Monday, August 19, 2013

How To Be An Engineer, Not A Secretary

I took minutes for a few meetings this past week and sent them out to everyone in attendance. Each time, my boss hit the reply all button and commented with a simple and quick, "Great minutes, Ruby. Thanks for doing this." I am fully aware that I respond well to praise and validation, so this little comment from my boss is a nice touch. However, the number of thanks I've got for taking meeting minutes is disproportionate to the number of thanks I've gotten for doing other things, such as my daily engineering tasks. This makes me wonder, I am perceived as a better secretary than an engineer?

I know I'm good at secretarial things, like taking epic meeting minutes. As an engineer, I find it easy to accomplish and integrate them into my daily tasks. After all, I'm the technology-savvy one of the group. I can essentially type at the pace that people talk and capture all the important pieces of conversation while simultaneous pulling up schematics and study designs and contributing to the meeting. I can also manage to reorganize my notes so that it's more cohesive and understandable than the actual meetings.

I choose to complete some secretarial tasks to improve my own job performance as an engineer. But just because I'm good at secretarial tasks shouldn't mean that I should be relegated to a secretarial role in my boss' or coworkers' minds.

In fact, I find that more people (and my boss in particular) are aware of and impressed by my secretarial skills than my engineering skills. This is a little surprising. I know that my technical background can be impressive. After all, one of my coworkers told me I'm one of only two young employees he respects technically. I've also been given the nickname of "genius" (which is really awkward when said in hearing range of any of my other coworkers). Given my experience, accomplishments, and expertise in technical work, it's weird to get compliments on non-engineering work rather on work that takes a lot more skill and expertise.

My question here is: Why is it that I'm more recognized for being secretarial than technical?

I can imagine a number of explanations including gender role prejudices, a subconscious drive on my part to be a secretary, it's a knee-jerk reaction/compliment, or just because I'm the newest kid on the block.

Maybe the reason for my receiving praise for secretarial work can be attributed to gender role prejudices. I know there's a study which indicates that generally women in the group are relegated to "female" jobs such as being the secretary.
Women who have internships or jobs, she [Susan Sibley] explains, find they"are too often relegated to 'female' roles of note-taker, organizer or manager." ~Study by Susan Silbey at MIT 
In Susan Sibley's scenario, the female engineer is in the minority and therefore her coworkers will consider her the only option to fill the role of the (female) secretary. My problem is that this scenario isn't really applicable to my own situation. In my workplace and especially in the aforementioned recent meetings, I have been surrounded by what might be considered an abundance of women. Anything ratio of women:men which exceeds 1:1 is unusually high in the engineering industry. And most of the women I work with are intelligent and diligent scientists and engineers. However, I seem to be the only woman amongh this crowd who takes on the role of secretary.

It could be that thanking me for secretarial work is just a knee-jerk reaction on my coworkers' part. It could be that it's a habit to compliment someone for doing something outside of the scope of their everyday job in the same way it is a habit for you to always respond to, "How are you doing?" with a simple "good" or "fine." It's possible that my coworkers would give the same compliment regardless of who did the actual minute-taking. In this scenario, they aren't necessarily pointing out that I was doing secretarial work, but just that they appreciate it was done.

Perhaps, as I mentioned earlier, this whole situation has arisen because I have the unconscious mentality that I should be a secretary. I personally don't think of my note-taking and organizational abilities as my subconscious trying to make me into the obedient little secretary it always wanted me to be. That would be a seriously weird and devious move on my subconscious' part. Rather, I think of my actions as a means to obtaining the best notes possible and not being able to trust someone else to do it as well as I can. Because seriously, no one takes better notes than I do. And if getting the best notes possible is the goal, then taking them myself is the practical solution. (Mindset of a control-freak engineer, right here.)

I guess what I'm trying to say is that it's hard not being recognized for your braininess. It's hard to be recognized for your simple, mundane (though necessary work) when what you really want is to be recognized for the big things that I accomplish.

You want to be called first and foremost an engineer because you put in your time at school, you went through the pain of all-nighters, you learned those complex formulas and processes, and you earned your engineering degree. But you're not done yet. You have some more time, pain, and learning to go before you'll be universally recognized as a engineer.

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