Why women engineers keep asking me what to wear


I often run into young women in early technical careers at conferences and other technology events who are hungry for inspiration and advice.

As a scientist, I am delighted to oblige. Seeing more women in technology careers helps young women visualize themselves in those positions. And adding diverse approaches is a major objective for my company, as well as for many others.

Despite my background as a technologist, though, I find that the questions seldom involve matters of science or engineering.

No. Undergrads, graduate students and women working their first jobs after college want to know:

“What should I wear?” “How should keep my hair?” “How do I fit in with the guys?”

And the most meaningful question:

“How do you remain successful while having a husband and child?”

Debating clothes and hair may seem superficial, but it reveals the critical challenges women face attaining a technology career and — more important — keeping one.

I started with undergraduate degrees in psychology and biology, so I appreciate the relevance, both professionally and personally. When a young physicist asks me what to wear to work, she’s not asking for fall-fashion trends.

She’s actually asking: “How do I fit in at my office, where everyone else is a man?” The fact that women are still asking these questions exposes a deep sense of not belonging.

The death this year of a fellow aerospace engineer, Yvonne Brill, captured this tension. Brill was a rocket scientist, one of a very few female members of the National Academy of Engineering, and had been awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. Not only did she face the work-life balance dilemma (starting back in the 1960s, no less), she completely mastered it.

But when she died in March, The New York Times led her obituary with: “She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job-to-job and took eight years off from work to raise three children.”

The story followed with a revelation that Brill also invented rocket-propulsion systems that put communications satellites into orbit.

She had been an inspiration to many through the Society of Women Engineers, where she was active. I, as well as many of my fellow technologists at Boeing who knew her, were disappointed in the implication that her highest life accomplishment was domesticity.

Thankfully, we were not alone. Others — both men and women — who read this article on the Internet were so outraged that the newspaper edited and republished the piece. The reaction to the obituary shows that our society is moving in the right direction. But we’re not there just yet.

All things being equal, a woman who questions the balance of work and life would be naturally suited for an engineering or business career. This is, after all, an exercise in risk assessment.

That’s why I never waste an opportunity to persuade a young woman to stay on the tech track, especially in male-dominated areas like engineering. Feeding the pipeline with smart, young girls is an important challenge. But retaining them has also been difficult, if not harder.

According to research published in Psychology of Women Quarterly early this year, 10th-grade girls earn similar grades in the same math and science classes as 10th-grade boys, but those girls tend to believe that their abilities in STEM subjects are not as strong as their male counterparts.

Another research study in that same journal issue found that having women college professors positively affected female students’ attitudes about continuing a STEM career path.

I didn’t need to read an academic journal to know that. I see it at work and when I attend those networking events. Women, more than men, in my experience, look around at a workplace where they are outnumbered and question whether they even belong there.

That is why women thriving in technical-career fields, especially those of us who have attained leadership positions, must dedicate more time to “lean in,” as Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg has been advocating.

Arguably the most influential woman in technology this year, Sandberg and her best-selling book have stirred candid discussions and important debates about gender in the workplace. This public conversation is possible only because of her willingness to be visible.

The educational system — teachers, colleges, STEM programs — will continue doing the job preparing women and men to solve our world’s toughest technical challenges. What must increase is the participation, visibility and outreach of women who have made it.

We should be the ones inspiring and socializing girls into science and math fields.

We might be busy trying to balance our own successful career schedules. But we must make it a priority to be out there speaking to young women engineers and scientists, consistently encouraging them to stick with it.

This means joining technical affiliate organizations, networking with other technologists outside our own companies and actively seeking opportunities to inspire young people. We must choose to be seen — and heard.

When women hear and see other women in technology, they will know not just what to wear and how to keep their hair. They will know how to pursue their calling as scientists and engineers in men-dominated workplaces, and that it’s possible, and natural, to live a balanced life.

Dianne Chong is a vice president in Boeing’s advanced research and technology-development division. She wrote this for The Seattle Times.

©2013 The Seattle Times

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