March 29, 2022
Computers and engineering account for 80% of STEM occupations in the US, but women only comprise 20% of the workforce. In many places around the world that landscape is rapidly changing. Women make up 48.5% of engineering graduates in Algeria and 46% of the science and technology workforce in China. Although women’s desires to pursue careers in traditionally male-dominated fields are being met with support and encouragement, there are still a lot of changes to be made before absolute equity is achieved.
In honor of Women’s History month, we met with six amazing Sibros women to talk about their experiences, insights, and opinions regarding women in engineering.
For VP of Program Management Annie Ng, engineering was one of three career options. “For my Chinese family, you know, they're very traditional, it was either doctor, lawyer or engineer. I had to pick out of those, and engineering was the most interesting field.”
Firmware Intern Yifan Zhang started in mechanical engineering because she wanted to do something practical. “I ended up getting into electrical because my family wanted me to do that instead. Then, I got really interested in computers and after doing some work in that area, I got into computer engineering.”
Firmware Engineer Sampada Niwal grew up watching her older brother work on engineering projects at home. “I was so fascinated,” says Sampada, “I used to ask him, ‘What is this and how does this work?’ but he would never tell me.” Instead of explaining it, he encouraged her to read specific books, do the work, and find the answers on her own. Growing up in India, where 40% of STEM graduates are women, the decision to pursue engineering was nothing out of the ordinary.
LP Peterson, Sr. Technical Program Manager, stumbled upon engineering at the formative age of twelve. “I bought a laptop and it started making this horrible noise whenever I turned it on. I ended up disassembling it, finding the noise, fixing it, and putting it back together. The fact that it went well, and I didn't break it, made me think, ‘Oh, computers aren't hard,’ and opened my eyes to the possibilities of that as a career path.”
After taking a series of math and science courses in high school, Software Engineer Janvi Patel made a last-minute decision to pursue computer science. “It was the one program I applied to, so I was kind of banking on that university to accept me.” Janvi was not a stranger to computer science (CS). She dabbled in basic coding when she was younger and took CS in high school, but it was the encouragement she received from her teachers that tipped the balance. “My math teacher was also a computer science teacher. She and my other CS teacher were really egging me on. So that’s kind of why I went.”
“When I was in high school, I had no exposure to any of this stuff,” says Firmware Intern Ayesha Heza. Without knowing what she was getting into, Ayesha took a chance on engineering, “It's one of those things where you're 17 years old and you have so much pressure to choose what you want to do. So, I chose something random, and it ended up working out.”
In a culture that views failure as a detriment rather than a steppingstone, the pressure to succeed is often overwhelming. This is even more significant when coupled with outdated stigmas about women not being cut out for certain professions.
“Something I heard recently that really resonated with me was, if you can't point to last week, and say, ‘Oh man, I failed at that thing so hard.’ You're not trying, you're not growing, you're not learning.” Like most people, LP is no stranger to bouts of imposter syndrome, but she has advice for that, too. “I made a rule early on that I wasn't ever going to be the person to tell myself, No.” Instead, she approaches everything with optimism and gives it her all.
Annie’s solution for self-doubt is, “Be authentic, do the homework, and just be confident about your knowledge. You always have something different and diverse to share with others.” Every person has value to bring to the table, confidence is the first step to unlocking it.
The fear of failure isn’t the only struggle women face. Sampada’s greatest hurdle was deciding how to spend her time. “I wanted to do all the technical stuff and all the extracurricular activities, and managing these things was my biggest struggle.” In her third year, she had to decide between representing her university in the Robocon robotics championship or participating in her artistic passion. “I chose Robocon. I gave my complete 100% to robotics and that was a career-defining thing.”
LP’s greatest challenge is a reality that more and more students are having to face. “I applied [to university] when my family wasn't earning a lot of money, so I got a lot of financial aid.” But after her dad made a career change, she no longer qualified and all the money dried up. “I dropped out for a semester, worked, and went to community college, then came back and still graduated on time. I don't think I've achieved anything quite that critical in the rest of my life.”
“The most difficult obstacle, from my standpoint, is being a working mother,” Annie says there is deep guilt that comes when obligations of motherhood and the desires to pursue and achieve collide. “That has to be the most difficult thing, to expertly balance and make decisions between the two. Not to purposely highlight the difference between genders, but I think because of the biological composition of being a woman, a man can do that a lot easier without the emotional ride. But women, internally, just have that struggle.”
Education and exposure to different fields of study are the foundation of a successful career and a fulfilled future. Unfortunately, most students enter university not knowing what they want to do or even what their options are. The National Center for Education Statistics estimates 80% of students change their major at least once before settling on a career path, and many graduates say they wish they could go back and study what they were truly passionate about.
“I didn't know anything about my field before pursuing it, and I think that's because I had no exposure to programming.” Ayesha believes the first step to making engineering more accessible to young women is by investing in educational programs that introduce them to the field early on.
