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  • Writer's pictureApril Blackwell

What it's really like being a woman engineer in 2020

This year marks a full decade since earning an Aerospace Engineering degree, launching my journey as a woman engineer. So, what does it feel like as a woman engineer today, in 2020?

It probably comes as no surprise that women are still the minority in most engineering fields, mine included. The real statistics? At my first job out of college, women made up 10% of my group and that percentage came from only one woman: me. There were a handful of other women scattered throughout the rest of the organization but it was probably around 10% at best. I relied solely on men to teach me how to interact with military officers, when to speak up in meetings, how to don and doff flight gear and talk on the radio, how to avoid red-out during aerobatics, how to take engineering notes during night flights, how to setup and run data, how to run a pre-flight and post-flight briefing, how to conduct myself at customer sites, how to layer up and avoid freezing while flying in uninsulated helicopters, how to decipher when someone is being unethical, and when to call BS when someone is trying to deceive or coerce you.

I applaud these men for both the concrete and tangential lessons they taught me -- for the most part it was a really positive experience. The years I spent there helped shape me into the engineer I am today and equipped me with tools to be more empathetic, strong, and confident.

The demographics in my NASA group are slightly different than that first job. My group includes eight women (out of 30 total) certified as Attitude Determination and Control Officers, a percentage of ~27%. The Flight Director group has roughly the same percentage of women, 25%. The landscape is shifting, but slowly. And as far as role models in the organization, there are no women (none, zero) in my direct chain of command.

Surprisingly, the most challenging portion of my entire career as an Aerospace Engineer thus far came before I even had a degree. For me, college and internships were the places I experienced the most sexism, which is truly unfortunate -- these are the places that meet you even before you dive into the "real world" and setup the playing field you interact with the rest of your life. Sexism slapped me in the face while learning high-speed aerodynamics. During a long afternoon study session, our study group couldn't quite make sense of one of the problems we were working through so we decided to collectively attend our professor's office hours. The four of us crowded in his office and I stepped forward to ask our questions on behalf of the group. While I was talking, the professor never looked me in the eye, which I hardly noticed since engineers generally aren't known for their social skills. However, I distinctly remember that instead of directing his answer at me, the questions-asker, our professor looked at the rest of my study group -- they were all men. It was like I was invisible, someone to be avoided, someone not even worthy of basic conversation etiquette. And, at that point in my life I just didn't have the guts to stand up to someone like that.

The next summer I was lucky enough to land an internship with Orbital Sciences (now part of Northrup). The work was incredible. I got to perform tests investigating how the umbilicals would pull away from a rocket during launch! We came in crazy early every morning to avoid the Arizona summer heat since the rig was outside but I didn't even care! I was working on real rocket hardware and my pitiful intern desk was right next to the high bay where the rockets were actually assembled! If I had a question I could just walk in and ask one of the techs! But as the summer went on and I grew close with my mentors (all men btw) they began calling me a sexist nickname -- something that rhymed with my last name at the time. I tried to laugh it off but it started eating away at the delicate fabric of my still-evolving engineering psyche. It wasn't right, and by letting it continue, I was allowing these senior engineers to write the rulebook for the other male interns, that this sort of behavior was acceptable. At the end of the summer, during my exit interview I reported the offender to HR, feeling a little silly to write up a report based solely on a rude nickname. A year later, when I graduated, Orbital was at the top of my list for a job, but for some reason, I didn't get an offer or an explanation.

And all that brings us to today! Today is a special day, set aside to celebrate everything it means to be a woman engineer, and I don't want to diminish the celebration, but I DO want to be real with you!

Today, in 2020, things feel different. I think in part it has to do with the changing makeup of the engineering workforce and greater understanding of the value women bring to the table in these fields. But, I also think its because I'm different now. I have examples of experiences to relate to, I have honed my confidence and I have proof my work and engineering judgment has value.

If there is one piece of advice I would give to aspiring women engineers its to know your worth. Know you are worthy. You are more than a quota. You deserve to be treated with respect and that's going to make some people uncomfortable, which is ok.

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