Top Five Career-Stalling Mistakes Female Engineers Make

You are smart, you’ve got a positive mindset, and you’re excited to take on the world’s engineering problems. You may even have some years of engineering experience under your belt.

Why, then, do you feel like you aren’t moving as quickly in your career as you’d like? In today’s blog, we look at five not-so-obvious reasons (i.e. a toxic boss isn’t here!) your career might have stalled.

This is the first blog of a 6 part series. We’ll give you an overview of the reasons and general solutions here, and then go in-depth with each topic in the subsequent posts.

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    #1 You have no plan.

    For a very long time, I believed that it was my employer’s responsibility to provide me with options for my career path. I thought that as long as I received external validation, such as a raise or promotion, I’d be content.

    It was only later that I realized this approach to my career was a bit like hopping in a car in New York City without a map or any type of navigation system and hoping I would eventually get to Seattle unscathed. When I (metaphorically) arrived in a tiny town in the middle of the desert instead, I started to ask myself: is that where I meant to go?

    Have you thought about where you want to go in your career? Have you considered your unique long-term professional goals, independent of those goals you establish related to your current employer? Are you trying to mash your own vision into the constraints of your current position, or do you see how your current role and position contribute to your long-term goals?

    To be clear, this absolutely isn’t your fault. You spent 16+ years in an educational system that told you specifically what you had to do to be successful. In most cases, you’ve been trained to expect someone else to tell you what to do from a young age. For example, I remember questioning a teacher’s point in biology class in high school, and immediately receiving detention. Apparently I was disrespectful simply for disagreeing. In retrospect, I probably should not have done that in front of the entire class, but you get the point.

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    The educational success path looks something like this: study this material, take a test, and move on to new material. You are given a series of classes needed to get your engineering degree, and it’s clear that the goal is to get an internship, so you can get the best job offers possible at the end of your formal education. If you are in an industry that values getting your Professional Engineering license (like civil engineering, for example), this trend might even continue a little longer, as you gain the experience required to take the test, study, and finally take it.

    It’s at this juncture, if not before, that many engineers (myself included) find themselves scratching their heads and asking, “Now what?”

    It’s no surprise that when you reach the end of the prescribed path, you feel more than a bit confused about where you should go next and what your options are. Even if you might have an idea of where you should be going, you're still confused about exactly how you should get there.

    For many engineers, they are so busy at work at this point they don’t even bother to think about where to go next. Then, one evening after a particularly trying day, they start to wonder if this is the career they had envisioned for themselves when they chose engineering in the first place. They wonder why, despite having a career that pays well, they aren’t enjoying it as much as they thought they would.

    Having no plan of your own (and specifically a plan that is focused on YOU, not the current place you happen to be working) results in you spending your career working on other people’s visions and agendas, which is innately unfulfilling.  

    #2 Your calendar and habits do not match your goals.

    Show me your calendar, and I will show you your real priorities in life, regardless of what you believe they are. Too often, engineers come to me with all these things they say are priorities, like finding a new job with more growth potential. Yet, when I ask them what they’ve done so far to work toward achieving those goals, the common response is “I’m too busy to do that right now to do that.”

    I’ve been there too. I’ve had days filled with meetings, conference calls, interruptions, and “urgent” emails, where I felt like I got absolutely nothing on my own list done. There were days when it felt like the only time I had to get actual work done was before everyone else arrived at work, after everyone left, or on a weekend.

    In the United States, we pride ourselves on the individualist aspect of working hard and doing more. Our culture reinforces the idea that you must be busy to be successful. Last weekend, we took our children to a birthday party. As the adults watched the kids play on the water slides and sprinklers in the backyard on a sweltering hot day, almost every single conversation (work-related or not) started like this:

    “How are you doing?”

     “Really busy,” was the inevitable answer, which was then followed by a discussion of exactly what that busyness entailed.

    We are all busy. But have you considered whether you're busy with your most important work? Or are you simply busy with the work that allows you to check off your to-do list the fastest?

    Every time you check something off your to-do list, your brain gets a dopamine hit. This is the chemical in your brain connected to feelings of pleasure, learning, and motivation. As soon as you get that hit, you want another one. One of the fastest ways to do that is to check something else off the list, or pop onto chat/social media/email to “like” or comment on something. If you’ve ever written something down so you could immediately check it off the list (I’ve done it too!), this is exactly the reason.

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    If I’m honest with myself, there have been plenty of times when I prioritized the dopamine hit that comes with checking off my to-do list over completing my most important work. Those most important tasks require a significant amount of focus and time, and it’s easy to get sidetracked if we aren’t paying attention.

    Additionally, I had developed a number of bad habits. I would put things on my calendar, but I didn’t follow through when they showed up, or I'd schedule my important work at times I knew I would not be able to work uninterrupted (like scheduling that 4 hour task in two blocks of 2 hours). I had gotten in the habit of checking my email constantly. Then I would immediately jump on someone else’s request and derail my own schedule by 30 minutes to several hours, depending on the request.

