7 min read

Unspoken Stories of Women Engineers

Seven percent. That’s the percentage of women software engineers I come across when I search for new candidates to join Tandem. As a technical recruiter, I haven’t been able to find enough senior women engineers with at least five years of professional working experience to build a healthy hiring pipeline. That is in all honesty why I decided to dig deeper and interview them. I wanted to understand why so few women remain in engineering after only a few years of working. Why are there so few women who are senior engineers? Responses I’ve received from women engineers consistently revolve around, “Thank you, but I am not in a place to change jobs right now,” or something along the lines of, “I’m not comfortable joining such an early stage startup.” I was perplexed. Are women more risk-averse? Are they not interested in Tandem’s product?

4.5 hours on unpaid work a day

When I began having these conversations with different people to get their thoughts, I got shut down multiple times with the stereotype that “women just take less risk.” Not only did I find this excuse dismissive, I also found that it provided little substance in explaining the why. I know there are a lot fewer senior women engineers. However, I didn’t expect the number to be that low. To reach a broader set of people, I contacted women in several tech-related Facebook groups. It was important to me that I connect with people whom I otherwise would not have encountered. The stories I heard felt intensely personal, relatable and complex.

Globally, women spend on average 4.5 hours on unpaid work a day. Men spend half that. These numbers are pretty astounding. In the midst of a global pandemic, these numbers have increased due to schools closing overnight and families scrambling to figure out how to take care of their children, how to keep them educated while under shelter-in-place and also how to take on the responsibility of extra elder care. If we genuinely want to understand why there’s a gender gap in society, we’d have to look beyond the symptoms.

Much of society was designed by men for men. Aspects of life we’ve taken for granted as fair are in actuality not fair. For example, work spaces have been typically designed with the male body in mind. As a result, building temperatures are usually set based upon the metabolic rate of men. This is probably why you see a lot of women wearing jackets and sweaters in the office as a way to offset the cold.

women are less likely than men to be working in a computer occupation (38% vs 53%). Similarly, women who majored in engineering during their undergraduate are less likely than men to be working in engineering jobs (24% vs. 30%).

According to Melinda Gates of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, economists do not count unpaid work as work. You can imagine how this practice “became even more absurd as more women entered the formal workforce.” Upon completing eight plus hours of work, working women then had to go home to continue cleaning, cooking and caring for the entire family. Basically this is the “motherhood tax,” according to Nahla Valjim, the senior gender adviser to the Secretary General of the United Nations. The Bureau of Labor Statistics finally started conducting a national time-use survey in 2003 to measure housework and childcare hours. It confirmed that men had more recreational time. Even Melinda Gates herself, someone with almost unlimited financial means to pay for help, felt an imbalance of unpaid work at home. It wasn’t until she asked Bill for help amid all the household management, from “taking [the kids] to school, to the doctor, to sports practice and drama lessons; supervising homework; sharing meals; keeping the family connected to friends at birthday parties, weddings and graduations,” that she felt a shift in dynamics at home. This imbalance due to unpaid work could be a strong contributing factor to why women engineers drop out of an engineering career altogether.

According to Vivian Qu, a senior engineer at Pathlight, a company developing a tool that manages day-to-day work performance, most women engineers she’s come across are fairly junior. Similar to what Cate, blogger and Engineering Director at DuckDuckGo, said in 2014, attrition is a major issue to look into because the rate of women dropping out of these technical roles is quite a bit higher than men’s.

According to the Pew Research Center, among those who majored in computers or computer science, women are less likely than men to be working in a computer occupation (38% vs 53%). Similarly, women who majored in engineering during their undergraduate are less likely than men to be working in engineering jobs (24% vs. 30%).

Why are they dropping out though? A good place to start is to look at the managers. It’s commonplace to see managers who are men, but for starters, men and women have different communication styles. Plus, being a great manager is a learned skill that is unfortunately not taught well. You can imagine some of the communication mishaps that occur. Vivian mentioned that at her previous job at Pinterest, she didn’t take into consideration that another woman engineer on the same team would have a drastically different experience than she did. She wasn’t sure exactly why she had a decent experience on the team but another woman did not, but felt badly that she was the person who brought her in.

