I should have seen the signs. In the interview there were so many red flags. At the time I really wanted out of my current job and this job from a technical standpoint was a dream opportunity. The interview was intense solving circuits on a white board for three hours. I was ecstatic I passed the test. So I blew right through all the red flags and accepted the job.
The months to follow were some of the most difficult in my whole career.
The first person who made them difficult, was none other than the person I reported to.
Recalling the first phone interview, my boss asked if I was sure I wanted to be an electrical engineer and not a systems engineer. I thought that was an odd question, but reiterated I had studied electrical engineering and really wanted to design circuits. He said typically women are more interested in systems engineering. At the time, I didn’t know what that meant. I later learned systems engineering at this specific company is a joke. It has more to do with writing requirements and documentation then any real engineering work. Super. Again red flags I failed to heed.
It started out with several increasingly uncomfortable 1:1s as he tried to get to know me. I noticed a recurring theme when all of our conversations would circle back to gender. He would say things like:
- I have three daughters and I would never encourage them to do engineering because it’s too hard. (I’m sure that’s what they need to hear).
- I’m surprised you like hiking and camping-girls aren’t into that normally they are more into doing their nails and shopping.
- It must have been weird being a girl in engineering.
- The guys must have helped you just because they liked you. (I was a little taken aback by this. I told him, I helped a lot of the guys in my lab classes. He seemed genuinely surprised. No matter what I told him, I wasn’t getting through. To him, I was some unique exception to the rule.)
One day he was rambling about how women’s brains are more geared towards arts and crafts than math and science. I knew this wouldn’t end well. He followed that up with:
“Why didn’t you do something like fashion design?”
…Baffled…I pointed to my attire and said because I’m not interested in fashion. Anyone who knows me knows this to be true. [The other day I confused Burberry for Braebury.] I started to have some serious anxiety over my job. I mean the person writing my reviews thought I should have considered fashion design! Not to mention it was infuriating to have to listen to these stereotypes I knew to be untrue. I needed to change my strategy.
I started calling him out bluntly and changing the subject. Even that did not solve the problem. He kept bringing up the subject and repeating the same stereotypes. He was on rambling again like a bad train wreck saying something like:
“Women typically don’t like jobs that are hard…”
Crap. I knew where this was heading so at this point I’m waving my hands in the air frantically and yelling “Please don’t finish that…”
“…they just aren’t as good at math and science.”
I walked back to my desk defeated. Afterwards I recounted the conversation to a coworker who encouraged me to be even more direct and blunt. The next day I marched into my bosses’ office and said we were done talking about gender and as a matter of fact it’s completely inappropriate that my gender is a subject of discussion at all. He was shocked, but after I recounted some examples he agreed.
To his credit, ever since that day he has been very careful with his word choice around me and we stick to talking about business and work. Other coworkers tell me he says sexist crap all the time and follows it with…well you can’t tell that to Tara. Well, frankly you shouldn’t tell that to anyone. Some people asked why I didn’t go to HR. Well, I’m the only woman who reports to him so that would be a short mystery to solve.
What I’ve learned: Speak up early. It took me too long because he was my boss I didn’t think there was anything I could do. To all managers out there, the trick to managing a female is to not overthink it. It’s not your female employee. It’s your employee. Period.
If anyone has a similar story, I’d love to hear from you. Please share in the comments as we can all learn from these situations.
Also, here’s an interesting article about how many female engineers leave engineering because they get fed up from the work culture: