I was asked by a coworker what my experience was like as a female engineer over the years. Her daughter was considering majoring in it. She wanted to know if she would have a difficult time in such male dominated career and if I had any tips for success. The quick answers were: maybe and, yes I do.
Honestly, it’s not something I stop to think about often, but this time I paused to reflect. What I know for sure is that it was hard, but it was also worth it. This career and the path I took was the perfect one for me. I strongly believe there is not only a place for women in the field, but that they are needed.
My Career Path
Before I share those tips, a little bit about my own journey. I’ve been a software engineer in the defense industry for more than 20 years. I have a degree in applied mathematics - yes, another male dominated field. That degree may not seem like the typical starting point for an engineer; however, it prepared me for the fundamentals of software engineering. I secured an internship at Exxon working on rigs with geologists and other oil and gas professionals before moving on to Lockheed Martin, which was when my engineering career gained momentum.
The work was exciting: building software for flight and medical simulators. I loved what I did at Lockheed Martin, and I had three children while working there. What was it like being 1) the only female, 2) the only pregnant one on the team and then, 3) the only one to take significant time off to have kids? Put simply, it wasn’t easy, but I made it work. Knowing I wouldn’t be the last woman to have this experience, I partnered with management to establish the first part-time work week for parents, which I am proud to say is still in place today.
I joined Ultra 21 years ago, and over the course of my career I’ve had ample opportunities for advancement. I underwent both Make a Difference and Management Leadership training, which prepared me to advance and eventually take on the role of President in 2020.
Now for my tips.
Tip One: Be Yourself & Say Yes
One important thing is to establish your brand (aka: reputation) and expectations early on. Be yourself. Don’t water down your identity or your ideas.
Remember to be authentic and avoid saying only what you think others want to hear. Answer questions honestly and accurately and avoid canned responses.
Perhaps most importantly, always say yes. I’m not saying take on absolutely everything. What I’m saying is that even if you’re not 100 percent sure about a promotion or a new position, say yes. I’ve done this recently myself when I became President of Ultra’s C2I division, and I’ve done it repeatedly throughout my career. We learn by doing, and you know more than you think.
Tip Two: Ask
If you don’t ask for what you want, you won’t get it. In the worst-case scenario, you’re told no. In the best-case scenario, you end up getting what you want (like part time work weeks for parents).
Tip Three: Negotiate & Work Hard
When you’re negotiating, whether it’s for a promotion or a passion project, the important concept to remember is the difference between push/pull and win/win. Rather than pushing your agenda and pulling a (hopefully) favorable response, frame the discussion in terms of how both sides can benefit from adopting your desired outcome. Listening and asking questions without becoming defensive helps establish a professional reputation…with the added benefit of getting what you want.
One thing is certain, however: to be successful in any negotiation, you must have a history as an innovator and hard worker. Stay relevant and essential.
Tip Four: Be Open to a Teachable Moment
When it comes to dealing with male co-workers and managers, I learned a valuable lesson. Speaking up and calling out inappropriate behavior or speech directly with that person is the quickest way to resolve an issue. In most cases, instead of it being a potential HR nightmare, it turned into a teachable moment.
Standing up for yourself in real time not only helps others course-correct their own behavior, but it also shows that you’re willing to have difficult, direct and honest conversations.
Tip Five: Hire Curious & Authentic People
More than anything, I look for three things in a candidate. First is the authenticity I mentioned above. Don’t tell me what you think I want to hear – tell me the truth and don’t embellish.
I highly value learning agility. In many cases, the people I interview are new to defense. In those cases, I need to know they have an active and curious mind.
Finally, I want results-driven candidates. In engineering, sometimes creating innovation isn’t always pretty, but if they are the type of person who stays focused on the results, they can make it work. Success will follow.
Tip Six: Remember to Help Others
When a woman in engineering comes to work, they do not just represent their own work and talent. They are paving the way for the next generation of women engineers. Make time to mentor those women - students, early career professionals, even little girls. We must all do our part to set the stage for their success.
Good luck to all the current and up and coming female engineers, I look forward to working with you one day in the near future.