Monday, May 11, 2015

Coming Out (or Not) To Your Co-Workers As a Bisexual Female Engineer

In light of recent news events, I thought that it was important to address the ~10% of the population who is LGBTQ and may be interested in engineering. In a field of work where it can already be difficult to be a woman, it can be daunting to have to figure out how to handle being a member of the LGBTQ community. Since I can only imagine what it is like to have an additional hurdle to jump over in the maze that is the engineering profession, I found a bad ass female engineer (who we'll call Dr. Valerie Green) to tell her story.

Coming Out (Or Not) To Your Co-Workers as a Bisexual Female

“Do you have any fun weekend plans with your boyfriend?”

My heart started beating in panic and I stared at my male coworker sheepishly, not knowing what to say. I had been at my company for a few months, fresh out of school, and I didn’t know much about my coworkers. I wanted to make a good impression and avoid offending anyone, but constantly having to hide your personal life was becoming difficult.

“Um, I actually don’t have a boyfriend,” I decided to settle on.

He scoffed in disbelief. “Ha! Yeah, right.” A moderately attractive female, surrounded by mostly males throughout college and now at work, without a boyfriend? Surely I must jest.

But I wasn’t joking. I am engaged to a woman that I love with my entire being, and I was used to referring to her as all sorts of things — my roommate, my friend, a mysterious, genderless “person” I was dating — but I didn’t want to start off with telling a lie to people that I was going to work with for many years. So I just avoided the topic like it was the head cold traveling around the office.

I thought I was clever when I started at the company and put a picture of her on my desk, holding one of our cats. If anything screams “lesbian”, I thought, it would be that. I could subtly come out and avoid any awkward conversations because people would just assume. But the man in question that assumed I had a boyfriend had seen the picture many times. My coworker sitting next to me just said he thought it was a friend. I asked one of my friends and he said he would have assumed it was my sister. A picture on my desk of a girl, of a different race than me, holding a cat — the first thought that would enter his mind would be “sister”. This was going to be harder than I thought.

When I’m behind closed doors with my fiancĂ©, I forget that she’s female (okay, I don’t exactly forget, I just forget that it’s supposed to be weird). When I step outside, and forget for a second that if I hold her hand, or give her a peck on the cheek, it’s not normal anymore — people start staring and I’m immediately reminded that I have to be conscious of all of my actions. I remember that she’s a girl instantly. It wasn’t this way when I dated men, no, if someone passed you intensely sucking face with your boyfriend they wouldn’t give you a second glance. That stuff happens all the time. Two girls walking down the street, not even making out, but just holding hands? Be prepared for a crowd, whispers, giggles, and random guys yelling “hot!”

But when I’m at work, I am very conscious about my sexuality. I am very ambitious. I want to advance my career. I spent a long time getting my PhD and I am not going to be turned down for a job offer or a promotion because someone feels uncomfortable about my sexual orientation. When we’re all shooting the breeze and talking about our significant others, or our weekend plans, I always make mine very vague. Recently I went on an international trip and one of my coworkers asked “who are you going with?” I responded “oh just friends you know…” and then pardoned myself to the bathroom to prevent the conversation from going any further. I know so much about their lives and I’ve revealed very little about mine. It’s a barrier I long to break, to become human to them — but I can’t. At least, not yet.

There is one coworker I’ve gotten to know decently well; I have spent a little bit of time outside work with him. After some time, I started to feel comfortable with him. I came to learn that he is liberal, about the same age as me, and seems to be very laid back. As scared as I was, I decided to come out to him. He was very taken aback and said he did not see it coming at all, but since then he’s been very supportive, and has told me which people in the group wouldn’t care and which might. And he confirmed that even if they did think something negative about it, no one would actually say or do anything. Even though it wasn’t the entirely positive response that one would hope for, it did make me less afraid to come out to the rest of my coworkers.

