Scoundrel Time

Annie, Get Your Code On: How to Be a Woman Engineer

“Women have broken the glass ceiling, and we’ve achieved most of our goals.” When a female corporate vice president announced this at a leadership conference for women, before hundreds of female managers who worked for a Fortune 500 aerospace company, I couldn’t believe my ears. My own experience of forging a career in electrical engineering had been daunting. How could this female VP ignore the beleaguered women working as engineers in her own company?

I entered the workforce during the seventies, taught college, and worked in defense and intelligence research for two decades. I was a bit older than many in the audience that day, and I’m all too familiar with discrimination. Dismissing the achievements of female engineers and scientists has been standard operating procedure in many companies for much of my career. Male engineers frequently jeered at us, pointing out our supposed shortcomings in lab bench skills or math prowess, or they treated us like intruders. I’ve been accused of sleeping my way into jobs and of having phony credentials. Unfortunately, this treatment was not confined to the corporate world. During my first academic post in engineering in 1991, a student overheard the department chairman telling faculty members, “We can’t let Hamilton apply [for tenure] because she’ll get in, and we can’t have a woman here.” My contract was subsequently canceled before I could even apply.

In 1991, before the passage of the Title IX provision that allowed women to sue for damages in employment cases, I could not obtain legal relief unless I wanted to petition to get my job back. I no longer wanted that. I left university teaching because it was not clear that I would be permitted to apply for tenure anywhere. It seemed to me that I had entered engineering before the field was ready for women. I could not have predicted it at the time, but that event set the stage for the rest of my life.

 

I was no stranger to the struggle for civil rights. I grew up in the 1960s in a left-wing neighborhood where children marched with parents to end segregation and the war in Viet Nam, and stood on street corners handing out “John F. Kennedy for President” flyers. My father was a labor strike instigator in the fifties, and he taught me that life was a battlefield. His domineering influence, as well as bullying I suffered from an older brother, left a mark. When male guidance counselors and college classmates informed me that I could never become an engineer—I decided to prove them wrong.

 

On the day of the conference, I arrived late and was ushered into one of the overflow rooms. The massive hotel was packed with seminars and activities. Waiters hovered over long tables covered with white tablecloths and ten-gallon, stainless steel coffee urns. Hundreds of well-heeled women in middle and upper management filled fruit plates between presentations before scurrying back. Were some of these women engineers like myself? I had been with the aerospace company for less than a year at that point, and there were no other female engineers in my department, so it seemed to me unlikely, but if true the implications were scary. If there was no acknowledgment of the obstacles facing female engineers by an aerospace company VP in 2013, then perhaps there were very few technical female managers anywhere. I had to wonder, where were all the women?

As the speaker paused to open the floor to questions, I raised my hand. An attendant directed me to a microphone. I was unaware that the bright light shining on me was projecting my face onto the Jumbotron located in the main auditorium.

“I’ve been an electrical engineer for 35 years,” I blurted out, “and there are days when I come to my job feeling that not even a single day has passed since 1980. How can you possibly say that women have achieved all of their goals?”

A hush descended over the audience. The uneasy faces of women stung me with guilt. This VP was exactly the sort of woman I respect, one who managed to climb the corporate ladder with the odds stacked against her, and here I was attacking her speech.

On stage, she was awkwardly searching for words. At last, she thanked me for my question and mumbled something about other points of view. Then she exited the stage and unexpectedly appeared in the overflow room. She hugged me, urging me to meet with her. She pressed her contact information into my hand.

I was heartened, but in all honesty I had been losing faith in engineering. My 12-year tenure at a different company had recently ended after I reported prolonged sexual advances by a supervisor. For the first time in 35 years, I was questioning whether I could remain in the profession at all. I felt unwilling to continue dedicating myself to a profession that had treated me so egregiously.

 

 

In 2007, several years before I asked that tough question at the conference, I was working for a large Washington beltway technology firm. I’d been there ten years, researching future military technology for former Army and Marine Corps colonels who’d never worked with a senior female engineer before. For years, we’d battled as colleagues. They took my outspokenness as rudeness, and I found them rigid and unsympathetic. Yet, over time we gained a mutual respect for one another, and our working relationships flourished. They wrote glowing letters of appreciation and awarded me generous yearly bonuses. However, when I suffered an injury to my foot and could no longer travel, I was forced to find another position. That is when I was recruited by a man I’ll call Smith. That is when the workplace harassment began.

Smith managed a division in a different business unit. He was bidding on a major engineering program and asked me to author the technical proposal. I’d spent years evaluating proposals on the government’s behalf, and I agreed to take on the task. The bid was worth $100 million.

