While engineering work can be highly gratifying and enjoyable, it can come with a fair share of challenges and drawbacks. Female engineers, who still represent a minority of the global engineering workforce, sometimes also need to face a unique set of obstacles throughout their careers.
Stephanie Slocum is an engineer, author and public speaker based in State College, Pennsylvania. She holds a BAE and an MAE in Architectural Engineering from Pennsylvania State University. After completing her studies, Stephanie worked as a structural designer at a company called HKS, based in Dallas, Texas. Subsequently, she transferred to Hope Furrer Associates, a structural engineering company specializing in architectural projects.
While working at Hope Furrer Associates, she became a mother three times. This taught her first hand how to navigate the challenges most commonly faced by female engineers before and after they enter motherhood.
In 2018, with 15 years of experience working in the field of engineering, Stephanie decided to start her own company, called Engineers Rising, with the hope of sharing some of the lessons that she learned during the course of her career with both aspiring and established female engineers.
The key vision behind Engineers Rising is that of initiating an engineering cultural revolution, encouraging more companies to recognise and appreciate the unique skills that individual employees can bring to the table. Stephanie believes that such a transformation could also start at an individual level, by helping engineers to become aware of their strengths and teaching them to apply these strengths in the workplace.
In this interview with Electronics Point, she shares some of the insight she gained throughout her professional journey, touching on some of her experiences while coaching women engineers.
Stephanie Slocum, engineer, and founder of Engineers Rising, a company that specialises in leadership development and training for female engineers.
Ingrid Fadelli: First of all, could you explain what Engineers Rising does, what its key mission is and why you founded it?
Stephanie Slocum: Engineers Rising is an online career and leadership development company for female engineers. Its key mission is to equip individual female engineers with the non-technical tools they need to thrive in the field on their own terms.
What that means in a practical sense varies and is as individual as the women themselves. For some, it means becoming recognized leaders in their organizations and their industries. For others, it means being able to lean-out and go part-time in engineering while raising a family.
For still others, it means finding the right firm cultural fit from a job standpoint. In all cases, I wish to it’s about helping women to learn how to acquire the ability to be able to articulate what they want and need to thrive at work, supporting them in and to help them advocate for those needs.
IF: Based on your experience coaching engineers from different backgrounds and of different genders, what challenges can women in engineering face and in what situations do they tend to face these challenges?
SS: First, I want to share what I don't think is the primary challenge, at least in the US: Girls being interested in STEM. Organizations around the world, especially over the past ten years, have done a phenomenal job at increasing the rates of women enrolling in STEM college programs in general, including engineering (although engineering is often enrolled in at a lesser rate than other STEM programs, especially those related to healthcare fields).
The rate of women graduating in STEM-related disciplines is increasing. The National Science Foundation reports that the number of STEM degrees awarded is split evenly between men and women.
When specifically looking at engineering, however, women receive 20 percent of the bachelor’s degrees. In the workforce, the percentage of women has increased from about 9% in 1993 to about 15% today. However, an estimated 40% of female graduates drop out or never enter the field.
These statistics tell us that the reason women aren’t staying in engineering isn’t because there are no women to begin with. It’s because something occurs in the work environment that causes them to seek opportunities outside of engineering.
IF: Are you involved in any projects or initiatives aimed at increasing diversity in engineering?
SS: I believe that when individual women are taught the tools they need to be successful and have the support they need, they stay in engineering and will ultimately rise into a leadership position.
When that happens and younger women see managers and leaders of engineering firms at all levels that look like them, they aspire to those positions, which can ultimately encourage greater diversity in engineering.
Women moving into those leadership positions at all levels is what I believe will finally move the needle on diversity efforts in engineering. While we are seeing more women move into these positions, this process has been very, very slow. I think that this issue has to be attacked and accomplished at an individual, grass-roots level before an organization can change.
There’s an old saying that “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.” In many cases, that’s where many diversity initiatives fail. When people are forced to attend “diversity training” and don’t believe there is a problem, they are not going to change their behaviors.
One study showed that 75% of women felt diversity is a problem, as compared to 58% of men. That is a big discrepancy, and I believe it is part of the reason why many traditional diversity initiatives don’t work.
IF: Overall, what are some of the needs typically expressed by women in engineering and how can these needs be met by engineering companies or workplaces in general?
SS: Many women feel that they are not appreciated, heard, or supported in the workplace. They express that they have to work harder than their male colleagues to prove themselves and feel a general lack of fairness.
Additionally, many have dealt with gender harassment, but often hesitate to call it what it is. When they share their stories, there are a lot of commonalities that engineering companies can help to address like, not interrupting others during meetings, or being mindful of asking women to do more non-promotable tasks (tasks that need to be done but don't affect the bottom line of the business.)
IF: How do you think female engineers end up in leadership roles and how long does it generally take for them to reach these positions?