There’s also a limit to waiting too long, becoming too distant and fearful that people feel like they might not really know you, and in my experience, people may end up surprising you. I spent four and a half years in an office with a lot of international students that I knew very well professionally but not very well personally. I came out to the Americans in my office almost instantly, and all of them responded positively. Eventually, I started to get close with a Muslim man in my office. As we got closer, I felt that I was lying to him by not telling him about the fact that I was in a relationship with a girl. One day, I took him on a walk. I started to cry. In fact, I started to sob. I thought that there was a chance he wouldn’t want to be friends with me anymore. After I told him, he hugged me and told me that he would always be my friend and that nothing would change. Less than a year later, a Chinese girl in the office walked up to me and told me that she knew I had a girlfriend. And that she was happy for me, and that anyone who wasn’t happy for me wasn’t really my friend. That made my eyes watery, because I had hid that fact about me from her for so long, and it ended up not mattering at all. If I could go back and do it all over, I’d have more courage. 

However, there is no reason to jeopardize your future by pissing off someone you don’t know very well yet. Let them know who you are as a person, and that you’re kind, hard-working, reliable, and not scary or gross. Whether we like it or not, first impressions count, and snap judgments are made about you from what people initially know about you. It can either be “Oh, that new girl is a lesbian” or it can be “Oh yeah, I heard Valerie is queer. No biggie." You’re the same person they’ve known and worked with for a while now, there’s just an aspect of their personality that you didn’t expect. Ease them into it. It’s hard not to stand up for what you believe in and to hide a major part of your life, but it’s also hard to bite your tongue when your boss gives you an assignment that you absolutely despise. A lot of things in life are hard. Many people who don’t fully understand the situation will give you poor advice like “just tell them you’re into chicks and if they don’t like it then fuck 'em!” No. Don’t listen to those people. Well, if you don’t value your career that much, then you can listen to those people. But weigh your options. Play it safe until you feel like your group really knows you do good work and that you’re a good person. 

I will come out to many more of my coworkers soon, when the time is right. I’m not going to force it, but I’m not going to hide it, either. 

-Dr. Valerie Green

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Bring Your Child To Work Day

As a child, I remember being so excited on the rare occasion when my dad had to swing by his office after picking me up from school. He taught me how to answer the phone and I'd sit at his desk while he worked, and field phone calls from important customers like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Between my positive memories and my passion for educating the next generation of engineers and scientists, you'd think that Bring Your Child to Work Day would be my jam. But, as an adult, bring your child to work day is officially my least favorite day of the year. 

My abhorrence for this holiday began a few years ago, when my engineering firm decided to start inviting children to work. One of the secretaries tried to plan a loose schedule, which involved having kids "observe engineers at work". And since we were still expected to meet deadlines and produce works, this basically means that the children (ages 2-17) were expected to sit in somebody's cube and watch us think, and type, and draw, discuss complex technical problems, and do math- which is basically torture for a kid. As a result, the cube halls were filled with children who were just aimlessly running and screaming. 

It was complete anarchy, with no adults even trying to take direct responsibility. What was most shocking to me is that the majority of parents somehow took zero responsibility for their children the moment they dropped them off at the secretary's desk. I remember one particularly vocal five year old running past his dad's cube with a bouncy ball multiple times before he face planted into a metal filing cabinet (luckily he wasn't injured), and his father just kept working without even acknowledging his child was there. At that point, I escorted the kid back to the secretary and explained to both of them that running recklessly about was not something we do in an office. I never thought of my parents as particularly strict, but I cannot imagine running wild like that for more than five seconds before I was disciplined... especially in public.

My natural instinct was to want to bring order to the chaos, to kick in and pull out one of my classes or something to entertain them. But in a building filled with people avoiding responsibility, I didn't want to enforce stereotypes by being the woman who was taking care of children while the men worked. Thus, a day with so much potential became a day where the only people more miserable than the employees were the children. This version of bring your child to work day became the bane of my existence, and I come to find myself hoping that my new company doesn't have one so I don't have to relive that nightmare.

So here are times you should NOT bring your child to work:

1. If you work in an industrial setting where your child may not leave in the same condition in which he or she arrived. 
2. If you would want to stab your eyes out with a pencil if you were forced to watch you work for a day without doing anything- and your company doesn't have activities planned. (This is most engineering jobs, let's be honest)
3. If you are unwilling to recognize that your child exists in public.
4. If you have a big project coming due, and can't afford to be distracted at work. 

