Canadian Consulting Engineer

By NANCY LONGUEIRA, P.ENG.   

Trying to do it all: A Female perspective

Engineering

It has taken me a long time to develop the courage to write this article. I wondered how it would be received by different people in the consulting industry, and I felt that I might be exposing someth...

It has taken me a long time to develop the courage to write this article. I wondered how it would be received by different people in the consulting industry, and I felt that I might be exposing something that many women would not want me to expose.

My feelings about being a woman in engineering have changed over recent years. When I completed a building engineering program at Concordia University in Montreal, females represented 40% of my 1992 graduating class. It was obvious that the mechanical and electrical engineering programs had very few women in the classrooms, but it was not my experience in the building engineering stream.

Then when I moved to Ontario in 1993, it seemed I was surrounded with messages about how I was entering a male-dominated field. I had done my first co-op placement at a consulting engineering firm in Toronto and had been surprised at how few women there were around me. In 1993, I started a master’s degree program at the University of Toronto in building science with the department of civil engineering. Again, there were very few women.

At Concordia, I had once gone to a “women in engineering” wine and cheese get-together where they tried to pair up women practising engineering with first-year female students. The intent was that the women in practice would act as our mentors. I had confidence back then and didn’t spend too much time thinking about what it meant to be a woman in the field. But after that first wine and cheese party, I started to wonder, “Why didn’t the guys get that opportunity?” It was an excellent occasion to meet with someone practising in a field that you were thinking of pursuing. Surely the men would also benefit from such an experience. Why did the women get such special treatment?

Advertisement

I noticed more propaganda about women in engineering and started to feel irritated. “What is so wrong with us that we need a special group?” I asked. “Just let me do my job,” I would silently yell to my computer screen, and “stop reminding me I am one of the few women and that I have challenges, blah, blah, blah.” In Toronto I didn’t attend any of the women in engineering meetings. I had pre-conceived notions of what happens at them, which was not fair. I had spoken to some practising women who were very bitter about the way their lives had turned out and some of them attended the meetings. Surely all the women there must be like that.

Soon, though, I began to doubt both myself and my career choice. I started to believe that maybe women don’t belong in engineering. The media didn’t help. Headlines such as “Problems with Women Breaking the Glass Ceiling,” and “Low Percentage of Women in Science and Technology,” hit home. Maybe I should go into teaching instead, which had been my first career choice until my school guidance counsellor suggested I could do better. There was one problem: in engineering I truly enjoyed working with my colleagues — all men. Looking back, I realize that it was my inexperience, not my gender that was making me lose my self-esteem.

Life changes

And then I had a baby and I was never so happy in my life. When I came back to work after seven months’ maternity leave, I realized that I had missed my career. But returning as a working parent, I found there was an obvious difference between my life and that of most of my male colleagues, most of whom don’t have young children.

The first major difference was that I rarely stayed at work later than 5 p.m. My guilt was tremendous as I left the office while all my male co-workers continued to work on their projects. I would do the extra work at home after 10 p.m. once my daughter, Lauren, was asleep. Many nights I would be up until 3 or 4 a.m. finishing a proposal or project and then be up at 6.30 a.m. to go back to the office in the morning.

It took me a long time to admit I could not do it all. Family did not live close by so they could not help with childcare duties, and there is no nanny. It was totally up to my husband (also an engineer) and me. But the real truth is that I wanted to be the one to pick up Lauren, and I wanted to be the one to put her to bed at night. I wanted to make her cookies and sit down with her and talk about our day. I was missing out on a lot of that. I was also getting sick frequently because I was getting little rest. I felt that my performance at work was not what it had been because I was so tired. At one period I was completely unmotivated.

After several months, I realized I needed to make some changes, so I started by reducing my work week to 30 hours. That is the best thing I could have done for myself, my family and my employer. Because I do five 6-hour days, I am still in the office every day, but am much more focused during the time I am there. My time is prioritized much better than in the past and my delegation skills have improved tenfold. I have also learned to say “no.” My 30 hours are as productive as my previous 40 hours, if not more so.

Now Lauren, my oldest child, has a sister, Sara, and I am again back at work. Hopefully, I can leave early enough on most days to pick up Lauren at school. Things aren’t easy, and there are times when the plan doesn’t work, such as when the kids are sick or when there is a particularly pressing deadline on a project at work.

But while there never seem to be enough hours in the day, I finally feel as though I have the tools to balance my professional and personal lives. Thanks to my 30-hour work week, I can do errands during the week. I spend more time with the girls; we do arts and crafts, make homemade play-dough, do finger painting — and not just on week-ends or when we are on vacation. In addition, I have more time to exercise, go to lunchtime seminars, and do other things that interest me, like write this article. If my whole life is in balance and I’m healthier, then the people around me can only benefit.

