This month we focus on women in the engineering world. In this competitive, male-dominated world, female engineers face a variety of challenges. Many of these challenges have less to do with getting the job done than with getting hired, communicating with their male counterparts, and getting recognized for the work they do.
We spoke to three female engineers with 35 years of combined experience working in the trenches of high tech. Each woman has had different experiences and faced numerous challenges. But they all agree that the key difference between male and female engineers is not what they do, but how they do it.
Patty W.'s 18 years of industry experience includes writing commodity trading software and Java Internet security, and working with operating system internals. In her experience, the industry is competitive for men, but for women it's even harder. However, she believes men's culture and upbringing prepares them for it.
Patty has been the sole woman in many groups. "I've felt like I had to work harder to get the job," she says. "And work five times as hard to get recognized. On one contract, a man with 10 years less experience was given the more challenging piece of the job."
Although she's been the senior engineer in many groups, Patty notes that male engineers are less likely to come to her with questions. "Even when there's another woman in the group, she tends to compete with me because she thinks she's being compared with the other woman."
Since 1995 Grace's positions have progressed from Web application engineer to senior engineer to engineering manager. A year and a half ago she made the transition to technical marketing manager, developing demo applications and giving product presentations.
Grace cites the different communication styles of men and women as a key challenge. "Women tend to be consensus builders, wanting the team to get along well," she says. "The typical male engineer wants to win the argument. In design meetings, whoever can yell the loudest or argue their point best usually wins."
"In that environment you can't try to build consensus, so I've had to become more aggressive in arguing my points," she says, noting that less outgoing male engineers also have difficulty prevailing in such meetings.
Grace traces the lack of female engineers to the way that math and science classes are traditionally taught. "In high school and college almost all my math and science teachers were male," she says. "They taught courses in a direct, fact-based way."
"Men are more likely to memorize facts; women focus more on how will this work in the real world, for the greater good," she says. "I was a tomboy, which helped me in class and to be more competitive in jobs."
Sufie S. considers herself fortunate that she hasn't faced many obstacles as a woman in a man's world. Her BS and MS degrees in computer science and a background in object-oriented design have helped her to move from developer to senior software engineer in her 10-year career.
Balancing her personal and professional lives is a challenge for this working mother of a four-year-old daughter. She'd like to see an engineer's performance measured less by the number of hours worked than by total productivity.
"In the start-up world environment, people who come in late and work late are perceived as working harder than someone who comes in early and leaves early," she says.
"Good engineers are somewhat punished in this industry," she says. "When you get your work done on time with no problems, you're less recognized than the person who comes in and fixes the bugs at the last minute. That's who becomes the hero of the project."
Sufie would like to see more companies offer telecommuting opportunities, which could help both male and female engineers strike a healthier balance between their personal and professional lives.
"As a contractor I've done two very successful projects from home," she says. "But most companies don't have formal telecommuting policies, so it's hard to get approval for it."
Even if companies make such policy changes, they may come too late for many women in the industry. "I've been hoping for a change since I've been in the industry," says Patty, who reads daily messages on the women in technology, Systers list serv (www.systers.org).
"A lot of women are jumping ship because it's so hard to get the respect they deserve," she observes. "Many of them are going into teaching or nonprofit work. These jobs don't pay as well, but they're not as competitive."
Although she's not optimistic about the current state of affairs for women in high tech, Patty does have a vision for a brighter future. "If women could get together and start their own company with a more nurturing environment, you could have a very productive company."
Bill Baloglu is a principal at ObjectFocus (www.ObjectFocus.com), a Java staffing firm in Silicon Valley. Bill has extensive OO experience and has held software development and senior technical management positions at several Silicon Valley firms.
Billy Palmieri is a seasoned staffing industry executive and a principal at ObjectFocus. His prior position was at Renaissance Worldwide, where he held several senior
management positions in the firm's Silicon Valley operations.