That said, I am still a proponent of companies trying to participate in organized educational events... I just don't think a chaotic day of nonsense counts as an educational event.

Does your company pull off a more successful bring your child to work day? What type of activities do they do?



Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Performance Reviews

Ruby and I both have been through quite a few rounds of performance reviews now. Each of us earns high ratings, and our bosses spend the majority of time praising the extra time we put in, the quality of our work, etc. But the one thing we have yet to leave a performance review with, is real feedback as to how we can improve ourselves.

In college, when you earn a grade on a math exam - the professor (or more likely his or her underpaid TA) marks the questions you missed in a red pen. You review your mistakes, and you learn how to correct them next time. If you still don't understand it, you can even ask the professor (or TA) for additional explanations and help. Without getting the results back, the test would be more or less worthless to your personal education. It is a system designed to build up the knowledge base and performance of any student who wants to improve, even though the professor's career isn't really founded on your individual performance (ie, if one student fails for whatever reason, it's not like that is going to have any impact on his or her life).

Fast forward to the real world, where my company directly profits from my increased performance. There is a dedicated process at almost every company to take out the hypothetical red pen and mark up the last year's exam results. And being the perfectionist that I am, I get genuinely excited that the weak points I may have overlooked will be highlighted so that I can improve myself in the next year. But for whatever reason, they end up being a dog and pony show instead of a real review.

The first year, I get that a boss may not have had enough time to really judge my performance but may still feel uncomfortable about giving me a perfect score. Honestly, in the first review at a company, I expect to get something along the lines of "just keep learning, and you'll be great" unless I'm doing something incredibly wrong. But after that first review, I go in knowing things I feel I need to improve (nobody's perfect), and I expect my boss to have seen at least these items, if not others. So when I get another round of "just keep doing what your doing" feedback, I get frustrated.

What's even worse is when you get "just keep what you are doing" feedback combined with anything less than a completely perfect rating. Both Ruby and I have been rated on scales whose top scores are something along the lines of "exceeds expectations" and have always gotten at least one "grade" in our review that is just "meets" instead of "exceeds".  The first time I came across this, I thought this meant that this was where I could take action to improve. But when I asked for feedback as to how I could improve, I was told that he could only tell me how to meet their expectations and that he would just know if I had exceeded but couldn't tell me how. The only feedback that I got that year (after pressing hard) was that I could be "more accurate", because I was averaging one typo per every couple of pages of documentation when it went to my peer reviewer. In my opinion that was a load of BS, because the typos were not related to technical quality- and they weren't even part of the final product. Compared to the list of things I felt I needed to improve, I felt as if this just showed how little my boss knew about what I was doing.

So supervisors, if you are listening, some subordinates really do want actual feedback from you. And I'm not talking about you-never-show-up-to-work-maybe-we-should-have-fired-you-months-ago feedback. I'm talking about honest feedback to improve each and every employee regardless of how independent she is or how high of a performer she already is.

And engineers, if you get actual feedback at a performance review, don't take to take it offense. Getting honest feedback is the beginning of improving yourself professionally, and it shows that your boss values you as an employee and as an individual with a strong future.


Vanessa and Ruby

Monday, March 30, 2015

How Not To Draw A Diagram

Oftentimes I find myself gravitating towards a whiteboard or scrap pieces of paper during meetings to try to describe ideas I can't quite put into words. I may draw like a second grader (as you can tell from this blog), but the act of drawing helps me describe the problem. And hopefully, the act of seeing me create the concept on a whiteboard one line at a time helps others see the solution.

But, this one time I got so tied up in creating a flow chart for my idea that I didn't realize I'd actually drawn a huge dick on the whiteboard in the middle of a meeting with a bunch of middle aged dudes.

The moment I saw what I created as anything more than a flow chart, I started to frantically erase. I was totally mortified, but if they hadn't noticed I didn't want them to notice now. I realized that my frantic run to the eraser was drawing more attention to the drawing of doom, so I tried to pass it off by drawing something else while still verbally explaining the original technical concept. But I had no reason to draw anything else... so I ended up just drawing a random series of lines and numbers.

