Sunday, December 4, 2011

Female engineers. You suck at selling yourself.

Women working in male dominated fields are painfully aware that at least some of their colleagues will have trouble seeing them as professional equals. I am in my early 30s and I still occasionally have colleagues that see me as the resident graduate trainee. While it is progress if you consider attitudes towards female engineers from 20 years ago, “graduate” status meant that my work was assumed to contain more mistakes than male colleagues at the same skill level. Not helpful. On the other hand, If your organisation openly admits to having a female hiring quota, you may face an even tougher battle changing the perceptions of your make colleagues. Even if you were not hired as a result of the quota.

But colleagues are not the number one haters. The biggest battle professional women face is with their own minds. I’m not saying that genuine discrimination from colleagues doesn’t exist, but that each woman’s worst discriminator is herself. In short, if a woman suspects that her colleagues might consider her to be more junior and less experienced than she really is, she will live up to the stereotype and tend to perform worse.

There are actually many reasons that your employer might think you are not quite up to the standard of your colleagues and they are not necessarily due to factors you can’t control. A few years ago I was in this situation and it was entirely my own fault. I had misjudged the expectations of my role and mucked up badly in my first six months of employment. While I improved quickly once I realised I was well below standard, every subsequent performance review was not about how good I had become, but about how I was slightly less shit than I was in my first six months. I really struggled to live down the damaged perceptions I had created in the early stages of my employment. Colleagues were expecting me to be crap at my job and I was becoming increasingly insecure.

So here is my solution and I think it will help you no matter what reasons your colleagues might have for writing down your abilities.

Keep a diary of the good stuff you do. Its that simple.

This approach has many benefits.

  1. You forget all the good stuff you did the moment someone tells you that you did something badly. That’s how brains work. After a while you start to believe you have done nothing but make mistakes. Your colleagues will tend to remember more of your mistakes as well. Many organisations these days do some kind of evaluation at the end of a project. Review your list, make detailed notes as how your good work relates to the project and make sure your achievements are heard and recorded for posterity.

  2. Reviewing your list of good work will help to re-balance your own perception of how you are going. If anything this will help prevent you from becoming a self fulfilling prophecy. If you think you are bad at your job you will do badly.

  3. Come performance review time, you will be more likely to criticize yourself or agree with colleague criticisms because you will tend to remember your failures more. Just as you would for a project evaluation, go over your list and make extended notes on the achievements you want to emphasise. This is your best chance of all to make a positive impression so own it. The worst thing you could do is run out of positive things to say. If your boss can barely get a word in because you have so many good things to remind him of, your review will be a cruise.

  4. Also, In reality, many bosses can’t afford to spend large quantities of time watching you do your job. Your boss will build his perceptions on what he has been told. So tell him. It really works. If you tell him your did well at the time, that’s how he will remember it. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that your colleagues will let your boss know if you are doing good work. Idiot. That’s your job. You are the custodian of your career. Don’t just wait for performance review time!

When I was in my professional rut a few years ago, keeping an achievement diary and employing the above tactics turned my prospects around.

This is all about selling yourself. Many women, thanks to existing self-prejudice really, really fail at this. It doesn’t matter why your colleagues and boss doubt your abilities, the solution is the same. Take control and start reminding everyone about the good work you are doing repeatedly. Talking yourself up should never be restricted to job interviews. It should be every week, every month, every year for the length of your fantastic career.

Last but not least. I definitely do not want you to ignore your mistakes. You will always have areas to improve and should be constantly working towards being better at your profession. Or you really will be a graduate forever. But you are already great at examining your failures. I know I am. If I may be so presumptuous, what you are bad at is getting recognition for overcoming your failures. Which is a failure in itself. So start selling yourself like your male colleagues have been doing since day one.


  1. Boudicca

    Thursday, December 8, 2011 - 14:27:39

    Just found your blog and I have to say I agree with your advice. Female engineers can be their own worst critic, I should know I am one.

    A few things I try to pass on to young engineers:
    1) Market the skills that are hard to find. Being good at calculations is par for the course, not something special if you managed to graduate as an engineer. Being a good communicator, for example, is harder to find. As I’m working in consulting this is something I’ve used with success. Our product is almost always a written report, therefore we must be able to write. I recommend new graduates bring in an example of writing if possible.
    2) Market the unexpected. I have successfully marketed myself as a “bitch”. Let me elaborate: I’m a geotechnical engineer which means I spend a good deal of time on jobsites. I deal with contractors and subs all the time. My boss needs to know I can handle myself on site and won’t get walked all over. Usually I get things done and everyone gets along, but there’s always some guy who’s going to try to cut corners. That guy gets to meet the bitch.
    3) Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate!! The job offer will not be retracted if you negotiate pay and terms! Don’t let them think you’re worth less than their offer.
    4) If you’re sure about something, say you’re sure. Don’t pose something you know to be true as a question. However, be prepared to support your assertation. Also, don’t feel bad about questioning other people’s assertations or asking for references or citations. There should be no room for bluffing your way through a design!

    I’m off to go check out some more of your posts.

    Cheers from Canada.

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Feasibility is an engineering based blog designed to reach other STEM people. Non-STEM people are also welcome! I try to give good advice and well-reasoned opinions but please don’t hesitate to disagree with me. This blog exists because I realised that I live in a metaphorical bubble and that simply wont do. Nup.


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