“All girls and boys should be exposed to all the career paths,” Sampada agrees, “What happens in engineering? What happens in art? What happens in commerce? What are the career paths? And what are the things we do in each career? So, they can have insights, and then they can choose, and grow on that path.” Sampada is optimistic about the future, as well as the slow changes and improvements happening in education.
LP thinks the problem goes a bit deeper than simple exposure. “I think about [education] a lot. It is very much: ingest this data and output this data. We're treating our children like APIs when really, we need to teach them to be more like designers. Teach them how to have a vision and how to make that vision happen. If education were more centered towards that, we would all achieve more.”
“I think it's confidence building as well,” adds Annie. “Again, not specifically for women. To earn respect as a junior person or going to a new company is a lot easier when you're confident and I think having people that give you encouragement and support and embrace your talent is very helpful.”
Support systems also play a huge role in instilling both confidence and encouragement to pursue a particular career, especially in math and science-related fields like engineering. Of course, even parents who want to give their support might not be equipped with the tools or knowledge they need to supply it.
“My parents didn't know what computer science was,” admits Janvi. “They didn't push me to go into a specific field, but I think if I was in accounting, like my brother, my dad would definitely be my main source of support.”
“I topped out with my mom being able to help me with math homework in like seventh grade,” says LP. “I had to find a different mentor, somebody who knew what I was talking about.”
Annie looks at familial support from a mother’s perspective. “My daughter is very much into art and music and usually in Asian families, that's not a great career path. But I try to embrace everyone's strengths, and I think that applies to not just engineering.” Annie encourages young adults to embrace their strengths instead of pursuing a career just because it is expected or falls under a high income bracket. It might not always be the easiest path, but it is the most rewarding.
Allies and mentors often provide support and guidance that exceeds the capabilities of well-intentioned family and friends. “When I started my first job I worked in a couple of programs, one in the space program, then another one was in the DoD–Department of Defense,” says Annie. “I was working on a missile program, so my team was responsible for the test station for the missiles in Troy, Alabama.” Fortunately, she had a female mentor who gave her advice on how to navigate situations where she felt outnumbered or out-voiced by her male colleagues.
LP found her male supporters more impactful than female mentors. “I feel the men in my life that were so supportive—you can do whatever you want, that's just how you are, go after it—were really important in instilling confidence in pursuing what my brain wanted to do and not what society said I should do.”
Janvi’s mentor and primary source of encouragement was her high school computer science teacher. “He's an ally in the sense that he's always talking about women in STEM and trying to encourage others, like he encouraged me.”
Ayesha, however, points out that there is a big difference between support and encouragement. “People were on board, but my decisions were very much up to me. I wasn’t very confident or outgoing, so that was difficult. I felt like nothing moved unless I made it happen. But over time in the industry, I realized I had to do my thing. I think encouragement would have gone a really long way, especially in my younger years.”
Many of the women at Sibros feel there has been a large shift in the industry. Even though outdated stigmas have fallen to the wayside, there is still a lot of room for improvement, especially in regards to representation, awareness of women’s issues, and inclusion.
“I never felt discouraged from applying to engineering programs because of my gender. However, a little bit of that crept in once I actually entered the program.” Ayesha says the social aspects were sometimes strange in terms of making friends and feeling represented among not only her peers but her professors and mentors as well. There was often a relatability gap that was difficult to cross.
“It's kind of lonely sometimes,” admits LP. “But at the same time, you have to follow your interests.”
Despite being the only girl in her computer science class, Janvi found encouragement elsewhere, “It really did help seeing female professors in university. It didn't make anything different, obviously, but it was just nice having that representation and seeing women like me.”
Representation impacts more than just educational experiences. “I have friends that only take [job] offers where there are many women on the team,” says Ayesha. “It’s a catch 22. If there aren’t women on the team, then how will more women get on?”
Janvi believes this is a small aspect of a much larger problem. “I think the main problem we are facing today is what we can do to encourage women to stay in the industries they pursue, which can be difficult when reasons such as wage gaps, sexual harassment, misogyny, and racism are the driving forces behind why women—even those in the highest of positions—leave the industry.”
Janvi says the emergence of safe spaces and normalizing “taboo topics” such as salary and wages are helping to close the gender disparity. Providing women with adequate resources is another step in the right direction. “In situations where women are sexually harassed or experience misogyny/racism, it’s crucial to provide an extensive support system (preferably one that includes men) to help them deal with situations in ways that would not be damaging to them or their career.”
Like most women, she has high hopes for the future, “I hope we can get to a point in time where we have not only achieved equity in the industry but also justice, by fixing the systems we have in place to provide truly equal access to tools and opportunities for anyone regardless of background.”
Even in 2022 we still have a long way to go, but that change is now. It’s happening all around us every day. It starts with awareness, with allies, and with women like Annie, Sampada, LP, Janvi, Ayesha, and Yifan, who continue to follow their dreams without abandon and encourage others to do the same. If they have taught us one thing, it is to never stop believing in yourself.
As Yifan says, “I definitely had allies, but my biggest ally was myself.”