What It Feels Like to Be a Female Engineer
Let me start off by saying this.
I love what I do.
When I was just a few years old, I was doodling. I asked my mom what I should draw, and she told me a giraffe. A couple minutes later, I gave her not a drawing of a giraffe, but a sculpture of one made from materials I found around the house.
When I was around ten years old, I was designing bridges out of plastic straws that could how up to fifty pounds.
At twelve, I was designing indoor hydroponic greenhouses.
Now, I am designing wooden bridges, autonomous robots with my school, and more of those indoor hydroponic systems.
I love engineering.
I go to a science driven high school. I have a two hour and ten minute engineering class five days a week, as well as a senior level precalculus course — on top of my normal schedule.
I am a sophomore.
I am also on my school’s robotics team, as the driver at competitions, one of our main mechanical engineers, a CAD designer, carpenter. Last year I learned how to work with metal and fire. Good times.
It took me a while to notice that my engineering and math classes are male-dominated, as is my robotics team. There’s a good chunk of females, but not as many as there could be.
It really hit me when I went to my first robotics competition where robotics teams from across the region came. There are work areas that we use to repair our robot in between matches, and that’s where you’ll find us most of the time.
So, my very first competition as a Freshman, I’m the driver. I’m also working on the robot. I spent over forty hours a week last year in the shop at school working on this robot. I think it’s safe to say I know what I’m working with.
One of the teams that was on our alliance for a lot of the matches that day sent a representative from their drive team to come talk to our team’s driver. He was a Senior. He had special fingerless gloves on, and a suede fanny pack if, I remember right. He was very serious. I saw him standing a couple feet away, watching us work for a bit.
“Excuse me, can I talk strategy with your driver?” he said in a deep, sorta scratchy voice to no one in particular.
I went over.
“Sure, what’s up?”
“Can I speak to your driver, sweetheart?”
I waited for a second, feeling confused. This boy is only three years older than me, looks like he spends all his time playing D&D in his basement, and he’s totally disregarding me.
He still isn’t looking at me, busy searching the area for our driver.
“You’re talking to her.” I said real slowly, like if I were to speak too quickly he’d continue ignoring me.
His eyebrows scrunched together and he made eye contact for the first time. It was as if I could see the gears in his brain turning as he put it all together. There was a pause.
“Oh, so sorry. Uhhh, so…”
I cut him off. I told him what our robot could do, our strategy, everything he needed to know.
His lips got all tight. I really felt like crying. Was this not my place? I didn’t want to be treated like this. I crossed my arms and sank into myself a bit, making myself smaller than I already felt.
He held out his hand, so I reached out and shook it. Firm handshake. Strong eye contact. He stood up real straight, then raised his hand stiffly and swiftly to his forehead to salute me.
“Yes, ma’am.” he said like I was some kind of drill sergeant.
I laughed and nodded, then he walked away.
Throughout the rest of the competition, our teams worked really well together. We had great communication, and everytime I said something I got a “Yes, ma’am.” in return. The best part about it was that he was not being funny or sarcastic. He was totally serious. He respected me, and maybe even feared me. I didn’t want to scare anyone, but this whole game made me feel a little more welcome.
By the time it was time to go home for the day, I felt ten times better than I did that morning. I felt strong, and validated, and like I belonged. After all, there weren’t many differences between he and I.
Joseph was his name, I think.
Right as I was pulling on my coat and grabbing my bag to leave, he ran up to me with a closed fist. Inside was a small gear and two pieces of string, one tied to each side of the gear.
“It was a pleasure to work with you today, comrade.” he said, finally smiling. He gestured for me to hold out my hand and asked kindly, “May I?” I held out my arm, palm up, and he tied the makeshift bracelet around my wrist. Without another word, he did his salute again, this time with a cheesy grin, then marched back to his own station.
The bracelet sits on my dresser. I see it every morning when I’m getting ready for school. Sometimes I wake up stressed as ever, about my classes, or robotics, or engineering, anything. I see the greasy gear and sticky black string from the partner in crime I’ll never see again, and I remember that I have authority, I have power. I’ve been doing this since I was a toddler, and the world has no right to tell me it’s not my place to do what I was born to. I’m an engineer, and no one can take that from me. Thank you, Joseph. Power to you too.