What about my male colleagues? How do they feel? Do they think I am no longer dedicated to my career? Apparently not. I have had nothing but support from my employer and colleagues. Several have said that they totally understand and ask, How could you be expected to do it all? I have finally accepted that not being able to do everything is reality, not failure. It takes way more courage to admit you cannot do everything than to carry on trying to do it in silent anxiety. The most important lesson I would like my daughters to learn from me is the importance of life balance. I am truly blessed to have a family and a rewarding career.

The Survey

Before writing this article, I decided that first I should speak to other women to get their opinions. I was curious to hear about their experiences, since I had never really spoken to another woman about being female and an engineer.

I sent out questionnaires to various colleagues, friends, and friends of friends, inviting women to respond anonymously. Responses — 30 in total — began to pour in after just a few days.

There was a trend among the different graduating classes. Women who had graduated in the 1970s or 80s mainly indicated that things were more difficult for them back then. The more recent graduates appear to be much more confident in their careers.

I was surprised by the lengthy “essays” some of the women provided. It was as if they needed to talk anonymously and share their experiences. Some were bitter, women who had had a difficult time in their fields and believe it was because they are women. “The journey was hell,” wrote one.

But the younger women had confidence in their abilities and were much as I had been at the start of my career before I had a child. Some of their responses sounded like I had written them. They couldn’t understand what the big deal was. “Stop telling us we can’t do the job, or that there are issues.” Like me, many had never attended any “women in engineering” meetings. Several respondents said that there is too much focus on gender issues, which perpetuates the gender gaps.

Overall my impressio
n from the responses is that we are coming closer to a time where referring to “women in engineering” will become offensive to female engineers. It appears that they do not want to be singled out for being women.

However, despite this new confidence, many of us are still trying to find our place. Personal isolation is often a challenge. When one spends so much time at work and the workplace is dominated by men, there is very little opportunity for women to form or maintain the kind of female relationships that have historically allowed them to cope with stress.

In the end, I feel that although I am not devoting such long hours to the consulting industry the way I used to, in some ways my input is better and more valuable, and I am confident that my contribution still counts.

Nancy Longueira, P.Eng. is a project manager with Morrison Hershfeld, consulting engineers of Toronto. See the following pages, beginning on page 74, for selected tabulated results and verbatim responses to the informal survey Nancy Longueira conducted.

WOMEN STILL ON SIDELINES

Though it has not been my experience, it is undeniable that female engineers in the construction industry in Canada still face major hurdles. They continue to come across blatant discrimination.

I recently met with a female engineer from Colombia. A colleague is acting as a mentor for Engineers Without Borders, and he thought it might be interesting for us to meet since we are both Spanish-speaking female engineers who have worked in the construction industry — she in Colombia and I here in Canada.

Women in construction in her country are apparently very common. She was not surprised when I cited the 40% female student contingent in my building engineering class, saying females are about 50% of the students in engineering schools in Columbia.

However, she was shocked at the few women in construction in Canada. One contractor to whom she had applied for work in Toronto told her outright that he could not hire a woman and apologized that he could not interview her. This is a woman who has nine years of experience as a construction manager in Colombia working on multi-million dollar projects and was looking for an entry-level position.

Women in Engineering A MINI SURVEY

In preparing to write her article, Nancy Longueira decided to do some informal background research on the experience of other female engineers. She sent out a questionnaire to a handful of friends and colleagues, who in turn forwarded it on to their friends and workmates.

In total 30 women filled out the questionnaire, which had 24 questions in all. Some women replied in short yes/no format, while others wrote at length.

The respondents were mostly from Ontario and Quebec. Some are employed by consulting firms, while others work for utilities, industry or the public sector. The earliest graduate was a woman who earned a bachelor degree in civil engineering in Hong Kong in 1963, while the most recent was an intern who graduated from McGill in 2001. Seven graduated in the 1980s, while the majority (17 out of 30) graduated during the 1990s. Nine of the 30 had children. They all contributed on the condition of anonymity in publishing.

While the mini-survey makes no claims to be scientific, the results offer insights into the wide variety of experience and attitudes of different women who have entered the engineering or technologist professions. Following are the responses to selected questions from the survey, where the answers were easily tabulated.

Q. Do you feel you were accepted as an equal in university by male faculty and classmates?

Yes22

No5

Undecided3

Q. Do you feel you are accepted as an equal in the workplace?

Yes14

No 11

Undecided5

Q. Do you think you are at an advantage or a disadvantage as a female in engineering?

Advantage5

Disadvantage9

Makes no difference16

Q. Have you been exposed to sexual harassment in university/college, in the workplace or by clients? Was it mild, moderate or severe (where you considered quitting or taking legal action)?