Smith was several years my junior and was assigned to be my supervisor on this project. He seemed grateful to have my help. Over the next four months, I led twenty writers through the proposal process and met infrequently with Smith. We successfully delivered the bid and were awarded high marks by the customer. Smith received a large bonus, and I was granted a more modest one. I hadn’t met the managers above Smith, but I told myself that if I couldn’t find work indefinitely with that group, I would pursue work in another organization.

Soon after the proposal was done, however, I noticed Smith looking at me curiously. Late one afternoon, he called me to his office and confided that he was having marital problems, a topic he’d never before broached with me. I never encouraged personal relationships at work, and I politely excused myself. But over the weeks that followed, Smith continued to speak to me in personal tones, often during what were otherwise supposed to be key business discussions about hiring or software purchases, when it was particularly awkward for me to get up and leave.

One afternoon, he leaned toward me and said in a teasing way, “You know, me and you ought to do it.”

I was appalled. Photos of his wife and children were displayed on his desk and across the walls of his office, and he’d never behaved in such a crass way toward me during the months I worked on the proposal. There was no civil response possible, so I did not reply. But we had to meet frequently to make plans for managing the project, and he continued to repeat those words to me over again and often, until it became too awkward for me to tolerate.

“Look, I like you, but not in that way,” I finally said. “I don’t have personal relationships at work, which is nothing against you.”

Throughout my career, I had to play down my femininity in order to be respected as a professor and researcher. I held visible positions that women had not held before me. I was watched carefully, from the company I kept to the clothing I wore. I’d successfully avoided attracting that sort of attention until I turned fifty—that’s when this problem occurred with Smith.

It had been fiercely difficult for me to achieve the position I was in. In 1986, I was only the second American woman to earn the Ph.D. at Yale in electrical engineering, and then I was stymied from applying for tenure in my teaching post. I’d survived the transition to industry, but my uniqueness as a female Chief Scientist, and the fact that many of my male colleagues had never worked with a women of my education and background, made relationships difficult for me. I considered it worth the effort to build working relationships with my male colleagues.

Social exclusion—for instance, not being invited to baseball games, and the inability to share in private discussions that occurred in restrooms—was a mild concern, but having an affair would have dissolved any trust these men had in me. Honesty is essential for anyone in the role of Chief Scientist, and dating a co-worker openly would have been misconstrued. I was the only female engineer I’d encountered during my years with the company, and I held the highest labor rank, before executive. It was a position contingent on creating business for the company and contributing to its positive, professional culture—a profile that would have been trivialized had I exhibited any kind of behavior that called into question my seriousness as a scientist and member of senior staff.

I thought Smith must have a serious inferiority complex. When I uttered those fated words of rejection, he cast me a bitter, tormented look. The woman with the Ph.D. is too good for me, his expression seemed to say. Her labor grade is higher than mine. Indeed, as was often the case at the tech company, some of us possessed more advanced education and skills than those who were assigned to manage us.

Smith’s hostility disrupted the old ease between us. If at times he expressed some modicum of respect toward me, his demeanor was still laced with an offensive superior tone. Meanwhile, I was obliged to remain cooperative because of the upcoming program. He eventually stopped inviting me to meetings. One day, when my computer broke down, I asked him for a charge number so I could get it repaired, and he laughed and walked away.

I found other work in another research division in the same building, where I was asked to take over a job that had so far stymied the team. I spent hours working in the lab.

Although Smith and I rarely spoke, I saw his behavior change again. If I happened to step into the common hallway and find myself alone with him, he would stop to stare as I walked by, leering and making wolfish sounds. If I dared to wear a skirt, he’d make an explicit pretense of looking under it. When I told him to cut it out, he only laughed. It had been almost two months since my work on the proposal ended, but I could no longer imagine working on the program with Smith if we won it.

We eventually learned the program would not go to us, although our team’s proposal had earned the highest score. Smith and I now had no reason to speak, but his lewd behavior persisted. Secretaries complained that they couldn’t find him, while others reported sightings of Smith tooling around in his car during working hours. On one occasion, I was asked to attend his division meeting, along with 135 of his employees, and he spoke to us from the podium, openly wielding a bottle of beer. I overheard younger engineers jokingly refer to him as “Mephistopheles.”

 

In my view, Smith was a narcissist who’d tried to gain my sympathy by describing a sad marriage, and when I wouldn’t bite, he made it a personal mission to harass me. I urged a male colleague, someone who knew both of us, to intervene. He informed Smith that Human Resources would have to be involved if the inappropriate behavior didn’t cease. Smith promptly went to HR himself to report that I was spreading lies about him to other people. The HR manager called me in to ask about the scope of Smith’s harassing behavior, but became strangely incensed with my description.