Another woman engineer I spoke to, Elvira Khwatenge, who lives in Queens, New York, said she had to take it upon herself to manage upwards. Her manager at the time wasn’t inviting her to certain team meetings and she didn’t understand why. She gave him the benefit of the doubt and attributed his decisions to a lack of clarity between the two of them. She scheduled one-on-one meetings with him and during these meetings she discovered that he was making assumptions about her interests. She talked him through what was important to her and helped him be better at communicating questions he had. This improved their relationship because she felt heard.

Americans are increasingly aware of the impact of mental health on their lives, however the details of these day-to-day struggles aren’t often discussed. Jes Daigle, a single mom of three kids, is an engineering manager at Bocoup, a Boston-based company. I asked her how she manages to run her household and her career at the same time; especially with COVID19 happening and her kids quarantining at home all day. Jes described that her day starts at 4 AM. She gets up and takes care of her five dogs, makes breakfast for her kids, runs upstairs to shower and then starts her work day. Jes sits in many meetings throughout the day, but in between there is a lot of, “Mom, I need lunch,” and “Mom, I need help with this!” Basically she feels that a large chunk of her day is spent being a jack-in-the-box. However, she feels privileged that she can do this throughout her work day because she has a job that is remote and is also at a company where she can show up to work “as her full self.” She further clarified that this was not an option before in previous jobs where she had to leave her personal life at the door. As a manager, she focuses on building trust. This trust is built through conversations where she shares tidbits of her personal life with her team and allows herself to be vulnerable as well. It’s important to recognize that people don’t stop being human just because they are at work. Their lives still keep moving.

I set out wanting to understand the dynamics of women engineers navigating through their careers and personal lives. What I discovered was a sea of internal and external struggles that are rarely talked about publicly.
Jes Daigle
Jes Daigle

Another engineer I spoke to openly shared her daily internal struggles. Hanan Alnizami, a Human Machines Interface (HMI) manager at a major automaker, is a Muslim woman and an immigrant. She immigrated in 2002 at the age of 17. As the first in her family to go to college, she’s had to navigate through her new adoptive culture and expectations set by her family. An example of this dissonance is defending why she, a woman, needed to pursue a Ph.D. Hanan discovered that the only way to satisfy expectations and also find herself was to be someone different to different people. She became a coping master by compartmentalizing various parts of her life so they don’t overlap mentally. She said this has helped her stay functional within her professional and personal life. Unfortunately, this also means her tolerance level for stress is extremely high. In fact, she used to go through periodic fainting spells. Every time she ended up in the ER, the doctor would run her vitals and come to the conclusion that she was healthy. It wasn’t until one doctor pulled her aside and shared that her symptoms may be psychological did it click for Hanan — maybe this was a way for her body to reset after it had tolerated too much stress.

I set out wanting to understand the dynamics of women engineers navigating through their careers and personal lives. What I discovered was a sea of internal and external struggles that are rarely talked about publicly. My hope is that these topics become normalized within professional circles so a better system to cultivate and retain talent can be created and adapted for all industries. Normalizing these topics could include training managers how to develop psychological safety with their teams. On my end, thanks to connecting with so many phenomenal women, I’ve decided to continue the virtual meetings where we are free to discuss mental health issues that span across race, culture, age and background. I’m curious to see where this organic growth will lead. I asked Jes Daigle what she’d tell young women starting out in the workforce. She said, “It is important that young women understand that when they are not true to themselves, they are not just robbing themselves of the opportunity to feel empowered in their own skin; they are robbing the people that they work with from the opportunity of knowing the true them and hearing their actual voice.”

Hanan Alnizami
Hanan Alnizami

All interviewees gave permission to have their names and personal stories shared.