vastly improved now from what it was a few years ago.
“With technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, data science, cybersecurity, cloud computing etc. booming in India, it presents a plethora of opportunities for women to take up a career in engineering. Women can contribute so much in this field and get back so much. Added to that, technology has enabled work from anywhere, encouraging more women to join the tech field, addressing the skills gap in the process,” says Kochar.
In recent years, there has been a remarkable boom in the startup space in India which has created even more opportunities for women to build their careers in highly technical or specialised roles, says Yugandhara Gaikwad, Principal DevOps Engineer, at Cyware, which helps enterprise cybersecurity teams build platform-agnostic virtual cyber fusion centers.
“With a growing number of companies looking to improve diversity in their talent, there has been a high demand for women in the workplace. I strongly believe that behind every successful woman is a horde of cheerleaders who always support and encourage her in doing things right. The IT landscape is changing and many women employees have found their footing and are going strong. And with increasing numbers of women students in engineering colleges, the future looks promising,” she adds.
How companies can drive change
The count of women engineers is appallingly low across many industries. However, companies are trying to ensure that a blend of technical know-how and creativity that a woman employee offers can be effectively put to use.
Kochar says leaders also have the responsibility of supporting women through mentorship programmes, peer training, induction, reskilling, and upskilling courses which, in turn, will help nurture their growth. “Every woman leader is working hard to encourage more women to take up this field and make this a reality,” she adds.
As part of her contribution to the field, Kochar plays an active role as a mentor to Women in Cybersecurity, and to school children as part of the Atal Innovation Mission. CrowdStrike India also provides scholarships to girl students who are meritorious but are unable to pay for their education due to financial difficulties.
However, while an engineering career is extremely rewarding, it can be intimidating to be the 'only woman' in the room. “You always come across a colleague who will interrupt you when you are speaking or ask you to take meeting notes because you know, 'women are better at this kind of thing' therefore, undermining their capability to take on big projects,” says Charneeta Kaur, Vice President- Product & Design at edtech firm Extramarks Education.
Kaur says organisations that limit their thinking along the lines of gender, race, ethnicity etc., will soon find it difficult to remain competitive and sustainable, as they won't be able to attract and retain the right talent.
“Companies that build products need to appeal to a 'diverse user base', and it only makes sense that the team producing it reflects the same diversity,” she adds.
Companies also need to create favourable work environments for women, and the culture of engineering groups in general needs to evolve with the shifting demographic to create a more conducive environment for all employees. “We also need more women leaders in the field, which will only come when women are offered equal chances in all aspects, including equal boardroom representation,” Kaur says.
Career tips for aspiring women on breaking into engineering
Kochar says any aspiring engineering graduate needs to possess both technical and soft skills.
"These include programming languages, technical writing, quality assurance, software skills, problem solving, decision making, and strong business and commercial acumen. They also need to be resilient and learn from prior experience, while embracing innovation at the same time, adapt and overcome any challenges, they shouldn’t stop experimenting new methods from fear of failure.
"My suggestion to women in the tech industry is to be persistent and diligent. Have an open mind, seize opportunities that come your way, and ensure that your learning never stops,” she adds.
Abigail Hipp, Engineering Program Manager at US-based data analytics startup Imply, says two primary areas where she sees room for growth are around mentorship and recognition for women.
“It can be difficult to picture yourself in a job where there aren’t many people who look like you, so the more we can provide women with these kinds of resources, the more they will believe that they can have success,” she says.
“I also want to encourage women to be bold, courageous and feel confident that they have the skills, intelligence and perseverance to succeed. Find a mentor who can help you navigate your career and keep a circle of positive people around you. One great way to gain valuable experience is to volunteer your professional services for non-profit organisations—you’ll be giving back to your community while simultaneously practicing your craft,” she adds.
While early interest in Mathematics fuelled Gaikwad’s dream to join STEM, perseverance was her key to achieving career success.
“My mantra has always been 'Keep on Keeping On!' As a woman engineer in the tech domain, I always found that being confident and authentic helps you grow in your career. My advice to young girls would be to focus on developing technical and soft skills right from their school days by participating in various extracurricular activities and competitive exams conducted by various organisations across the globe.”
Kaur also says it is essential for women to note that they do not have to be like men to be good engineers, they need to be authentic, inquisitive, and innovative. “My advice to upcoming women engineers would be to identify a role model and figure out what qualities you would like to emulate.”
"Lastly, to all the young talent out there, remember, 'An Engineer' is an entirely gender-neutral term, so push outside your comfort zone and don't be afraid to try something new!” she adds.