That’s not intimidating,” she declared. “I can show you intimidating! This is no big deal.”

I pointed out to HR that not a single woman worked in the executive suite; I’d had no person to confide in. According to the HR manager, I was not a minority (for purposes of employment discrimination). She concluded that the case was “he said, she said,” which meant that without witnesses to Smith’s behavior, no finding was possible.

In order to retain the ability to face the company in court, I refused the package and filed my case with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. I paid thousands of dollars in fees to several law firms that specialized in discrimination cases. I sought to hire a firm to represent me, but each one in turn decided not to face off with a company so large and prominent as my former employer. Finally, I gave up. The EEOC concluded that the company’s treatment of me was unfair, but not illegal. I wasn’t surprised.

 

In 2014, months after that leadership conference for women—and my epiphany, that women had not made the gains in engineering I’d hoped for—I left engineering.

 

As of 2012, forty years after I started my career, forty percent of all American female engineering graduates had either left engineering or never entered the field at all.1 The reasons for that are an open secret. In certain ways, the field has always been difficult for women, despite notable strides to improve conditions. I had been an unassailable example of a successful woman in this field, proof that a woman could be an inventor and a researcher and could succeed as a professor with a Ph.D. in research and development. But I suspect now that my personal experience has been isolated, and that if women have not followed me into engineering in the numbers I had anticipated, then something must be seriously wrong.

 

Electrical engineering is an exacting, precise discipline. Every five years, devices and algorithm technology radically evolve, forcing researchers and developers into a perpetual learning cycle. Not all of us are cut out for this kind of work. It requires mastery of the intimate details of a machine, as well as its global behavior, and a kind of omniscience over machinery. Skepticism about female competence persists. Earning respect among a small group is not enough—women must prove themselves over and over, each time new players enter the picture. Meanwhile, male engineers face no such ordeal. Society defines men as possessing the higher-level intellect for tasks that require skills like spatial reasoning or mechanical ability. Underestimating the power and pervasiveness of this belief in male superiority—one that is held by both men and women—will bode poorly for an aspiring female engineer.

The truth is that when women break into male-dominated fields, we have to earn our way in. We have to adopt habits that engender trust and enable effective communications. As newcomers, we cannot dictate the interchanges, but have to aim as professionals to understand the practices and adapt to the community.

As a young person, I fully embraced the fact that few women who built electronic systems had come before me, and this meant that new skills would be required of me, beyond schoolwork or doctoral dissertations. I had to avoid explaining myself too much, and instead move quickly to results. I had to hide a lot of what I was feeling in order to achieve the goals of the moment. I spoke little, and I never talked about my personal life. These habits reflected the way men on my teams communicated. I began to rely on my intuition, yet I remained a humble student always, constantly aware that speaking on my feet, and being brief and to the point, were highly valued skills that were very much on display in meetings.

 

In 2015, women held twenty-six percent of American jobs in computers and math, and fourteen percent of those in engineering,which means that women in heavily male organizations can find themselves with few—or no—female colleagues or mentors. In 2013, I still heard remarks such as, “Women are unfit for engineering based on DNA,” or “Prove you’re who you say you are. I don‘t believe you.” In 1980, those comments seemed inevitable: what female inventors of electronic systems could I point to back then as proof otherwise? Nearly forty years later, however, I suggest that we’re facing a different kind of problem.

As suggested by Arlie Russell Hochschild in her 2016 book, Strangers in Their Own Land, Anger and Mourning on the American Right, some people hold onto personal beliefs in order to keep feeling a certain way, even in the face of stark and seemingly undeniable evidence to the contrary. A cultural myth persists that the world of engineers has always been composed of men and should remain that way. Do such people believe that men are the only models for the rest of us, that the contributions of women can be subsumed by men? My own career had proven this belief to be false. Perhaps my minority status motivated me to devote years toward the goal of developing myself, and in the end I was able to solve problems that many male counterparts had not been successful in solving. It makes sense that my skills were very different from those of my male colleagues and vice versa. No person or group can justifiably raise his or her own talents above another’s simply due to gender—unless such a person prefers to feel superior, and then anything seems feasible.

These retrograde philosophies won’t hold forever. Male engineers will eventually have to give up some ground to their female colleagues. In my situation, I was hired because no one else could do the work, and many organizations today will find themselves similarly compelled to hire women. At this very moment, Annie is perfecting her code skills on their machines. Soon no one will be able to stop her.

 

1Adams, Rebecca. “40 Percent of Female Engineers are Leaving the Field. This Might Be Why.”  HuffPost, August 12, 2014.

2 “Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering,” National Science Foundation Digest, January 2017.

 

 

 

 

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