Career, Diversity, women in engineering

Female Engineers – Winning with the Velvet Glove

So this blog and others like it have exhausted the facts and figured about women in engineering and how wonderful it all is for us to be there. I want to talk about something I’ve experienced that gave a new spin on why companies should hire and promote female engineers. Not all female engineers will agree to this but there is something to say about the inherent soft-skills that women possess and how this can be put to use to the advantage of the project team.

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One of the first female engineers in the South African construction industry told me that a female engineer should always be wearing a boxing glove on one hand, and a velvet glove on the other. Well most of my career thus far has involved me using the boxing glove, in recent months I’ve come to understand what the old bird meant about the velvet glove.

On my first project with my new company, I was eager to earn respect within the team as a project engineer.  Somewhere along the way, I started doing more Client-interfacing. I coordinated and accompanied the Clients team to site-visits, met with people to diffuse difficult situations and managed their (very long) wishlist of changes and corrections on the plant. The more I worked in this role, the more I liked it and the more my PM/ project sponsor assigned me to these tasks.

Was this hard engineering? No – really it wasn’t. The hard-engineering decisions were still taken between corresponding engineers on their team and ours. Yes, I missed the hard engineering of being on site and making things happen, and the pace and impact of project engineering. But there is a certain level of technical know-how required to interact with a technical Client’s team, that made it necessary for an engineer to do this. And somewhere along the way, I guess someone realised that I could be good at this.

Having a really large Client’s team (up-side of 20 individuals) it really was difficult to manage every request and expectation. I flew to the middle of the Northern Cape, as well as to Cape Town several times to meet with individuals and groups to ensure they were being personally attended to. I really put my heart into this as I could see its affect on the project and our image as a company. I find that so often, we forget the impact of the image we portray at a grass-roots level after a project is sold.

I left the Company before the project’s completion and before I did, I had many calls from members on our Client’s team to say goodbye and good luck. Although, truthfully, I probably did less for the project’s execution than any other engineer on the team, it was unbelievable to hear the feedback I received. Contemplating on it, I realise that this is something that maybe is missing from engineering consultancies. Balancing Client relationships with project progress is a PM function, but with the masses of time a PM has to spend on project execution, he/ she can’t also afford to take care of the requests and concerns of an entire Client team as well.

Female engineers are ideal for this role that requires charisma as well a technical prowess, professionalism and charm. Being  – for the most part – better communicators than men, less intimidating and more accommodating, women at the Client-interface can reshape the image of a company.  Women with good interpersonal skills can be trained to work at the apex of technical, project and social interactions – perfect for Client relationship-building in a technically-minded industry. Their unique set of skills tied to their femininity can be a great advantage to their careers and this should be leveraged by project managers and sponsors.

4 thoughts on “Female Engineers – Winning with the Velvet Glove”

  1. Hi there, great blog post! Was interesting to see the ways you have navigated your way through a male dominated industry and how you can use your femininity to an advantage – can I ask whether you’ve ever been met with any resistance to this approach? As if the velvet glove were a handicap?

    If you’re interested in hearing other stories, particularly one student’s experience in chemical engineering, feel free to check out our blog!

  2. As a project engineer and PMP certified project manager, I would argue that your role as a project engineer focused on client interaction and completing the project is just as important as the engineers completing the work and not that “you did the least amount” to complete the project. You can have all the most brilliant minds in the business doing great work and if there’s no one to manage the time, cost, scope and client expectations, the project could still fail to deliver. Don’t downplay your contribution. As a woman o used to do this and it took some adjusting to change my thinking and response to positive feedback. While it’s never bad form to acknowledge the team, don’t negate your own hard work!

    1. Thank you for your feedback

      Having been in a consulting role for close to 2 years now, I agree with you 100%. There is a huge amount of value in communicating effectively, reaching consensus among stakeholders, gaining buy in from key individuals etc. Without these “softer” skills, a project will never be able to proceed. Its truly a management function that I strongly believe women are well suited to doing.

      I’m a few years older (and hopefully a little wiser) and its great to see how far I have come in settling into my role. I remember writing this post as a young woman who wanted to talk to other young women – nervous, sometimes scared, unsure of themselves, and let them know that it was okay to feel that way and that there was great value in their contribution to the team. I should write a follow up though to show the other side of the coin.

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