Wednesday, September 29, 2010

How to Be a Successful Woman in a Technical Field

I’m on the workforce development committee for one of the professional organizations I’m involved with. Recently there was a conversation about how the girls that were being recruited for a technical program (with the expectation they would take technical jobs in a field that’s predominantly male) were not the right girls. My knee-jerk reaction was to take offence to this comment, but when I thought about my early career for just a second, I realized the speaker was absolutely right. It’s not for everyone.

Back (20+ years ago – yikes!) when I was starting out as an Electrical Engineer, there were pictures, cartoons, and calendars in the labs that you’d get fired for today, the older engineers called you “honey”, and the VP in my organization was well known for feeling up all the “girls” he could get near. We all learned real quick to stay an arms length away.

The focus on sexual harassment has changed the most overt issues, but it still takes a special kind of young woman to be successful in a predominately male field.

I think my initial visceral reaction came from a sense of justice – it shouldn’t be this way, but you know what, it is.

Until we reach that state of utopia, what’s a young woman to do? My feminist friends may take issue with some of this, and I’d love to have a discussion about it, but here are my thoughts:
1) Have a sense of humor - Running to HR every time you overhear a raunchy joke is going to do nothing for your career, or your relationships at work. Am I saying women should put up with harassment – NO, absolutely not, but not everything is harassment.
2) Have a thick skin – Men (and women) can be rough. It’s usually not personal. Men don’t usually have an issue with this, but young women sometimes take things too personally.
3) Stand up for yourself – If you’re going to be intimidated by a big gruff crusty old engineer who yells and swears, it might not be the right field for you. If you are going to back down to the young male engineer who’s threatened because you’re smarter and work harder than him, then maybe it’s not the right field for you. Believe me, it’s not always easy to do, but it’s the only way to earn respect.
4) Work is work – Men get this. Watch them. They can argue like crazy about business issues, then go out, and have a beer together.

Remember, one of the big keys to professional success are the relationships you form, and if you’re working in a male dominated field like engineering you MUST be able to form healthy, professional relationships with those in your field – men. I’m curious to hear what other women think of this.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Making ethical decision making easy

When I was joining my firm, I spent a lot to time talking with my future partners about a wide variety of topics – compensation, benefits, division of responsibilities, growth strategies, future personal plans, and values – many, many conversations about values. I thought this was odd at first, not that we talked about it, only how much we talked about it. I don’t know why I thought it was odd, considering I had left my prior position in part because of a mismatch of values.

Five years later, I am still in awe of what a strong foundation we’ve been able to build because we share the same values.

I was listening to a speaker recently talk about when leaders have to make tough decisions, and how sometimes they make those decisions consistent with their values and sometimes they do not. He made me feel so grateful about my situation. When we’ve had to make those “tough” decisions, it’s actually been fairly easy. When one of us wavers, and it happens, the other is always there to be steady. I can’t think of a single instance where we’ve made a decision that went against our values.

In fact, we were participating in an RFP and the purchasing agent suggested we do something we weren’t comfortable with. It was not so egregious as to be called unethical, but it was not consistent with the way we wanted to run our business. He subtlety suggested we’d get more business if we did it. This was about a year ago and getting more business was a HUGE challenge! We talked a lot about that decision and in the end, we decided to stick to our guns, and if we lost the business, so be it. Turns out that was one of the best tough decisions we ever made. We did not lose any business, and MUCH more importantly did not lose any self-respect. Shared values are critical to making ethical decision making easier.