SS: Clearly, skill acquisition is required to reach leadership positions. In engineering, the technical skills that make you a great individual contributor when you start working in the field are often not the skills that make you capable of leading. The question, then, is how does one learn these skills and what factors help accelerate the learning process?
As for how long it takes women to reach leadership positions, this varies by engineering discipline and organization type, as I have not seen any conclusive data specific to engineering as a whole.
This survey of structural engineers (often considered a subset of civil engineering), showed that it took approximately 15 years to reach an ownership level; however, it should be noted that structural engineering, in particular, has a large number of small engineering companies, and isn’t necessarily representative of other disciplines.
IF: In your opinion, do women trying to make their way into leadership or management positions in the engineering field need to gain any particular experience?
SS: Having technical expertise is a prerequisite to becoming a leader, but only up to a point. Any person – man or woman – needs to really focus on honing his/her communication skills to become a leader. And I don’t mean the “standard” reading, writing, and speaking ones.
Specifically, they need to acquire the ability to advocate for themselves and their teams. So, that primarily means learning to negotiate, public speaking, honing their abilities to be able to connect with and read people.
IF: What would you say/what advice would you give to a woman who hopes to one day cover a leadership role?
SS: I have three pieces of advice:
1. Find mentors and start building alliances with others early in your career. I would also advise that if you are in an organization and you are not getting mentorship despite making an effort to create such relationships, you should consider moving to an organization that better supports your aspirations.
2. Understand that your technical abilities are not what is ultimately going to land you a leadership role. Your communication skills, negotiation skills, and ability to build rapport with customers and clients is what will ultimately drive your promotions.
This means that you need to start learning these skills as early as possible in your career. Often, that means working in different departments or areas within your industry and doing things that other engineers may perceive as odd.
You have to get used to going against the grain and trusting your own intuition. Things others may perceive as career risks are going to be necessary. Embrace that opportunity to grow and learn new things, instead of fearing that change.
3. Go for it. The world needs your brand of leadership!
IF: Did you observe any particular patterns in how female engineers perceive their chances of one day taking on a leadership or management role in the field?
SS: My experience with women engineers is that they are ambitious, certainly no less ambitious than men.
However, numerous studies have shown that men go for promotions (or even volunteer for stretch assignments) when only 50 percent qualified, while women wait until they are 75 percent or more qualified. That translates into more than just opportunities for leadership positions.
From what I have observed, especially when a woman doesn’t have a female peer group or role model at work, they seem less likely to go after a leadership role, not because she isn’t just as qualified as her male counterpart, but because she thinks she has more to learn before she’s ready for that position.
That is a critical distinction that I think is important for both women themselves and their managers/allies to understand, which once again highlights the need for mentors.
IF: What are your hopes for the future of the engineering field in general?
SS: Right now, there are only between 13-14% women in engineering, and the number of women actually working in the field hasn’t budged since the early 2000s.
According to the Society of Women Engineers, 30% of women cite corporate culture as the reason for this lack of female engineers. We can do better. I would love to see the retention rate of women in engineering increase to at least 25% in my lifetime, with women leaders at every level of engineering organizations.
More importantly, I’d like to see an engineering profession that is much more inclusive and representative of the communities for which it creates products. I don’t think we can possibly create the products the world needs if we don’t even have a variety of perspectives in our teams.
There are too many examples of products that were created with biases that are detrimental at best, and at worse harmful to the health and safety of the public. For example, Facebook once designed a phone that only worked for right-handed people.
Women crash test dummies are still not required for safety tests in cars, even though it’s been well-known for decades that women are more likely to be killed or injured in a car crash. Artificial intelligence techniques were also found to be biased because they rely on humans to train them.
IF: Finally, is there anything else that you observed or that you would like to add on this topic?
SS: Yes. Many well-meaning organizations are helping young women become interested in STEM and even pushing them towards scientific disciplines by talking about the impact they could have on society, how relatively well-paid jobs are, and that there is a shortage of engineers.
There is an omission here related to the reality of many work environments and the necessary mental toughness’ (not just math and science skills!) that women, in particular, must have to succeed in engineering.
Men must also have some degree of these skills (minority men even more so), but I think it takes a thick-skinned woman to do well in engineering at this moment in time. I’m not saying that this is how it “should be”; it’s simply how it is right now.
As an industry, we need to do a better job of not glossing over this component of success, especially when talking to students. This is not an easy field and nothing in my schooling (or even internships) prepared me for the gender-biased behavior I encountered throughout my career, which was often perpetuated by engineers (and sometimes clients) who seemed well-intentioned and not overtly sexist.
The technical part of the job is the easiest part of the job for women when compared to everything else. Yet, ironically, it is everything else that no one discusses with you (or gives you tools to deal with) before you actually enter the workplace. I founded Engineers Rising LLC to change that.
Engineers Rising is a company with a meaningful and far-reaching vision, that of helping both young and mature female engineers to take chances, recognise their talents, and make the best out of their professional journey.