Female in technology, my experience

Disclaimer: I have used some explicit language in this post. If you are offended by this I’m sorry!

Like many of my peers, I didn’t fully comprehend what I was getting myself into when I decided to pursue a career in electronic engineering. I came in pretty much a blank canvas, with minimum knowledge in exact sciences since my high school was more focused on courses I deemed unworthy of my time such as marketing, nutrition, ethics… you get the drill.

Despite my distaste for these courses I always got good grades, in fact I had a professor say my report card was boring because it was all perfect grades.  Despite the fact that I was very insecure in my knowledge about physics and math, my perfect report card gave me a false sense of worth coming into university.

I was not familiar at all with the highly structured, high demand system enforced in my university. I guess I expected it to be more difficult, but I really had no clue how demanding a career in engineering could be. I did fine my first semester, I passed all my courses, even though I came very close to failing chemistry (that class is still infamous for acting as a severe filter in engineering as a whole). It was a rude awakening for me, and my confidence really took a tumble. I realized my self esteem as a kid and a teen was all resting upon one thing: my grades. So when I didn’t have that I seem to have lost my identity.

Uni life and my classes, being in a male dominated environment, it all made sexism and discrimination more apparent to me. Before this I knew it existed, but I was never really subjected to it (at least in school) because my grades proved, in my mind, I was just as worthy or better than my male classmates. I remember being in advanced digital systems class and the professor asking us to get together in teams. A classmate of mine asked me to be in his team and I said yes, shortly after a friend of his came up to us and flat out asked him “Why are you teaming up with Cindy? You know ____ has experience as a programmer and studied at a technical high school right?” I didn’t know what to say honestly, I kept quiet. Luckily my teammate defended me claiming he knew I would work harder than that other guy, who would probably end up not helping out with the project anyway.

After that I realized I was viewed within the group as a weak link.  Honestly I don’t blame them, I had zero experience with actual electronic components and some of the guys in my class had gone to a technical high school so they had that experience. But at the same time, they didn’t even know me. Why would they assume I wasn’t worthy of joining their team?

A few years later I would observe that as a woman you start off with 0% credibility, and have to work hard to build that credibility up with merits and hard work, maybe being a bit cutthroat, with a “take no bullshit” attitude. As opposed to being a man and starting off with 100% credibility, and people detracting points whenever you mess up or say something stupid, but believe me it’s very difficult for a man to bust his credibility in technology or in any arena for that matter, just look at Mr. Trump. You get extra credibility points if you’re deemed unattractive or extra geeky, some glasses will also help from what I’ve observed.

From there on I worked hard to establish my credibility. Appearance wise, I adopted a more tomboyish style and grunged down, wore no makeup. This conveniently gave me more time to sleep, in fact this practice went from intentional to a necessity. Sometimes I was (and am) so tired I couldn’t care less about my appearance. This pursuit of mine to make myself worthy of the respect of people only made things worse. My self esteem was once more a function of my grades, a number, just a number. Also having a scholarship and maintaining that average added tremendous amounts of stress to the equation. Not only did I experience discrimination from my peers but from my professors as well. I could have the right answer to a question but because it came from my mouth it must be wrong, and the professor had to ask someone else (who was wrong by the way) and double check after class (after everyone was gone and certain I had been wrong) only to realize I had been right all along. This happened twice that I can remember. Still to this day I might suggest some solution to a problem, have people in my team (friends even) completely ignore me, then it turns out I was right all along. This even happened to me last week. I’ve learned to not take it personally at this point. I quite enjoy saying “I told you!” when they finally catch up.

Experiencing this and the less than impressive numbers on my report card really made me doubt myself for a while,  and evidently I fell back on my courses, and even failed some of them. I felt like shit. I ended up isolating myself a lot to avoid the inevitable comparison with everybody else. I tried to do projects on my own every chance I got, partly because whenever I had a team they would either just bail on me and I would have to do everything myself or I would have the rest of my team not take my input at all. There was no middle ground until much later.

I remember on one occasion, no one wanted to team up with me for a project, so I thought it was a great opportunity to prove myself. We had to design and construct a 12 volt power source. I designed mine on my own, gathered the materials and got to work. At the time I was also taking differential equations, so I was being crushed under the pressure of having to turn in tons of solved exercises in order to obtain a pass to the final exam. In the meantime, my boyfriend (who was close to graduating and had lots of free time on his hands), offered to help me solder some cables that were pending on my power supply unit while I finished up the math problems I needed to turn in.

