Its been a few years since I attended a “Women in Engineering” seminar and I must admit that I’ve felt quite disconnected from my original purpose for starting this blog. Having left engineering for consulting, and having made a major career change into IT Infrastructure and then into the adjacent field of cybersecurity, I found it impossible to craft and authentic post as a champion for women in engineering. What would I talk about? What life experience would I draw from?

Today however, my mission was reignited at the RSA conference in San Francisco. For the first time in RSA history, there was a diversity-focused session (finally RSA). I spent 3 hours hearing from prominent and inspiring women in my field, about the very real challenges they faced. And guess what? They were exactly the same issues I had experienced as a young mechanical engineering student, and later, a graduate working in mining in the rural regions of South Africa. Sure, the lingo and the working environments may be quite different, but the experience of being a smart, ambitious woman in a male-dominated and highly exclusive field was the same with this group.

Interestingly enough, the key take-away from today’s sessions was not the need for women to hone their negotiation skills, nor was it to encourage women to “lean in” and emulate more masculine-like qualities to get ahead (I write this despite my immense respect for Cheryl Sandburg and her organization). No, the one thing that the speakers listed consistently as the key to achieving success in your career is one, ironically, innate to us as women: building a support network, a community within which you can feel safe to speak up, reach out and be bold. The last speaker, Valerie Plume (former CIA agent and role-model for women) said that studies have shown that women are able to build higher levels of trust with others and are generally perceived as being far more trustworthy than men. A young speaker (herself still an intern) gave some fantastic advice to a concerned mother/cyber professional, saying that her daughter should take a friend along to robotics club (even one who had no interest in robotics) to help her feel more comfortable among the over-jealous (and quite possibly highly insecure) high school boys, dubbed the “arrogant geeks”. I could relate. After all, I have been surrounded by them since I was 17.

One woman complained that she had somehow fallen into the role of bridging divides in her team, and that people constantly brought her their issues with others to help them figure out. She wanted to know how to get out of this hole. Valerie however advised that she was in fact in a privileged position and that she should rather leverage that POWER and turn it into success. Having listened to Elaine Seat’s simply outstanding talk “Selling your Ideas in the Absence of Authority” a total of 3 times at various ASME events, I am completely with Valerie on this one! (Look out for another post on this topic). Simply put, women should be looking for OPPORTUNITIES use skills so fundamental to being women – the ability to build trust-based relationships – to their advantage in advancing themselves and others in their fields.

A theme that was touched on, yet not explored in a meaningful way (hint for next year, RSA!) was the idea of mentorship and sponsorship. A common misconception is that women don’t support each other. Recent research on this topic suggests this is true in cases of “token diversity positions”, where there is only one spot for a woman on the team (think early-90’s). This creates heightened competitiveness over the one seat at the table, inevitably resulting in any incumbent being treated with disdain. Once women (and this applies to other minority groups too) are confident that they are not competing for the only seat at the table, they do the complete opposite: they throw their support behind each other, even exhibiting the “mini-me” attributes that men have been using to bring their younger-selves along with them as they rise.

Sponsorship is a theme that I will be exploring in the next few blogs. I have been incredibly fortunate to have found mentors, and more importantly, sponsors throughout my career. I’d like to share some of my experiences, as well as hear from others on how they have succeeded in finding effective sponsors. Please reach out with your thoughts.

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