Yes, mild to moderate12

Yes, severe5

No13

Q. Have you ever participated in a “women in engineering” committee, meeting or mentorship program?

Yes7

No23

Q. Did you have any female role models who were also in engineering when you were in school or starting your career?

Yes5

No25

Q. Do you believe young women at the high school level should be actively recruited to pursue engineering as a profession?

Yes15

No10*

Undecided5*

* most respondents in these groups said that there should be career education, but it should be gender-neutral.

ON SEXUAL HARASSMENT

I took care of each incident directly and personally. Unfortunately, today a couple of my actions could lead to termination for myself (such as punching a supplier in the nose, smashing a co-worker’s hand in the door). However, after a period of time (more than a decade) I worked professionally and without incident as a colleague with the “harassers.” Generally people should take more personal responsibility to deal directly and immediately with others.”

I guess it depends on what is considered “sexual harassment.” I’ve always been a pretty strong person and pretty open minded. I was a tomboy growing up. I’m used to the rude comments, etc. and if I don’t like the comments or the conversation, I let the person know how I feel. I’ve never had someone continue a behaviour after I expressed how uncomfortable it made me…. I wouldn’t consider that I’ve ever been sexually harassed. But I have worked in an office where another female employee felt she was being harassed, although she was receiving the same treatment as me.”

I have been subjected to sexual harassment on one occasion in the workplace. I’m usually pretty laid back about that kind of stuff, but one time it just got way too out of hand. I contemplated speaking to my manager about it, but decided to take matters into my own hands and I spoke with the individual myself.”

ON BEING WARNED AGAINST GOING INTO ENGINEERING

Only two people warned me about the engineering field. One was a very influential (to me) math teacher in high school who had tried engineering himself and given up part way through the second year to go into general sciences. His warnings did not appear, at the time, to have anything to do with gender. He was more concerned about the workload and time demands. The other person who was negative was my paternal grandfather who disliked engineers in general, after working as a lab technician under engineers for 40 years. He was of an era that expected women to go into nursing, teaching or secretarial roles. Otherwise my family was extremely supportive and my father, in particular, was very proud.”

My father told me that it was a Man’s job and was quite upset about me entering into engineering. I ignored him.”

A family friend warned me that in civil engineering there may be a good possibility of working on construction sites and that they may not be the best place for a female.”

EQUALITY IN THE CLASSROOM?

I never noticed any issues around being female, not among classmates or faculty. I did not see myself as a female engineering student; I was simply an engineering student.”

I actually felt that the women in my class were accepted as among the top of the class. It seemed as though the women who chose engineering were of a higher academic calibre than the average male. It did not take long to recognize that women were there because they wanted to be and were working at their peak.

LIFE IN THE WORKPLACE

The workplace was much tougher than school to be accepted in as an equal. Most of my bosses just wanted to date me. They were not engineers. Bosses who were engineers were always very respectful. I felt it was because they knew how hard engin
eering is. I felt they could look at the iron ring and immediately have a high level of respect for me.”

Men have cliques. Their buddies are in their cliques and they look out for them. If you are the lone woman in the office, sometimes you just don’t fit in. But women can develop the same cliques. I have seen offices where the women actually make the decisions and usually give promotions to their female friends.”

I have had to work very hard to prove myself in my current position, and the battles continue. But the question remains — is it because I’m female, young, or both?

I find that generally the men I work with are much more considerate and polite around me than they are around my male colleagues — simple things, like opening doors, carrying heavy objects, not swearing in my presence (or apologizing for it).”

I did six co-op terms when I was in school, some on construction sites, and I found tradespeople had a problem with a young woman being on site. I was an oddity. But I think the questioning of my skills was based more on age than gender. In my current job at a consulting firm, where I’ve only been for a year, there is no question about inequality. I think it depends on where you work and with whom. I have fewer problems with guys who are within 10 years of my age, than those in their 50s or older.”

Men in construction have had two responses to me on a site. They either feel they have to protect me (a fatherly sort of thing, I suppose), or they feel they have to talk to me like I’m an idiot in order to explain to me what is obviously beyond my comprehension. But then I’ve never had a hard time putting someone in their place if necessary, and I don’t intimidate easily.”

My manager has mentioned to me on two separate instances that I have chosen a very difficult field (I’m a structural engineer), and that I have to work much harder than any other EIT because of that choice. … He said I have to keep abreast of new technologies, new codes and standards, and I have a lot more areas I need to master before I become, ‘an asset to this company.’ Can you believe that? I was not impressed.”

