On Being a Female in Engineering

So I was asked by a graduated high school senior what it’s like to be a female in such a male-dominated area. She mentioned that a lot of the reactions she gets when she tells someone she’s going to school to become an engineer are those of shock, paired with some skeptic feedback. She asked me how/if that changes, and what advice I had to give her as she starts her freshman year in the fall.

To start this off and put it in a little bit of perspective, I have some stats to share with you. For my specific university, in our college of engineering:

  • 16% of overall graduates are female
  • 11.6% of Mechanical and Aerospace graduates are female
  • Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering is made up of 1,582 students as a department, including graduate students

Put it all together and that means that there are 184 female students in the Mechanical and Aerospace program at OSU. Outside of OSU, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Aerospace workforce is made up of 13.3% females.

Those are some pretty some small numbers if you ask me.

Now, I’ve always had a driven, go-getter sort of attitude, and I’ve always loved math and science, so I’ve pretty much always been told I was going to be an engineer. Then again, that probably has something to do with the fact that Mom was an engineer as well, so I always had a strong, STEM female role model.

That being said, I was always met by someone who would ask me what I’m going to school for, then raise an eyebrow upon receiving my answer. I wish I could tell you that it gets better, but it doesn’t. It continues. It’s some strange combination of sexism and societal expectations that somehow is perpetually in place. It. Sucks.

Now, don’t lose heart. Because it may be small numbers, and we may be surrounded, but that doesn’t mean they’ve got us beat.

What I have discovered is that you can’t expect the guys around you to do you any favors. At first, they sort of try to coddle you. Then, they try to take charge. Don’t let them. Be their friends, of course, or else you won’t have any. Join their study groups, be in their clubs and on their teams. Join Student Council, become president of a professional organization. Outscore them on an exam. Don’t let them perpetuate the stigma that women can’t be successful in the field, because dammit we kick ass once we get there.

Everyone in engineering school is amazing, but so are you. It doesn’t matter that what differences you may have. Sometimes you just need to make them know that.

I make it sound like I’m bitter and angry, but honestly I love my guys. My study group are my friends, and my family. There are 10 of us, and two of us are girls. They’re my lunch crew, my football buddies, the people I go get ice cream with at 9:00 at night. They’re my people and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

It’s kind of funny. Sometimes we’ll be studying, and I’ll be in my head, and I’ll be having a meltdown and telling myself that I can’t do it, that engineering isn’t the right place for me. But then they talk me down from my mental ledge, they remind me that I’m the one keeping study sessions on track, I’m the one who crushed that Thermo exam last week, I’m the one who is now an Ambassador for the college, who has a fancy scholarship. They’re my reality check, if that makes sense.

As a female in engineering, you’ll be surrounded by boys, there’s no doubt about that. But it’s going to be what you make of it. Put yourself out there, make yourself known. Introduce yourself to the people around you and to the professor. You’ll find the way that you’re meant to shine. I promise.

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