Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Importance of A Diverse HR Department/Management

Over the years I've had the privilege of experiencing a variety of different company cultures- as a contractor and as a direct employee. The company cultures have run the gambit from super liberal and inclusive environments where everyone hung out with each other after work, to very conservative workplaces where there were regulations on everything down to a strict ban on headphones. And as you would expect with that range of workplaces, I fit in in some places and felt like a total outsider in others.
Sometimes it's hard to tell if a new company sees different as okay
As much as we as engineers like to ignore the role the HR department and management play in our every day environment, I've noticed that the diversity of the HR department and supervision is a fairly good indicator of company culture. Especially in places where you don't fit in (whether it is your gender, race, religion, politics, etc.), it is imperative to have a company culture where people understand what it is to be different.

Let's say, for example, you are a young female non-christian liberal working in company dominated by white male republican men. You try not to advertise your differences, and just blend in. But one day, you feel uncomfortable with something about how you are being treated because you are different. Maybe as a woman that's receiving explicit texts from male coworkers, or being treated like a secretary. Or as a non-christian maybe people are trying to convert you in the middle of the work day. Or if you are a different race maybe somebody made a racial slur. I've seen all of these happen in the work place...  But would you feel comfortable reporting these issues somebody in HR who is also a white christian republican man? Would you feel like he'd understand your point, or would he relate better to the people harassing you?

Maybe he would understand and take appropriate action to help you. This is by no means saying that all (or even most) white christian men wouldn't try to help. But the point is, if there is any hesitation that he might not - victims are likely to let problems go unreported rather than risk being blacklisted from the industry.

At least that's how I've felt when I'm in precarious positions. And with many of my stories (being discounted for my age, having my success attributed to my feminine wiles, coworkers placing bets on who will date the new female engineer, coworkers "flirting" by being assholes, being set up with clients' children and so many more gems) my friends have asked "why didn't you report this?!"

The answer is that like all well crafted "good ol' boys" clubs, everyone I could have complained to appeared to be a member of that club. Even the guys in HR at one company would spend afternoons discussing how they were going to fuck their wives that night loudly enough that we could hear every word even with the door closed. If they are part of the problem, how on earth am I expected to ask them for help? I want to be an engineer, not spend my life fighting legal battles or defending myself for every little thing. (I totally left that place by the way, so don't feel too bad for me now.) I imagine the same story is true for many other people; not all of whom have the ability to move on as easily as I did.

Which brings me back to my main point- an inclusive environment is constructed from the top down by diverse leadership and a diverse HR department. And an inclusive environment is how a company retains talented people- not just people who fit into a mold. So when you are joining a new place, don't just stare past the HR rep. Take a good look around, and try to figure out if this is a company culture where you feel you can thrive.



Monday, November 9, 2015

Some Days You Spill Coffee On Yourself

Some days you arrive at work after a long commute, and you step out of your car. You smile and exchange pleasantries with a coworker who has also just arrived. You pick up the iced coffee you brewed specially for that day, with some pumpkin spice for the first time this year so you can fully enjoy the depth of fall. The sun is shining, and you know today is going to be a great day. You reach for your bag. You spill your coffee all over yourself.

Sometimes you are lucky and it blends into the dark pants you are wearing, and sometimes it spills all over your shirt you have to try to hide it with a sweater during unseasonably warm weather. Every interaction that day is colored by the stain dried into your clothes. You wonder if others notice the stain, if they can smell stench of pumpkin spice that follows you like a ghost. You try to think about your project, but instead you wonder if you should just explain yourself instead of letting them jump to some wild conclusions about why you would be so disheveled today. And just like that, the split second when you didn't quite grab that rubber maid bottle has managed to ruin your entire day.

Or perhaps you don't have days like this, but I certainly do. It's not always spilling coffee, but something just as small can start a chain reaction that throws me into a funk for the rest of the day. Like the office bully saying exactly the wrong thing to me, or figuring out that I missed something obscure last month that is now painfully obvious, or being told by my management to back off of a project I feel is important, or feeling like I've wasted my morning without getting anything checked off of my to-do list. In that moment I feel helpless, because I know how that this is exactly the type of thing that will throw my entire day off and I might as well just go home.

But every morning one of those things doesn't happen isn't a cause for celebration. I don't see each day I don't spill coffee on myself as a win- part of what will allow me to focus enough to get some real work done today. That's because when they don't go wrong, each of those puzzle pieces is just a part of my morning routine that I take for granted. And in a way, sometimes that piece of the day not working perfectly just highlights that the morning is made up of lots of little things that went right: I got up on time; I drove safely; there was no unexpected traffic on my way here; and my coworkers are smiling and friendly. As an engineer, I recognize that making a morning out of hundreds of cases which could all end in a catastrophic failure and none of which guarantee success is a terrible design unless I hope to fail.