A few minutes in, some guy came into the lab and started to make fun of my boyfriend and his friend who was with him. He was commenting on how they were welding the cables and asking them what they were doing, correcting them in a really nasty manner, etc. He finally asked them what class the project was for and they told him it was my project (I was sitting at the table next to them).  He started laughing and making jokes about how I was forcing these two guys to do my work for me. I finally had enough, and stood up, grabbed the pages where I had a draft of the design and the calculations I had done and threw them at him, I proceeded to inform him why they were helping me and pointed out the fact that everything else was my design and doing, and I had no teammates to help me. I also told him about a little about himself, since I had helped a professor grade his programming homework and pointed out he was a terrible programmer at best, and had to drop the course because of it. I went on a huge rant at this guy, I don’t remember exactly what I said but it was really quiet after I was done.

Since that experience, I adopted the toxic belief that as a woman, especially in technology or science, you can’t slack at all or people will assume you can’t do your job. You have to be tough, always have the right answer, one mistake and your hard earned credibility will go down the drain. People won’t give you the benefit of the doubt, they won’t assume you’re having “an off day” or assume that a subject simply “isn’t your forte”, no, they will think you are plain stupid. Why? because people love to hate on women who try to be successful.

It’s more entertaining to talk about how stupid the girl in your class is for her failures than it is to whisper her accomplishments. In a male dominated environment, there is no possibility of flying under the radar like some guys do, if you’re a girl you’ll probably stick out like a sore thumb. Even other women will hate you for no valid reason. They might not even know you, or just take one look at you and instantly hate you. So who can you turn to?

Society has programmed girls to compete for stupid things like male attention and absurd beauty standards, not jobs or an education (which I think could be a good thing). Beauty queens, hyper-sexualized singers, actresses and models, those are the representatives of all females around the world. Those are the females on the news, front and center, not scientists, not engineers, not doctors. Although many of these public figures carry themselves with class and intelligence, those who fail to do this seem more successful in the public eye. Admittedly, I am a fan of some of these women, but that doesn’t blind me from observing this pattern within society. We need better representatives, we need to stop competing for male attention, we need to stop hating other girls because their success or looks are somehow a threat to our own.

I think my generation and those adjacent to it are taking important steps in the right direction, but I can’t help but feel discouraged every time I walk in a room and I immediately get dirty looks from girls I don’t even know. Or when I try and make friends with a girl and it turns out she hates me because the guy she likes happens to have asked me out (even though I turned him down). Or when I remember the girls in my high school called me a whore behind my back even though I had never even had my first kiss or a boyfriend. I stayed home playing video games all day and kept to myself at school but that didn’t exempt me from the unjustified hatred of my own gender.

I’ve even sensed a bad vibe in events meant for women to “unite” and feel “empowered”. To be honest I’ve found that these kind of events are a huge boring sob fest, and I end up really disappointed and hating the fact that I’m a woman.

I’ve always had trouble making genuine female friends. Most of my experiences with female peers was unpleasant, and generally involved petty gossip and backstabbing. I’m not exaggerating when I say I have been treated far worse by women than by men and that really needs to stop. The only girls I can truly trust to this day are my sisters alone. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve made more female friends, usually within a similar professional area or through my male friends ironically.

There are indeed girls who give us all a bad rep. There are girls who play dumb to get their way, girls who have no problem with asking other people to do their stuff for them to get by, instead of achieving their goals through hard work. Girls who enforce sexist beliefs, and subject other girls to them as harshly as anyone else would. Girls who don’t bother cultivating their minds, who would purposefully portray themselves as being less than smart for attention and popularity.

This is why I would like to point out that I don’t think of myself or women in general as martyrs who have been dealt a bad hand by mother nature. Sadly, we’ve been a part of our own oppression and even perpetuated sexist practices at some point. For example, why do we teach our girls to not get raped instead of teaching boys to respect and protect women? Why do we praise virginity in young women, and applaud men being whores. How does that even work?  I can’t even count the times I’ve heard mothers tell their daughters to “act like a lady”, discourage them from getting dirty or even playing sports. How many times have schools with uniforms forced girls to wear school skirts even though it’s cold outside? All of these practices need to die, and women must be the ones to swing the axe.

Despite the experiences I have related in the last couple of paragraphs (this post is super long I know), not all guys will discriminate women in the industry. There are lots of guys who want to see more women in engineering and science, guys who encourage, support and respect women in these industries.

