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.