It was the actual worst. Although thankfully none of them men called me out on this awkward mistake (which allows a small piece of me to pretend that they didn't notice), I do not recommend drawing a phallic structure during a meeting... ever.

So, like any good engineer I've learned from the negative results and devised a plan to avoid this in the future. I've decided to start using lines and angles in flow charts, instead of using curves and circles. It takes an extra fraction of a second, but will hopefully same me from some awkward erasing aerobics in the future.



Monday, February 23, 2015

Age != Experience

(Or Age Does Not Equal Experience, for those of you who aren't familiar with regex notation)

Ever since I was a child, I always felt like I was underestimated because of my age. I was lucky enough to have parents who treated me as an adult and took my ideas and opinions seriously even before I had graduated from Velcro sneakers or learned to correctly pronounce the word "vanilla". And yet, I quickly began to realize that other adults would completely discredit whatever children said based on the fact that we were, in fact, just children. I looked forward to the day I was 18 and  people would magically begin to listen to what I had to say without following it up with a "Did you hear what Vanessa said? That's so cute." 

My first engineering job was actually in high school, because I found another person who had faith in my work even though I had barely just gotten my driver's license. I had my own project, my own goals, and my own equipment, without the coffee-getting and copy-making that is normally associated with a high school job. My boss taught me how to dress, speak, and act like a professional instead of some ditsy teenage girl, and as people heard what I had to say, I noticed they slowly began to listen. The more people saw the work I produced, the more they ignored the fact that I had to go back to high school on Monday morning. To be honest, in the years I spent there I did more real "engineering" than I did subsequently.

I think this is what other people saw when I walked in the room
My 18th birthday came and went, and noticed that the bar for being taken seriously had moved up a few years. As I stacked on more accolades and years of experience, I got used to the fact that people would always either be surprised about my age (if they had seen my resume first), or not believe my experience (if they had seen me first). Eventually, I learned these two opposing perceptions of me would come to equilibrium because I worked hard and I earned people's respect when they saw what I could accomplish. But after almost a decade of having to constantly prove myself to doubters, I always thought there would be a time where I don't have to spend my first six months proving that I have some baseline competence. 

Fast forward to today, where I am well into my twenties, and in a required training class with other new hire engineers. I'm almost a decade younger than the next youngest person in the class, but have the second most years of experience in the industry.

One of the oldest men made a blanket statement of, "Yeah there are a lot of people here with very little experience before they got hired, like Vanessa." I turned to look at him, questioningly. "Well, this is your first job out of college, right?" he continued. 

"No..." I responded, a bit annoyed since we had introduced ourselves with our previous experience earlier that day. He either had the world's worst memory or was choosing to disregard what I had said. 

"Well, I mean you just came from that other thing, but it was just a co-op position."

"No, it was a job."

"Oh, so like an internship?" he smiled, as if he had caught me in a lie. 

"No, it was a job."

"But this is like, your first engineering job, right?"

"Nope, and it's not my second engineering job either..." My computer pinged, and one of the other guys in my class had just walked into the room and had IM-ed me 'Vanessa, be nice'. He's right, don't let this guy make you act unprofessionally, I told myself. 

"But you didn't do actual engineering before now, right?"

"I have been actually engineering things for almost ten years now," I said, being careful to control my tone so I didn't show my annoyance. 

"Well, okay then," he chuckled, turning away, and starting into some new conversation. 

While this particular experience is clear in my mind due to its recent occurrence, it's anything but rare and yet I'm still never sure how I should respond. Should I keep copies of my resume stamped by a notary? Should I have them Google me so they know I'm not full of shit? Should I just laugh it off and let them think that I'm an incompetent young fool who was accidentally given a job she didn't earn?

I know that my other young female overachiever friends often report similar experiences to me. And, while I presume some young male overachievers experience the same thing, I've never witnessed it, and my friends have not admitted such experiences to me. As a result, I'm unsure how much of this has to do with being young, and how much has to do with being a young woman. But either way, I don't see a clear way to tackle this systemic issue more than one experience at a time, except by rising above it myself. 