    Before I became aware of the physiological side of productivity, I just followed the dopamine hits, and assumed I needed more “time management” tools. I also figured I just needed to do more and work harder. Sound familiar?

    My stress levels were through the roof daily—especially when I came home and thought about all the undone work—until I started actually scheduling time in calendar to work on my most important tasks and corrected those bad habits. I finally recognized that by being constantly responsive to emails and interruptions, I was allowing my day to be hijacked by other people’s agendas.

    If you want to get something done that is important to you, schedule it on your calendar, and stick to it (except in the case of a true emergency, i.e., your office is on fire or your system has been hacked).

    #3 You pretend unconscious bias doesn’t exist, and/or isn’t affecting your career.

    Have you ever noticed that you can’t model the behaviors of your non-minority male colleagues and get the same results? I’ve noticed it too, and it’s one of the things that caused me to do a deep dive into research before I wrote She Engineers.

    Unconscious bias isn’t limited to gender or race. Consider these hypothetical scenarios:

    Scenario 1: Two candidates—one male and one female—are up for hire in a small firm, both with PE credentials and both in their early thirties. Both are married and have similar experience levels. The male is hired because he is the better “cultural fit.” In the back of his mind, the interviewer is wondering if the female candidate may either have or be planning to have children that would affect her work. The woman is simply told the more qualified candidate was selected.

    Scenario 2: John is single, and he has noticed that he is routinely asked to work late or on holidays when his coworkers with children are off to spend time with their families. John resents that his free time appears to be less valuable than others’ simply because he does not have children.

    Scenario 3: Two candidates—one male with a stay-at-home spouse and kids, and one single female—are up for a promotion. Both have similar experience levels. The single woman has been putting in extra effort for many years. The man is also very good at his job but generally does not give much extra effort. The man gets the promotion partially because, as discussed by his superiors behind closed doors, “he has a family to support.” Of course, that is not the reason the woman is given for not receiving the promotion. She is simply told that he received it because of his greater rapport with clients (aka the clients look and act like the man).

    Scenario 4: A senior manager is trying to determine which staff engineer should be a project manager for a new project. The senior manager expects that the new project will require some travel, and in some cases, there may not be a lot of advance notice of travel requirements. The senior manager also knows the client loves to golf, and wants to make sure the client becomes a repeat customer. Although he has a very experienced female project manager, he assigns a male project manager with slightly less experience, but who he thinks will be a “better fit” with the client. Incidentally, the male project manager also happens to be an avid golfer. The senior manager also has unspoken concerns that the female project manager would not want to travel because she has young kids. The female engineer has never been asked how she feels about travel, nor does she routinely take unplanned time off for family reasons. The senior manager announces the decision, stating that the male engineer is showing “great potential.”

    Do you recognize some of these biases? Do your feelings on the fairness of these scenarios change if the genders are reversed? In scenario 3, how do you feel if a woman with kids receives the promotion over a single man who has been putting in more effort? In scenario 4, how do you feel if the slightly less experienced woman were made the project manager? If you’re starting to squirm a little because you are not comfortable with your answers to those questions, you’re not alone. We all have biases.

    Unconscious bias is real, whether you want to admit to having it or not. Hiring practices in STEM fields tend to favor a lower-performing man over a higher-performing woman. High-achieving female math majors were 3 times less likely to receive a call-back than their high-achieving male counterparts.  This study from SWE documents how unconscious bias plays out in engineering careers. Another study, which we more fully reported on in this blog last year, indicates that 40% of women in technical roles are the “onlys” (meaning they are usually or often the only woman on their teams or in the room), and 80% of those women reported experiencing the microaggressions that are the action-based manifestation of unconscious bias.  This Harvard Business Review article goes in-depth about the five types of unconscious bias that pushes women out of STEM. And both this article from Think Progress and this one in Wired detail research showing that people who don’t believe unconscious bias is real simply discount the fact that it exists at all. 

    One would think that, given that everyone has bias and manifestations of it are more pronounced in industries where one gender or race dominates, that we’d all be receiving training early in our careers as to how to manage it. Why? Because - until such time as society as a whole and corporate polices/work cultures “catch up” - it will stall your ability to grow from day one in your career.

    Unconscious bias often isn’t even discussed until you get into senior manager and executive-level women in leadership programs, some 10 years or more into your career. There are still many leadership trainings that don’t even address it at all (hmm…..I wonder who created those?).

    Yet, study after study indicates that many leadership behaviors that work for men result in backlash when women use them. For a quick example, check out this study detailing how only 1 of 3 common frameworks for approaching conversations works for women as compared to men, and even that one framework is recommended to be used sparingly.

    It seems crazy to me that no one is pulling women aside early in their careers and saying “Here are some things you are likely to experience, and here is how you deal with this”. Bias exists in your office (both inside and with clients) and in your personal life. It’s difficult to be heard and get your points across if you are completely unaware that your peers' and manager’s response to you is going to be different. You’ve heard me discuss the attrition rate for women in engineering in the past (40% of graduates leave or never enter the field, 1 in 4 leave after age 30), and I am convinced this is a huge part of it.