I already know that I am not perfect, just like everyone else. I know other people spill coffee on themselves sometimes too, but it's hard to face my own imperfection because I expect more from myself even with the little things. But if only one little thing goes wrong out of the countless of things I do during the morning, maybe I'm actually doing pretty well.

Some days I spill coffee on myself, and it reminds me that a lot of other things went right. Today can still be a great day.



Monday, September 14, 2015

What does an engineer look like?

There has been a lot of buzz on the internet regarding the female engineer at OneLogin that has started the revolutionary #ILookLikeAnEngineer campaign. Firstly, I want to applaud this movement because I think it is very important to acknowledge that there is not a direct relationship between what you look like and your engineering prowess. And like many people representing minorities in their field, I know what it is like to be discounted by my appearance, to be assumed to be an administrative assistant etc. And while I strongly hope that movements like this will help chip away at deep set stereotypes about what we expect from engineers, I think that the discussion is missing how people on the front lines are dealing with these expectations on a daily basis.

For example, I grew up loving the color pink. In high school, almost every outfit I owned had pink in it. I wore cute heels and ribbons in my hair. But if I was to rock out that much pink at work, let alone with ribbons and 3 inch heels- this would be considered unprofessional. The heels would be considered unsafe by many of my coworkers (and by myself), and the other style choices would make me look "less serious". Technically, it would all be within the confines of the dress code (close toed shoes, etc.). But often times, the dress code is vague because it is written for men's clothing and doesn't specifically include all of the options women have (who would have thought that flats are not considered close toed because they are "open footed").

So over the years that I've worked as an engineer in an industrial setting, I've learned to dress at work "like an engineer". Practical, not particularly fashion forward, minimal pink, and fairly conservative. And I realize that this sounds totally un-feminist, and it could be argued that by dressing as a Plain Jane at work I'm feeding into the stereotype. But I don't have the time to wait for the people around me to awaken to the social Renaissance when I just want to be seen first as an engineer today in this meeting with these new people.

I remember a moment at a safety fair for my company when I stopped by the booth for safety glasses right after I had made some sort of presentation (and therefore was wearing kitten heels and a somewhat cute but still practical outfit). I was wearing glasses at the time, so it was clear that I could probably use some prescription safety glasses.

When I asked for information, the man at the booth looked me up and down and said, "We don't provide glasses unless you actually go into the plant."

I responded, "I do go into the plant."

"Only for people whose job takes them into the plant, if you are going on your own accord you should be responsible for finding your own equipment."

"My job requires that I go into the plant..."

"Wait, what do you do?"

"I'm an engineer."

"Oh... Then we have several options..." he continued his rehearsed talk while I stood wondering why I had just been grilled about my profession at an internal fair from the same guy who was trying to stop other people as they passed by his booth.

But moments like that are fleeting, and not nearly as damaging as when a women in a stylish new dress walks out of a meeting.  When I see how both men and women react to her (the jokes made when they leave the room, the fact that people see them as a date and not an engineer), it just makes me want to blend in and be one of the guys. When you have to prove yourself to new people on a regular basis, why would you put more hurdles in your way?

That said, I do not believe that women should be discounted based on what they choose to wear. But, I think it is impractical to view the world as a place where we are not discounted based on superficial things. So I believe that whatever you decide to wear should have some thought in the reactions you want to have. In an industrial setting like mine, that means something completely different than an office setting, or a lab setting. As a result, my presentation of myself at work has completely changed as I change industries.

What do you think? Is there a unspoken limit on what you should wear to work in order to present yourself as woman in engineering?



Monday, August 31, 2015

How to Survive Night Shifts

While this does not apply for all engineering positions, some industrial engineering jobs require engineers to be on call 24/7. That means that sometimes you may get assigned to work night shifts to make sure everything continues to run smoothly. Honestly, after surviving getting a bachelors in engineering, pulling a night shift here or there should be smooth sailing. But once you get out of the swing of the college life, sometimes getting the momentum to totally switch your routine can be hard.

So here are a five tips on how to survive working night shifts:

1. Spend the first 10 minutes or so  coming up with a list of things you intend to do tonight, and try to stick to it. Unless there is emergent work, night shift can really drag. For me it's helpful to keep myself as busy and focused as possible to power through the shift.

2. Keep a supply of your preferred form of caffeine (especially for the first few nights).

Cup of coffee - Hello Darkness My Old Friend...

On a serious note: if you like energy drinks double check the alcohol content as this might get you into trouble with your work... research link on false positive breathalyzer tests from energy drinks here!

3. If you are on night shift for an extended period of time, try to define a regular schedule for yourself. Decide when "breakfast" "lunch" and "dinner" are, and try to stick to it. Without this, I tend to find myself wanting to eat entire bags of chips throughout the night instead of real meals. This practice, while delicious, is not recommended.

