Career, women in engineering

What Makes a Woman Successful in Engineering?

We’re well into the second decade of the 21st Century.  Most countries are socially and politically stable and democracy reigns supreme. What this has meant in many places around the globe, including South Africa is that there are a whole lot more opportunities for those who were previously disadvantaged – including women. As more and more women are educated and enter fields in engineering, science and business, there is a diversification of characteristics amongst them.  No longer can we lump ‘female engineers’ all into one very limited category. In my own personal sphere of experience, I have met all sorts of women engineers who have achieved vastly different levels of success in their careers.

This is an interesting observation and leads one to start asking questions: what does one woman have that another doesn’t  What specific set of opportunities and disadvantages influences a woman’s career success in the engineering field? What characteristics or personality traits, secrets and knowledge do some women possess which allow them to become very successful in their field?

You might turn around and tell me that this topic has been covered extensively for the likes of both men and women and that everybody knows where to go to find books to aid your career. While this may be very true, I think that women who find success in the field of engineering are not typical. They are unique in their environments and possess a unique mix of personal skills and traits. Engineering is a highly technical field which can give rise to snobbery and elitism in some circles or outright discrimination in others. Information is often hoarded away from women entering the field – making it even harder for them to achieve the competencies of their peers. Sometimes, the engineering field is physically demanding or even dangerous and strenuous and a woman may find it simply impossible to contend with and surpass the performance of her male counterparts.  How then do women in these (rather common) circumstances achieve success despite overwhelming barriers?

What is the trick?

In this post I want to take a different approach than the usual female engineering writer.  Instead of yet another article about how difficult it is for women in this field, and how much it needs to change, I am instead looking at those individuals who have broken through these barriers somehow and presenting some suggestions as to how you can do the same.

If I were a journalist or researcher on the topic, I probably would be able to give you all the stats on what exactly it is that makes some women excel and others not, but unfortunately I’m just a female engineer wondering about these questions just as much as you are.  However, as far as difficult fields go, I probably am at the vertex of some of the most difficult one can find herself in – the mining industry and the construction industry. Also, I am ALWAYS the only women, the youngest and often the only person of colour in the room (in post-apartheid South Africa)…so maybe I can venture a guess on things that have worked for me (by trial and error). And maybe you can let me know if you have tried these and experienced good results?

Success tip #5: Speak up

When I first started working – coming straight out of the very supportive university environment, it was incredibly difficult to not sit in meetings with eyes the size of saucers and stumble through answers to questions put to me. You need to get over this deer-in-the-headlights feeling very quickly and start showing people that you do indeed have a brain.

Success tip #4: Join in the fun

I find that guys are a lot more informal around each other in a business setting than women are.  It’s easy to feel excluded when you are the only woman in the room and everybody else is joking around. Don’t be afraid to join in the fun and build relationships with your colleagues.  Being well liked is always good for your career and the more comfortable you are with those around you, the more confident you will be to voice your opinions.


Success tip #3: Make sure you get the credit you deserve

For this one, you will have to be very assertive.  There is no point in staying up late working, being meticulous and thorough or having a great idea if the people who make the decisions don’t even know what you’ve done.  This is one that doesn’t come naturally to many women, but try to build the skill to make others aware of the good work you have done. Take pride in yourself and your abilities – there is absolutely nothing wrong with that!

         Useful tips to avoid giving credit away:

  • As soon as you have finished an important task, make an appointment to discuss your work with your boss before being asked about it at a group feedback session. Let him/ her see just how competent you are and how much effort you’ve put in.
  • When reporting back on work you did, don’t unnecessarily mention that others helped you unless they made a very significant contribution.
  • If you have a great idea, take it to your boss directly and don’t ask someone else to mention it to him/ her.

Success tip #2: Be Inquisitive

Walking around site, there are so many things that are new and different to me. I did not grow up taking car engines apart so I simply don’t have certain critical technical knowledge that others might. So what should you do when you don’t know the difference between a tipper truck and a dump truck, or a sprocket and a pinion? Ask! Don’t just mellow in ignorance – embarrassed about what others may think.  Asking lots of questions does not make you any less smart – it just means you are willing to do what it takes to become competent at what you do.

 Success tip #1: Have Tenacity

Tenacity is probably the trait that helps the most in the field of engineering. This is a field where you as a women are going to be judged and questioned (albeit internally) every time someone meets you for the first time. You will have to prove yourself to every person individually. Tenacity, persistence, doggedness is the key to pushing through this frustrating reality.  When asserting your ideas in meetings, negotiating deals with colleagues and suppliers or managing contractors and suppliers, you will have to be like a fox terrier – relentless, undeterred, annoyingly so! This comes with confidence however and is something most women will have to work hard on to get right.  If you truly believe in what you are talking about (tip: always have your facts straight because this is the easiest way to be disregarded in an argument), you will find it much easier. Once again, I must emphasise knowing your topic very well. They may be able to intimidate you with their size and aggressiveness, but if you are adamant about your facts and have the back-up to prove it, nobody can push you around!

So all you have to do to be successful is to walk into meetings fully prepared, always go above and beyond and make sure people know it; when you know you’re right, push your case and don’t give in; be heard and don’t forget to have fun! Phew, is that all?

So to close off, I have asked some questions that hold a particular interest for me, and have presented some answers based on my own experience and understanding. I hope you out there will share some tips and hints, or stories about your experiences of success. I would love to hear them!

3 thoughts on “What Makes a Woman Successful in Engineering?”

  1. Thank you for taking the time to write this article. I am an undergraduate student majoring in engineering and worry about how to properly interact with others in the future. You’ve given me invaluable advise that I’ll do my best to practice.

    1. Thank you for the feedback – I appreciate the positive comment!

      In the end, you have to feel your way through this as there are no rules so just be brave, and not too hard on yourself if you make mistakes at first!

      Good luck!

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