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    Many female engineers encounter unconscious bias starting early in their careers. Yet they ignore, downplay, or are completely unaware that this is impacting their ability to progress. In case you're wondering, I am definitely pointing the finger at my younger self here.

    Until I graduated from college, it never even occurred to me that my gender would have anything to do with my ability to advance in a technical field. Therefore, when I started working, it was much easier to justify my lack of progress as simply my lack of experience than to even consider that bias may be at least partially responsible for some of my experiences. It was easier for me to believe my expectations were simply too high. I wanted to fit in and be recognized on my technical merits. It seemed like the best way to do that was to ignore the idea of bias, work hard, and avoid rocking the boat. Can you relate?

    I don’t think I’m the only one who recognized early that calling attention to unconscious bias in general - particularly for the aforementioned “onlys” - wasn’t going to help my career progression. I completely understand how easy it is to put your head in the sand, especially if you feel like there isn’t anything you can do. Today, I know how to deal with bias in a way that does help my career, but then I hadn’t figured it out yet. 

    To be clear, this is not about being the flag-bearer of your employer’s diversity and inclusion movement. You simply have to understand that unconscious bias is a practical fact of life, one that just happens to be more pronounced for women in male-dominated fields.

    If you want to be successful on your terms regardless of whether that is more responsibility, more money, or simply a more flexible schedule, you need to acknowledge what you are facing. Then you need practical tools you can apply to mitigate those biases to the best of your abilities.

    #4 You think learning equals success. 

    Let’s say I was learning to golf. I picked up all the books I could find on Amazon.com. I watched a bunch of videos on YouTube about technique. Then I contacted some professional golfers and asked them for their advice on the best way for newbies to pick up the game. I researched and purchased all the equipment I would need.

    I had been working hard on golfing research. Would I then declare myself an expert at golfing?

    Absolutely not, because I had never actually taken a golf swing. I had not actually done the thing I wanted to learn.

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    Many continuing education and career development programs are set up exactly this way. Formal education is also set up this way, so it’s no wonder that we have been conditioned to believe that learning for learning’s sake means we have actually embedded useful knowledge into our brains.

    Is it possible to learn about a new technical or management topic in a one-hour seminar or even a day-long workshop? Of course.

    Does that mean you will actually have success the first, tenth, or twentieth time you attempt to apply what what you learned? Maybe, or maybe not.

    Learning outcomes are not the same as actually doing the thing you want to learn. If you aren’t taking action, actually doing the thing you want to learn, you haven’t really learned anything. You can’t be successful if you aren’t taking action. To return to our golf analogy, the more swings you take, the higher your likelihood of success.

    Many engineers love to learn, and we feel like we’ve made progress when we watch another webinar, attend a conference, learn about a technical subject, and gain a new certification or degree. These are all valuable experiences in different ways, but unless you’ve taken immediate action with what you learned, it’s often a distraction from the harder, more uncomfortable things you should be doing.

    For example, I had an engineer tell me one of the major reasons she was pursuing an additional degree was to earn more money. Yet, when I asked her if she had attempted to negotiate her salary at her current place of employment (which costs much less, would have gotten her to her goal faster, but is definitely more uncomfortable to do), she said no. (To be clear, I’m not discounting the importance of education, but I’ve seen too many engineers pursue certification after certification or degree after degree believing that this alone is what will get them a job, raise, or promotion. This is not true in 99% of cases.)

    Stop confusing learning and doing online research with taking action, and your career will thank you.

    #5 You don’t know how to advocate for yourself.

    Do you speak up, negotiate, and ask for what you need to thrive at work? Are you visible, not just those you immediately work with, but others in your industry and organization? Or do you operate under the idea that your work will speak for itself, and will be recognized on its own merit when it’s good enough?

    Time for some tough love: engineers that advocate for themselves are both more fulfilled in their careers and more successful. Thinking that you’ll just work harder until your work is good enough is a recipe for frustration and burnout. Additionally, female engineers have a well-documented visibility problem, which makes being able to advocate for yourself all the more important.

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    As with most things in the career of a female engineer, it’s not quite as cut-and-dry as “stand up for yourself” or “speak up in meetings.” It turns out that women are much more likely than men to face backlash when they advocate for themselves. For example, research shows that when women negotiate, they are less likely to be hired, trusted, deemed likeable colleagues, or appointed to important positions. Researchers have even found that women who negotiate are more likely to be lied to by the person with whom they are negotiating.  

    Studies also show that when women advocate for others, the backlash is minimized or nonexistent. That’s one of the reasons why it’s incredibly important for female engineers (even more than their male counterparts) to take the time to really nurture and expand their networks at all points in their careers.

    While hard work is definitely required, it is your responsibility to make sure that others are aware of your work, in a way that doesn’t alienate you from your colleagues. Women who’ve made it to the top of their fields or firms are experts in advocating for themselves. They did not get there by accident.


    Have you experienced a career stall? What did you do to get back on track? Share your thoughts and comments below.