I started working for Boeing when I was 24. With a beating heart and a sense of apprehension, I did all the normal things — filled out the paperwork on time, sent in my drug test, attended orientation, got my badge (!), showed up for my first day of work. I’d interned at the FDA and done several part-time office gigs, so I found the Boeing atmosphere welcoming and familiar. My chemical engineering degree had set me up well: Boeing was building this new plane they were calling the 7E7. “It’s made of carbon fiber,” everyone enthused. “30% improvement in fuel efficiency compared to traditional aluminum planes!” Boeing suddenly needed a lot of materials-focused engineers, and I was one of those. Even better: Boeing was starting a lot of efforts to improve air quality on planes. My junior year independent research project had been about, yes, improving air quality. I’d even attended a few guest lectures on the (then) emerging field of nanotechnology, including a lecture on buckyballs given by the inventor. It was just a passing acquaintance, but you’d better believe I played that up in my resume. I got hired and, even better, I got hired right into Boeing’s R&D (research and development) department, automatically placing me ahead of my co-hires stamping certification paperwork on the 7E7.
It was an auspicious start. My team even seemed okay. Sure, I was one of only two women and I was the only person under 45, which was very noticeable, but in my extreme naivete I assumed that was just Boeing — they were old-school. I knew that military contracts and huge machines are not traditionally attractive areas for women, and I was too self-absorbed, and too blithely unaware, to look for deeper reasons. The German language almost certainly has a word for that.
I’d been working for Boeing about six months when I traveled to a big military base for a large meeting with, yes, a military contract customer. My team and I traveled separately; they’d babysat me at first, possibly expecting, like Anna Kendrick’s character in Up In The Air, that maybe I’d bring my pillow along — but after seeing that I knew how to read gate changes and operate a rental car and a GPS, they trusted me. So when I got to the meeting at 8 am and met up with my other team members, I was so focused on memorizing the schedule and proving I was worthy of their trust that it took me a minute to look around.
There were fifty people in that room. I was the only woman. Not just the only young woman — the only woman, period. No junior officers in the back in military uniform skirts with their hair up. No enlisted women running the projector. The only woman in the room.
I had traveled to smaller contractor meetings before and been one of maybe two women. I was prepared for that. I was not prepared for the possibility that as the meetings got larger, the number of women would not change.
Was that an extreme example? Yes. Was that always the case? No. I worked for Boeing for almost ten years and traveled to countless similar meetings. There were sometimes as many as five women in the room.
This is not a judgement on Boeing, the military, or technology in general. It is simply a fact.
There’s been a lot of talk recently about Women in STEM, which is great. Unfortunately, that’s mainly all it is: talk. As soon as a new technology scandal comes along (as of writing time, it’s Cambridge Analytica and Facebook), this topic is back-burnered. (The Women In The World Summit is happening right now and I’ve seen little, if not zero, press coverage.) And why not? After all, the absence of women in tech will still be true tomorrow. And next week. And next year. You get the picture. It’s hardly time-sensitive.
So, what’s the answer? Quotas, like the military? I can hear the meritocracy apologists oiling their keyboards already. Blind interviews, like professional orchestras? It’s been tried and it’s not easy. (Yes, of course I have references.) The adorable part of this conversation is that people naturally want to gravitate to a Universal Theory of Sexism, so they can apply a single remedy. And we all conveniently forget the fact that we’re trying to overturn millennia of tradition inside a few decades. (For my fellow engineers: that’s millenniums, plural.) The truth is there’s a lot of potential partial fixes, but probably not One Great Cure All. I certainly believe that a technology work force that is so genetically homogeneous, as it is right now, is greatly hampering our advancement. To address that, I hire diversity at every possible opportunity. Most innovators do, too. New ideas have to come from somewhere, after all, and is it statistically more likely that your team will receive fresh ideas from a) someone with the exact same background as you, or b) someone with a different background? It’s not rocket science. Your gender and genetics should be like a specialization: the most important part should be your credentials, but is it a bonus that you have additional skills? Sure it is. Are these hiring practices changing the world overnight? No. Is that a bad thing? Maybe not.
It’s not the end of the world, being a woman in technology. It’s not the end of the world being the only woman in the room. I haven’t died yet. Some days it’s difficult, and some days it’s just background noise, like sinks and seatbelts that are too tall for me and facial recognition software not recognizing people of color and Amazon using Chinese death masks as their new employee badges, just to name three examples off the top of my head. I do what I can to network with other technologist women, which boosts my spirits. (Oh, Twitter, you seductive mistress. #womeninSTEM #changetheratio.) I would love to go to work tomorrow and see a team that accurately represents the genetic makeup of America. But until that happens, I’ll just be over here doing my job. I’d like to invite everyone, everyone, to join me.