In a lot of ways, it's these experiences that drive me to be the exception to the rule, like my first boss. To listen to what people have to say regardless of whether they are 5 or 30 or 63 or 92. To judge people based on their potential and their accomplishments. To take everyone seriously from the moment you meet them, and base your opinions on facts and not assumptions. If we can each try to do these things ourselves, then perhaps it will start to dwindle as a problem overall.



Monday, January 5, 2015

Why Being A Female Engineer is Awesome: Part 2

It may be 2015, but a lot of people still don't think that women should be (or are) engineers. But in reality, there are many female engineers, and it's a pretty fantastic career to have. So, I'm working on slowly compiling a list of (somewhat silly) reasons why it's actually awesome to be a female engineer. Check out Part 1 of this series if you haven't seen it yet!

Why Being a Female Engineer is Awesome: Part 2

Because An Engineer Is Basically A Superhero(ine)

No matter what discipline, engineering at its core is the study of problem solving. Just like the Xavier Institute taught X-Men how to control their powers, engineering school teaches you how to harness your math and science and reasoning skills to create efficient solutions to problems that plague people every day.

When you look around yourself, you may be surprised at how many engineers helped create the things around you. Obviously the computer, tablet, phone, or other device you are using to read this was created with the help of hundreds of engineers. We all know what computers do, and how they've changed our world.

So let's look at a simpler case, the light bulb. Sure, it was "invented" a long time ago, but there are still hundreds of engineers working on developing new light bulbs that can do everything from save people money to mimic sunlight in order to make people happier, more productive, and less tired than the light bulbs we had just a few years ago. As a result, a small change like a better light bulb could mean that a struggling single mother has a few more dollars to help make ends meet at the end of the year, or that people are less grumpy during the work day and more content with their lives. And, engineers helped make that happen.

And even more basic, thousands of engineers devote their careers to creating electricity so that you can turn on the light bulbs, computers, phones, and tablets you take for granted. And so that doctors can power tools (also created with the help of engineers) that can see past human flesh and find the cause of ailments without drawing a drop of blood. Try and tell me that isn't just as great as when Superman flew so fast he reversed time.

But even things without a plug are made with the help of engineers. There are the sneakers you wear, whose materials are engineered for durability, performance, and comfort. And the windows you gaze out longingly may be engineered to shatter in a way to prevent you from getting injured, or to not let off poisonous fumes in case of a fire. The water you drink has been purified by a system designed and maintained by engineers (unless you happen to live in a remote area with super clean springs where you slake your thirst each morning with Bambi and Thumper).  Even the makeup you wear has a team of engineers and scientists working to perfect it.

I could go on and on, but pretty much everywhere I look- I see something that has been carefully designed by an engineer. And each one of these things makes my life just a little bit nicer. Some women have told me that they didn't choose engineering because they wanted to be in a profession where they could help people, but I truly believe that engineers help people (although often total strangers) every day.

But this just describes why it is awesome to be an engineer, not a female engineer. If I'm being completely honest (which you know I love to be), I believe that a lot of society is built around the idea that women are dependent creatures who need others to solve their problems. In the movies, you always see superheros rescue beautiful women from their problems. And while on the worst of days the idea of having someone fly in and punch all your demons in the face can be quite tempting, the idea of getting to swoop in and save the day yourself is tempting even on the best of days.

As a female engineer, I've haven't only learned how to solve difficult math problems under pressure. Through my experience creating new systems I've discovered that I can at least try to fix any problem that comes my way from broken pipes, to car trouble, to computer problems. I know it sounds trivial to many other women in our profession (of course you can fix anything you set your mind to). But from what I can see, even in our "modern society" the number of women who feel they can't fix the most minor household issue is almost equivalent to the number of men who "can't cook". You'd be surprised how many times my girlfriends have asked for help hanging pictures, fixing squeaky doors, or doing other things that I or the men they ask for help are not particularly qualified to do.

While there is no harm interacting with other people and working as a team, finding your own independence is essential. Between learning that you are capable of fixing complex problems, and getting the bi-weekly paycheck to cover all of your living expenses- engineering is a career that provides complete independence. As an engineer you can not just be a superhero, you can be your own superhero. And from that perspective, it is a pretty awesome job to have.