4. Bring some pump up music to keep you going when that 2 am feeling hits, especially if you are the only one on night shift.

5. On your way home, if you are too tired to drive don't. I've definitely napped in my car before if I felt too tired to drive. If the temperature is such that car-napping is out of the question, find a coworker to drive you home. I really couldn't stress this more- driving tired is driving impaired, and it isn't worth the risk.

Hopefully armed with these tips, you'll thrive at work no matter what the time of day. Now the only thing you have to deal with is trying to explain your schedule to your friends and family!



PS. How do you cope with working odd hours?

Monday, June 22, 2015

Grooming in The Office

This morning was like any other morning. I dropped my purse off in my cube, grabbed my coffee, and settled into my chair to start a new day. But as I was waiting for the updates on my computer to finish installing, I heard the unmistakable sound of somebody clipping his fingernails.

I'm not sure if this is just a personal pet peeve, but I don't understand how somebody who had the WHOLE WEEKEND to clip his nails in the privacy of his own home gets around to Monday morning in a cube farm and decides that this is finally the perfect time for nail clipping. And clearly there was some level of premeditation, because he brought the nail clippers with him to work. What happens if one of those nails comes flipping over the cube wall and splashes into my coffee like a small child doing a belly flop off of the high dive? 

Per Murphy's Law, this is bound to happen sometime

Unless you work in a salon, I feel like you should at least excuse yourself to the bathroom if you want to do any personal grooming. I typically go to the bathroom even if I am going to engage in much quieter grooming, like fixing my makeup after I thoughtlessly rub my eyes in exasperation that somebody is clipping his nails at work before 8 am.

I'm not sure about men's bathrooms, but I know that a few of the organizations I've been at actually have places for you to leave products like nail clippers, hair brushes, or whatever so you don't have to carry them in and out all the time. And there is nowhere to leave your stuff, you can always palm those nail clippers like a tampon and smuggle them in (yeah, that was an old school reference, bet you weren't expecting that!).

What I'm trying to say is: where there is a will there is a way. And if you are confused about what activities should be restricted to the bathroom at work or at home (not your cube), I've compiled this handy list:

  • Relieve your bladder (I hope that was obvious to everyone, but just in case)
  • Brush your hair
  • Floss your teeth
  • Clip your fingernails 
  • Apply makeup
  • Apply skin treatment creams (aka acne medication)
  • Re-applying deodorant
  • Practice Twerking
Do you have any other pet peeves of things people shouldn't be doing in their cubes?



Monday, June 15, 2015

How To Channel Creativity Through Engineering

In many ways, I fit perfectly into the mold of a stereotypical engineer. I like math, I can rock a pair of nerdy looking glasses, I like to run experiments outside of work, I have a stack of work related magazines on my coffee table, and I make awkward jokes that only my scientific brethren understand.

But stereotypes are by definition oversimplified (and therefore often inaccurate) ideas of who a person is, there are also many ways in which I do not fit into the social construct of the idea of an engineer. First off, I'm a woman. But we've already discussed that in detail in this blog. Secondly, I consider myself a creative person, and I consider engineering a creative pursuit.

Most other people (engineers and non-engineers alike) seem to define engineering as a particularly un-creative field. A field where you sit in a dark cubicle and follow rules and calculate the same thing over and over. But if that were true, we'd have replaced engineers with robots or computer programs long ago.

Contrary to popular belief, we aren't machines that churn out data

In my opinion, a good engineer is much like an artist. Instead of mixing pigments for paint, we blend ideas and numbers and apply them to create something new. And no matter how small, that something new gets used, and in many ways it makes people feel. I feel happy when you get a new phone, I feel disgusted when the water filtration system doesn't work, I feel safe when I use the lock on my door, and I feel a little scared when I see something dangerous. And just like that painting I so carefully selected for my living room, over time I take these things become part of my expected environment and I begin to take for granted how awesomely they are.

Sometimes, it's hard even for engineers to see ourselves as creative people. We get lost in the documentation and the details, like a cellist who spends so long practicing a difficult measure that she forgets she is making music. But if you come up for air, you have a chance of seeing the impact that your role can make in the greater piece of artwork. Your unique solutions to a problem play into the overall innovative item at the end.

Perhaps this explains why so many of the engineers I know pursue artistic outlets outside of work, from classical instruments, to heavy metal bands, to ballroom dance, to painting. And also why some famous artists like Leonardo da Vinci were also brilliant inventors.

So next time you meet an engineer, don't assume that they are just another number cruncher. The best of engineers will truly be creating the solutions of our future.



PS. What creative things have you or somebody you know done as an engineer?

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