Women engineers often face workplace and career challenges that their male colleagues don’t because they remain a minority in the profession: Depending on how you count, women make up just 13% to 25% of engineering jobs. That inequity leads to a power imbalance, which can lead to toxic working environments.
One of the more infamous and egregious examples is Susan Fowler’s experience at Uber. In a blog post in February 2017, she described her boss coming on to her in a company chat channel on her first day on the job. She later wrote a book, “Whistleblower,” that described her time at the company in detail.
Fowler’s ordeal cast a spotlight on the harassment women engineers have to deal with in the workplace. In a profession that tends to be male-dominated, behavior ranges from blatant examples, like what happened to Fowler, to ongoing daily microaggressions.
Four female engineers spoke with me about their challenges:
- Tammy Butow, principal software reliability engineer (SRE) at Gremlin
- Rona Chong, software engineer at Grove Collaborative
- Ana Medina, senior chaos engineer at Gremlin
- Yury Roa, SRE technical program manager at ADL Digital Labs in Bogota, Colombia
It’s worth noting that Fowler was also an SRE who worked on the same team as Medina (who was later part of a $10 million discrimination lawsuit against Uber). It shows just how small of a world we are talking about. While not everyone faced that level of harassment, they each described daily challenges, some of which wore them down. But they also showed a strong determination to overcome whatever obstacles came their way.
One of the primary issues these women faced throughout their careers is a feeling of isolation due to their underrepresentation. They say that can sometimes lead to self-doubt and an inkling that you don’t belong that can be difficult to overcome. Medina says that there have been times when, intentionally or not, male engineers made her feel unwelcome.
“One part that was really hard for me was those microaggressions on a daily basis, and that affects your work ethic, wanting to show up, wanting to try your best. And not only does that damage your own self-esteem, but your esteem [in terms of] growing as an engineer,” Medina explained.
Roa says that isolation can lead to impostor syndrome. That’s why it’s so important to have more women in these roles: to serve as mentors, role models and peers.
“One barrier for us related to being the only woman in the room is that [it can lead to] impostor syndrome because it is common when you are the only woman or one of few, it can be really challenging for us. So we need to gain confidence, and in these cases, it is very important to have role models and leadership that includes women,” Roa said.
Chong agrees it is essential to know that others have been in the same position — and found a way through.
“The fact that people talk authentically about their own jobs and challenges and how they’ve overcome that, that’s been really helpful for me to continue seeing myself in the tech industry,” she said. “There have been points where I’ve questioned whether I should leave, but then having that support around you to have people to talk to you personally and see as examples, I think it has really helped me.”
Butow described being interviewed for an article early in her career after she won an award for a mobile application she wrote. When the article was published, she was aghast to discover it had been headlined, “Not just another pretty face…”
“I was like, that’s the title?! I was so excited to share the article with my mom, and then I wasn’t. I spent so much time writing the code and obviously my face had nothing to do with it. … So there’s just little things like that where people call it a paper cut or something like that, but it’s just lots of little microaggressions.”
In spite of all that, a common thread among these women was a strong desire to show that they have the technical skill to get past these moments of doubt to thrive in their professions.
Butow said she has been battling these kinds of misperceptions since she was a teenager but never let it stop her. “I just tried to not let it bother me, but mostly because I also have a background in skateboarding. It’s the same thing, right? You go to a skate park and people would say, ‘Oh, can you even do a trick?’ and I was like, ‘Watch me.’ You know, I [would] just do it. … So a lot of that happens in lots of different types of places in the world and you just have to, I don’t know, I just always push through, like I’m just going to do it anyway.”
Chong says she doesn’t give in to discouraging feelings, adding that having other women to talk to helped push her through those times.
“As much as I like to persevere and I don’t like giving up, actually there have been points where I considered quitting, but having visibility into other people’s experiences, knowing that you’re not the only one who’s experienced that, and seeing that they’ve found better environments for themselves and that they eventually worked through it, and having those people tell you that they believe in you, that probably stopped me from leaving when I [might] have otherwise,” she said.
Women helping women
Chong’s experience is not unique, but the more diverse your teams are, the more people who come from underrepresented groups can support one another. Butow recruited her at one point, and she says that was a huge moment for her.
“I think that there is a network effect where we know other women and we try to bring them in and we expand on that. So we can kind of create the change or we feel the change we want to see, and we get to make our situation more comfortable,” Chong said.
Medina says that she is motivated to help bring Latinx and Black people into tech, with a focus on attracting girls and young women. She has worked with a group called Technolachicas, which produced a series of commercials with the Televisa Foundation. They filmed six videos, three in English and three in Spanish, with the goal of showing young girls how to pursue a STEM career.
“Each commercial talks about how we got our career started with an audience persona of a girl younger than 18, an adult influencer and a parent — people that are really crucial to the development of anyone under 18,” she said. “How is it that these people can actually empower someone to look at STEM and to pursue a career in STEM?”
Butow says it’s about lifting people up. “What we’re trying to do is sharing our story and hoping to inspire other women. It’s super important to have those role models. There’s a lot of research that shows that that’s actually the most important thing is just visibility of role models that you can relate to,” she said.
The ultimate goal? Having enough support in the workplace that they’re able to concentrate on being the best engineers they can be — without all of the obstruction.