Now I think it’s time for women to really walk the talk. Protest and denouncing the discrimination we face is good, but when I look around I see too many young girls completely apathetic and uninterested with studying science or even making a career from themselves. Most seem more interested in pursuing careers where we already have enough representation. If we don’t have enough able strong women in the work force, it’s only logical that we are in a disadvantage in society as a whole because men labor in the majority of the crucial fields. We need to get into the hardcore fields like science, engineering, politics and carve a strong living proof of our capabilities.

Technology isn’t male dominated because they hate women and won’t let us into their little boys club, it’s male dominated because it’s a field they cultivated and have studied for many many years, they invented it, they are interested in it and take time to study it. Granted they had a couple centuries as a head start, but it’s 2016 and you bitches better get into it.

But how, you might ask, can I get into it? How will I deal with the difficulties I am bound to face?

After many years of thinking and ranting and having the wrong idea and attitude about the experiences I had in the past, I learned a very valuable lesson. I was talking to a teacher about something unrelated and she said to me “Oh I’m too old to care about what people think of me”. That’s when I was inspired to really not care about any one else’s opinion of me.

It’s really a matter of being your own team, always being on your side, helping yourself grow and avoid self destruction. The fact that you’re a girl shouldn’t even be on your mind. When I stopped being self conscious and actually started focusing on school and work and throwing myself into projects and getting a job, is when I actually started succeeding and feeling better about myself. For me it was important to improve my grades and the only way you can do that is really studying and working hard, you can’t work hard if you whine harder.Of course this ideology of mine needs to be backed up by hard work and results, if you’re just lazy and don’t care what people think of you… I’m not sure that will end up well. Of course I’m not saying I am 100% a happy human everyday, I still have some scars, but taking it one day at a time is the simplest, best advice I can give.

It’s okay if you make mistakes, it’s okay to ask for help, focus on living as a human being, an intricate soul, a person with many layers, thoughts and feelings. People will talk, society will still subject you to the confines of a gender role, but don’t subject yourself to their crippling expectations.

 

 

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13 comments

  1. Simply wonderful here Cindy. I count myself privileged to have had you pass through my classroom and especially this semester. Our key role as educators is to inspire our students (yes, Tec21 says that even) but the real gold is when we have students who inspire us.

    You have done that.
    Not just for me, but your name comes up in conversations with other teachers.
    Keep being you, keep growing, keep sharing.
    Don’t disappear, stay in touch.
    I’m only a Tweet/Message/Email or visit away.
    You don’t become Ex-a-Tec (I hate that term ex), you are #SiempreTec.
    Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think your post is an excellent portrait of women in engineering and other male dominated areas, but I’m also sure that girls against girls policy comes from a male educational system and not all of them are actually capable of understanding that on their own. That reality cost Hillary Clinton the presidency, most of the women didn’t vote for her because they didn’t like her. I congratulate you on your clarity and I’m sure you’ll be an excellent engineer and women advocate.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Those are brave words and require a lot of courage to talk about it openly, I hope them inspire others to follow their convictions and don’t care of other’s opinons as you pointed.

    Indeed is a tough world out there, but you managed it pretty well from my point of view, I’m glad to have shared many of my classes with a great engineer like you. Keep going!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Got here by mere coincidence, stayed for the amazing words of what seems to be an amazing human.

    During my student years (as a boy) I encountered so many girls who were as capable as any other guy. I was witnesses of how male engineers felt smasher just for being guys & females trying to get better scores or easier explanations for just being girls.

    But some how they all just seemed less motivated.

    Now as a professional I’ve talked with so many girls who just don’t get they can motivate themselves by just wanting to go further. And it’s always hard to try to motivate them and makes them realize they are as good as anyone.

    I wish you the best of lucks on keeping that motivation, you disserve it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree, for us girls its easy to kind of get a pass or extra help etc under certain circumstances… I guess when you really need the help or its an emergency its fine? but constantly coasting or relying on this isn´t ok at all

      Like

  5. Thank you for sharing your journey. Such deep reflections…and I was feeling with you as the stories progressed (so much of it happened to me also – especially the saying the right thing and being ignored – i just never let it pass when i knew i was right). I felt outraged for you and then really proud of you. Why would I be proud of you? You aren’t my daughter or student – but you are a woman who found herself in the midst of all of this. With eyes wide open. And your post here is a great example for others. I will share widely. Thank you

    Like

  6. As someone who never had to face the vertical challenges you have climbed / are climbing, I can only stand in awe, thank you for your honesty, and cheer you on.

    The needed changes are much to slow, Let’s kick it.

    Liked by 1 person

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