PS. Why do YOU love being an engineer?

Monday, December 29, 2014

Cars are to Gasoline as Engineers are to... Coffee?

Scene: It was a typical day at the office, 11 am. Sunlight peeked over my grey cube walls, bringing a light touch to the typical harsh florescent environment. I was mid-project and I was in the zone. My fingers were flying across the keyboard documenting new system requirements. I reached for my mug, and took a sip... only to realize that it was empty. It was my third cup of the day. That couldn't be good for me.

I didn't feel like I was addicted to caffeine because I could go days without it, but in the office I would always find myself at the coffee pot as I was deep in thought. I wasn't sure how this had happened, in high school I thought that coffee tasted like mud.

But as a freshman engineering student at a hard-core school, I was often still at school studying when the clock struck four in the morning. The tiredness was overwhelming, and the rest of my study group was chugging free coffee like it was already tomorrow. Between the sweet seduction of caffeine to make up for my lack of sleep and the irresistible nature of free things to a college student, I eventually caved. I began to drink coffee just to survive all nighters, when I was too tired to even process how much I hated the taste.

After I had gotten over the mud-like taste I started to drink it when I had to stay up late, when I needed to focus, when I got up earlier than I wanted to, and even when I was just meeting friends at coffee shops. Coffee became embedded into my every day activities, and like most young engineers I've met was intertwined with my social life. Sound familiar? It's a common story for a lot of us.

And that's how I ended up here as a professional, on my third cup of coffee by 11 am. While I don't  think I was ever physically addicted to caffeine, I also knew that the volume of coffee I was drinking couldn't be healthy. And part of me just didn't like the fact that something I had despised not so long ago had become such an expected part of my day to day life.

So, like any good engineer, I did some research about caffeine detoxes. There is surprisingly little information about this considering the prevalence of caffeine consumption in our society. Apparently while "long-term caffeine use can lead to mild physical dependence", "true compulsive use of caffeine has not been documented" (Malenka RC, Nestler EJ, Hyman SE (2009). "Chapter 15: Reinforcement and Addictive Disorders". In Sydor A, Brown RY. Molecular Neuropharmacology: A Foundation for Clinical Neuroscience (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill Medical. p. 375. ISBN 9780071481274). I find that hard to believe considering the number of people in my office gulping coffee like air. Maybe they just need to do a study in an engineering firm.

I'm not claiming here that my propensity towards drinking coffee is anywhere as bad as any "real addiction" that people suffer, but I do find it curious that even in an environment where I am regularly drug tested that it is socially acceptable for me to be at all dependent on any particular substance (other than water and air). At the same time, it makes me wonder why it's socially acceptable for us to have jobs that can be so intense that they are difficult to perform without a caffeine kick to push us through.

Engineers often work long hours with a high amount of mental (and sometimes physical) energy and focus required the entire time. College teaches us that Awakeness = Hours of Sleep + Grams of Caffeine, and real life teaches us that power naps on the job are socially unacceptable. So whether it is a placebo effect or a legitimate solution, when I've worked on the same calculation for four hours without a break and my mind feels like it's turning to mush I reach for coffee. Part of me worries that if I don't have that extra kick of focus, that my work will suffer. The other part of me worries that I (and the others around me) are constantly performing these herculean mental tasks, and that eventually there won't be enough coffee in the world to push us though. And somehow, we (and our respective managements) often don't recognize the increased coffee consumption as a red flag of employees who are overworked, but it's often just an accepted part of our day to day life.

Pumpkin spice lattes could push anyone over the edge
I'm not saying that any one calculation, or design, or problem itself is impossible. I'm saying that the cumulative effect can be exhausting. This is especially true if you have a sales department who promises that you'll walk to the moon by next week, or if you have other external deadlines piling up around you. And, I'm saying that I think that other forms of regaining focus (like taking a walk, or talking to your cube neighbors about nonsense from time to time) can look like laziness to managers (especially those without engineering experience who don't understand why you can't spend every minute making progress on deadlines).

What do you think? Are you and/or your coworkers hooked on coffee? Is that a problem?