I really haven’t found that being a woman in engineering is that big of a deal. I have noticed that there aren’t a lot of women when I go to product seminars and other presentations, but it really doesn’t mean anything to me either way. Perhaps 10 years ago, women had a harder time in engineering. But I think that today, the mindset of employers, clients and peers is that if you can do the job right, who cares what gender you are? I really can’t say that being female is anything special.”

It may be an advantage to be female as we are still seen as a minority [in engineering] and companies like to be well represented by all minorities. Hiring a female over an equally qualified male might be the preference of some companies.”

My personal opinion is that it is still a disadvantage to be a female in the field of engineering. At least in civil I have found that to be the case. Perhaps it is not so in other fields such as chemical or electrical engineering. I still feel that a female engineer has to work harder to prove her ability and gain the same amount of respect compared to her male counterpart.”

Nobody in my office gets recognition — male or female.”

WOMEN IN ENGINEERING ADVOCACY GROUPS

I don’t really think that they are effective. I think they promote the differences between men and women in engineering, rather than focusing on the similarities. It propagates the notion that women in engineering are special.”

I am a professional member of WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) and CCW (Canadian Construction Women). These affiliations have helped me to know that I am not alone with my experiences and that there are many other women out there who have similar ambitions to mine.”

I have volunteered with WISE for several events. They have been geared towards providing mentorship to students. I hope it is helping the new generation of potential female scientists, etc. I know it helps me just to vent with the other mentors and compare our experiences.”

I have a feeling I would have opinions opposite to the group. I have never wanted to participate in a self-pity group, or a group deciding to work towards breaking a glass ceiling that I’ve never seen.”

I never even knew such organizations existed.”

It is tough to participate because everyone is so busy these days.”

ROLE MODELS

I don’t have any female engineer role models, and, honestly, I don’t think I need them. The male role models around me are great.”

WHY CHOOSE ENGINEERING?

I had wanted to build things since I was a kid, when I was obsessed with Lego. Going into engineering was a decision I made in Grade 10 and I was very sure it was what I wanted to do. Having an engineer as a dad, I realized that engineering wasn’t a limiting background to begin with.”

Why pick engineering? Two reasons. First because I love bridges, and water systems, and transportation networks and the incredible things that man has made. Second, because it was something I knew I could do that would put me in a position to support myself financially and mentally (I hate to be bored) for the rest of my life.”

BEING MOTHERS AND ENGINEERS

I have elected to work part-time. My performance expectations are, and should be, the same. However, I need more flexibility to balance work and family. Many men do not find this acceptable. This is a difficult situation in a male dominated profession.”

I pretty much demanded that my employer’s expectations change or I would not come back after my maternity leave. I used to work crazy hours and was out of town for days on end, usually with very little advance notice. I told them I was still committed to the job and the company, but it was just not possible for me to travel as much and work long hours.

The company was fantastic. I came back when my son was eight months hold and I worked only mornings every day. I worked just as hard as everyone else, but I was much more efficient and driven in order to spend more time at home. Now that my son is older, I work on average a 30-hour salaried work week.”

SELLING ENGINEERING IN THE SCHOOLS

I think raising awareness of the employment options in engineering and the value that women bring to the profession would help make young women more comfortable with choosing engineering as a career.”

If career guidance were left up to just our familes, we would all be nuns. I think it is very important for us as accomplished female engineers to go out and talk to young girls in high school. It should be mandatory for all students to continue to take math and sciences throughout high school.”

We place too much of a focus on gender issues, which in some ways perpetuates the gender gaps. Women at high school should be encouraged to pursue whatever field interests them.”

I don’t understand why you would need to actively recruit women any more than you’d actively recruit men.”

TALKING TO NON-ENGINEERS

There are two reactions I get from people when I tell them that I am an engineer. The first one goes something like this:

‘So, what do you do for a living?’

‘I’m an engineer.’

‘REALLY! WOW!’ (Like it’s some sort of miracle.)

‘You must be s o o o smart. You must make s o o o much money!’ (Which of course we do NOT.)

This really started to bother me. So then this is how the conversation would go instead:

‘So, what do you do for a living?’

‘I work for an engineering consulting company.’

‘Oh … You work in the admin. department?’

‘No.’ (? ? ?)

‘Are you like some type of telephone support staff or secretary?’

‘Uhm … no.’

‘Well, what do you do there?’

‘I’m an engineer. I do structural design. I design bridges and retaining walls and sound barrier systems and on occasion roadways and I also do surveys and
some planning and help write proposals and I’m also an advanced CAD technician and I do some footing design and soil analysis and I’ve even hung off the underside of a bridge for an entire day doing a soffit inspection.’

‘Oh.’

But other days I say that I am the secretary, just to shut them up.

— What do you think of all that?”

Advertisement

Stories continue below

Print this page

Related Stories