I was recently asked to be the keynote speaker at a GCSE prize-giving at the girls’ Grammar School where I’m a parent governor. The topic was “a career in a male dominated profession” and it was a mainly female audience.
Below are three brief excerpts from the speech which may be of interest particularly to women just starting out in their career.
1. Seek a mentor and be a mentor
In my working life I have never had a female mentor or “role model”. During my whole career there have simply never been any women engineers even just a few years ahead of me that could have mentored me. Importantly, I should add that I have never particularly felt I needed a mentor, nor even really thought about it until the last few years when I have had the pleasure and privilege of being a mentor to some of my younger female colleagues. I now think back to various times in my career where I would have really valued having another more senior female colleague to talk to.
Our profession is very much still a man’s world, especially the more senior you become, and I do think it’s important to support other women where that opportunity exists.
2. Have the courage to speak up
A male colleague recently said to me that “there is no longer any sexism in engineering”.
We will all have different opinions on that, but I’m pretty sure we’re not quite at that place yet in the world, though admittedly it’s a very different workplace now to what it was 25 years ago. However, there are still people out there that think women really are not suited to traditional male careers. Sometimes there’s a belief that women can’t work well with men (think of the recent storm over Sir Tim Hunt’s comments….) and sometimes an assumption that all women are less capable than men of, for example, thinking mathematically or of having good spatial awareness.
Sometimes you have to find the courage to speak up. If something is offensive, sexist or derogatory to you, then speak out in a polite, professional way. It is quite possible that it was meant “as a joke”. Maybe it is funny but maybe it’s insulting. That’s your call, but you do have every right to speak out.
Personally I have found that having a sense of humour nearly always diffuses these sorts of situations, but there have been times in my earlier career where I wish I’d had the courage to speak up.
3. Be yourself
I cannot stress this enough! I spent many years of my early career on constructions sites, and was usually the only woman around. I am not someone who shouts or swears and I made a conscious decision not to become so, just because I was working on sites where there was generally a lot of such behaviour.
If you are someone who does behave like this naturally then go ahead and join in – that’s fine – but if you’re not then stick to your guns and be yourself. Do not try and become the sort of person you think others will take more notice of. There are other ways of getting noticed and indeed of progressing in your career that do not involve shouting or thumping a meeting table.
Be confident and competent but always be yourself.