The Shriver Report – Women in Engineering: Thriving in a Man’s World

Special Edition

Women in Engineering: Thriving in a Man’s World


When a male enrolls in college and selects a major such as engineering, the reactions from family and friends alike range from “Congratulations,” “What area is most interesting to you?” to “That’s impressive, good luck.” When a female chooses engineering, the reactions she hears range from “Do you think you can handle it?” and “Why that?” to “Are you good enough at math?”

When I first announced that I was going to study engineering in college, the reactions were no different. Male friends as well as female friends asked, “Really? Why?” Or “Do you know what you’re getting yourself into?” It is somewhat ironic that the guys were the very same friends I had helped with assignments from freshman through senior year so they passed our math classes and graduated!

There is no easy way to explain why more women are not encouraged to follow these career paths. Some arguments assign blame to the media for fostering an image that scientists and mathematicians in our society are male. Others place the blame on educators for directing men into those “manly” fields and women into traditionally acceptable “womanly” fields such as teaching and nursing, which supposedly fit our nurturing nature. Whatever the reasons, and no matter how complex they prove to be, they cannot be justified. There is no legitimate excuse for anyone not being encouraged to follow his or her passions in life because of gender.

Even though engineering can be an uninviting culture, I decided that it was what I wanted to do and I was not going to let discomfort stand in my way. When I first went to college, boys were hesitant to have girls as part of their study groups. I did not let it bother me. I figured that they were the ones who were missing out on the experience.

The STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields offer endless opportunities.  However, for years men have controlled the STEM fields.  Finding validation for a woman’s involvement in male-dominated careers can be extremely difficult; I know it was for me. While the gender differences in school may have been apparent, all students still shared the common goal of securing a degree.  However, once a woman enters the workforce, they will likely encounter work environments that are dominated by men of various levels of seniority. The bias against females in STEM careers can be subtle by some and more overt by others. Plus, women may find that entering into an environment in which there’s a tight workgroup of men who have handled projects together for a number of years can be extremely intimidating.

After a couple of years working for a small electrical engineering consulting firm in Las Vegas, I was promoted to project manager.  I was the only female engineer in the office.  My responsibilities included managing the projects that the other engineers and designers were also working on.  I was excited to be in this position and thrilled that my boss at the time thought that I had progressed enough that I was now ready for this added responsibility.  My male colleagues on the other hand weren’t exactly thrilled with the idea that I got promoted and they didn’t.  They weren’t rude or disrespectful, but no additional respect came with the new role.  I tried not to let it bother me, demonstrated a confident positive attitude and just continued with my job.

It was a struggle at the time for me, but I can tell you that it’s something I learned to overcome. There were plenty of times that I went out to a construction job site with a male co-worker that reported to me and came across traditional stereotypical behavior.  Instantly it was assumed by the job site contractor that I was the assistant and not the engineer.  I had to learn to be assertive, speak up and provide accurate answers to the contractor’s questions.  Eventually the contractor would realize that I was the engineer and that I did know what I was talking about.  It took an exceptional amount of time to prove my engineering knowledge and abilities.  This is part of the bias that continues to exist in our society today.

The reality is that in a STEM field, there is little choice but to find ways to feel comfortable working alongside men or being placed in charge of them. With a ratio of 10 male engineers to every woman engineer, I knew that I was playing against the odds. The gender imbalance is simply a reality that comes with the STEM territory.

When I first moved to Reno to start PK Electrical (the company that I own and started more than 17 years ago), I was a stranger in a new land. And, to make matters worse, I was a woman in a very male-dominated STEM profession. Clients were reluctant to try us because we were new and not part of the typically male group that was known around town. It’s difficult to earn the trust of new clients in a new market, especially if they are all of the opposite sex and have never worked with a woman in your position.

The atmosphere in Reno in the late 1990s was still primarily what I’d refer to as a club of good ol’ boys. Business executives all seemed to know one another and only refer business among their chummy confederation. I was the new girl on the block and had to prove the capability of my firm to the town’s already established architects, contractors, construction firms, and engineers—nearly all of whom were men. It took a great deal of patience to network in the new market.  I had to find something socially in common with these potential clients, such as sports, travel, running, etc., that we could bond over.  It took perseverance and determination on my part to get through that challenging time. I relied heavily on my personal and family support for encouragement. Observing and learning from other engineers (mainly men) in the work environment also helped. I kept a positive attitude because I knew I was not going to let the obstacles stop me. It was a difficult couple of years.

“The persistent bias towards women in male dominated fields can be damaging to one’s self-confidence, and self-confidence is something that one needs in order to tackle the growing responsibility as we advance in our careers.”  

The persistent bias towards women in male dominated fields can be damaging to one’s self-confidence, and self-confidence is something that one needs in order to tackle the growing responsibility as we advance in our careers.  Maintaining confidence is crucial to success.  When confidence falls short, for whatever reason, it has an impact on our focus and productivity.

I credit my positive attitude and confidence to my success as a businesswoman in a very male dominated field.  My determination and never giving up on my dream has allowed me to grow my small company from just me to 19 employees with 2 offices working on multi-million dollar projects.



In the News:

Karen Purcell is a Reporter for The Shriver Report.
Karen Purcell, PE, is a dynamic engineer, entrepreneur, and author focused on helping young women connect the dots to a meaningful future in the STEM fields.
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