Stop pointing out there’s a female engineer in the room
My first day of classes at the University of Waterloo was the first time I had ever stepped into a classroom with a boy. To be specific, it was not just one boy, it was 79 boys and 13 girls. For those without a calculator on hand, this means our class was approximately 15% girls and 85% boys. For almost any girl, this female to male ratio would be a significant change. Personally, this difference was made even more pronounced by my previous 14 years spent at an all-girls school. While this change was initially difficult, I soon came to love my program and my classmates despite occasional differences. For the most part, our class has come to be an inclusive place where we collaboratively focus on academics instead of our physical characteristics. Unfortunately, this is only half the battle.
As I mentioned in my previous post, the University of Waterloo is a co-op school. Meaning every four months our entire class alternates between going to school and going to work in industry. And while the 13 of us girls have started to feel at home in the classroom, this has not always been the case in the workforce. Too often I talk to my classmates and hear stories of how they felt marginalized or even discriminated against during their work terms. Hearing this always astounds me as I have been truly lucky to have had my last two co-op terms at Helpful, a place where I felt very sincerely welcomed. As such, I wanted to write this blog so that if you are an employer of, or even just someone who works alongside young female professionals, you can understand what made Helpful such a supportive environment for me personally, and potentially improve your own work environments as well. That being said, here are the top three things that made Helpful a positive, woman-empowering place for me:
Hire more women! While this may seem like a GLARINGLY obvious point, you would not believe how often this is overlooked. One of the most common tales I hear from my friends after a work term is about how frequently people pointed out that they were girls! As if they weren’t aware! “Everybody behave, there’s a lady in the room”, or “Watch your language guys, there’s a lady!” are all too common phrases. And even if no words are being exchanged, being the only girl in a room is often alienating enough. Feeling like you are different from everyone else is a very intimidating notion.
Helpful did an amazing job of putting in the effort to look for talented female engineers that I am thankful to have had the opportunity to work with. Having so many powerful, intelligent, and successful female coworkers to look up to made a significant difference to my development throughout my time at Helpful. As a new co-op struggling to learn everything from people’s names to a new code base as quickly as possible, it is exponentially advantageous to feel as though you are a part of a team instead of an outsider to one. By not creating additional anxiety about the fact that I was different, I could feel more confident which in turn made me a more productive engineer. I could offer my opinion at meetings and ask questions to my coworkers all without worrying that the first thing about that opinion or question that they would notice, is that it came from a girl.
2. Meet with… everyone!
A friend of mine in my class was recently telling me a story about her work term which involved one of her coworkers having a crush on her and making her very uncomfortable. Although she wanted to speak up about this, due to the dynamic at her company she never felt like she had an opportunity to safely speak to her bosses or HR about what was happening. This brings up the importance of my second point. Create an environment where everyone feels comfortable meeting with their superiors.
At Helpful, Daniel Debow (CEO) and Farhan Thawar (CTO) made sure to have one-on-one meetings with every employee regularly set in the calendar. This commitment demonstrated how invested they were in their team’s well-being and made it so that if there ever was a problem everyone would feel very comfortable being able to talk to one of them about it. You cannot always prevent friction within teams, but by having these open lines of communication you can at least ensure that all your employees, both men and women, will feel comfortable speaking up about it.
3. Girl Gangs 😎
The final thing I’ve learned in my last couple of years is that guys and girls are different. And that’s okay! While we often feel pressure to be blind to the differences between our genders, it is okay to recognize these differences and even celebrate them.
At every company I have done a co-op term at so far, I have been the only female co-op. And while this has never seemed like a problem to me, I noticed early on that sometimes I would miss out on certain bonds or relationships between the male co-ops and some of the male coworkers. At Helpful though instead of trying to be a part of these “bro-mances”, I would come to embrace my own special relationships with the amazing women at Helpful. By encouraging these female relationships, I gained some amazing mentors who have helped me so much with my career. At Helpful, the women at our company had a Helpful Ladies group where we could talk about anything including exchanging books about Women in Engineering or discussing how work was going. Having this group of successful engineers not only gave me role models to look up to, but also created another supportive network that I know I will always be able to rely upon.
Helpful provided me with the amazing opportunity of working in an environment where I felt included and valued. And while I was extremely lucky to work with this wonderful team, unfortunately this is not the case everywhere. Therefore, I encourage anyone reading this to think about these points because while employing all these strategies may not fix the gender disparity in engineering overnight, it may make your work place more inviting for young female professionals like myself.