As a woman in engineering, one of the questions I get most often is “What is it like?” The truth is that it can be hard. In college women are underestimated constantly and many times women have to fend off opinions about how being a woman led them to certain advantages. Recently I posed a question to fellow lady engineers about whether they had ever contemplated switching majors out of engineering and why. The responses were very similar. Most of the women who contemplated switching out were doing so as a result of not feeling good enough and feeling alone. Yes, the material is hard, but for many women (myself included) that is rarely the sole reason.
Actually, research shows that women who have positive and supportive experiences are more likely to finish their degree and continue to graduate studies than those who do not feel supported (Smith & Gayles, 2018, pg.4). This can sound obvious, but for a woman undergoing a highly unsupportive environment (whether that is through faculty, family, or classmates) odds are she will blame herself and her inability to “fit in” or “belong”. A study showed that women in unwelcoming male-dominated fields generally found their ideas to be less valuable than the ideas of their male coworkers. Women also tend to underestimate their work and their performance levels on engineering tasks as opposed to men. Not only does this impact a woman’s self-confidence, but these tendencies also limit women in the workplace (Smith & Gayles, 2018, pg.4).
I’ve learned that being a woman in this field requires thick skin and you have to learn to pick your battles. Truthfully, I haven’t always been great at this and I am still learning how to best navigate many situations. As I began to read research about how a woman’s environment affects her perception of herself many things about my own experience began to make sense.
During my time in college, I experienced high levels of anxiety, depression, and stress. During the worst of these times, I even began losing my hair. Truthfully, I completely stopped taking care of myself. I felt guilty taking breaks or engaging in any sort of self-care. My grades weren’t where I wanted them to be. I thought that any second I spent doing anything other than studying was me self-sabotaging my career. I felt like I wasn’t good enough and I constantly compared myself to others (especially to the guys). I didn’t feel welcome sometimes and there were several professors that made demoralizing sexist comments to me.
I felt the heaviness of what I was trying to do and found it hard to handle the pressure. I felt like I owed it to my family, to the country my family is from, and to everyone who had helped me get to where I was. I was more scared of failing them than I was of failing myself. I was scared of having to face everyone and tell them that I had failed. My imposter syndrome was at all-time high. I was scared of approaching any companies for an internship because I thought they would simply ignore me and that I was wasting my time. I was terrified of applying to my dream jobs because I was terrified of rejection.
Eventually, as the school years went on, I began to grow more and more confident in my abilities. I realized I was self-sabotaging by not taking care of myself. As soon as I began prioritizing good sleep, healthy heating habits, and giving myself time to decompress, I began to notice a huge change. For the first time, I began performing just as I always felt I was capable of. I wasn’t studying more; I was studying less. Because I was taking care of myself, the time I spent studying was much more productive. It took three years before I realized my mistakes. I eventually was able to find myself and to find the confidence to speak as highly of myself as I knew I deserved. It was very hard to stop all of the unhealthy habits. Even today I still resort to some during moments of weakness. Despite all of the difficulties though, I was able to find the strength I needed to grow into who I am today.
Today I am strong, I am direct, I am confident, and I feel valuable. I love sharing this story because I was once in your shoes. Your dream job is absolutely achievable, but you must learn to love yourself, be kind to yourself, and no matter how hard it gets to never allow anyone to convince you that you do not belong where you are or where you want to be.
Smith KN, Gayles JG. “Girl Power”: Gendered Academic and Workplace Experiences of College Women in Engineering. Social Sciences. 2018; 7(1):11.