This is a man’s world - the story of a female engineer

Lisane Valdo is a Brazilian LIF fellow who won first prize in the final pitch for her 2015/16 cohort. Despite being a successful engineer and entrepreneur, the hurdles she faces as a woman in the male-dominated engineering space are many.

Lisane shared her story and experiences with us:

 

A man's world

One day I read an article about two women, who had a business in the art trade. After creating a fictitious male figure to sign emails and other documents, they immediately started receiving more positive and educated responses from customers, investors and suppliers.

Reading this inspired me to tell my story - the story of a woman in a field dominated by men.

 

An unequal beginning

The electrical engineering building, where I studied, had no female restrooms. I had to cross several buildings to get to the ladies' room, which was in the basic course wing. I suppose they assumed that women wouldn’t study electrical engineering, at least not enough to justify having ladies' bathrooms.

After graduating, I got an internship in a multinational telecommunications company. My boss made macho jokes all the time, but as a female intern, I tried to ignore it and not make a fuss. When I was hired as an engineer, my salary was 30% lower than my peers: men, who had studied in the same engineering school as me, had the same experience, the same specialisation. Early in their careers they already had an advantage over me: they were men.

But the issue of women in engineering goes beyond wage inequality. In my experience, no matter what you do, no matter how much you prove your competence and ability to do your job (and as a woman, you need to keep proving it all the time) you are never taken seriously.

 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

Stubbornness - the key to success

In the interview for my second job, I was told they were interviewing me as a ‘favour’ to someone who had suggested me for the role. They couldn’t hire a woman to be a microwave engineer, they explained, because of the need to do field visits and check equipment installed on top of buildings and cell antennae at 60 to 90 meters high. I argued that this wouldn’t be a problem, but they struggled to believe a woman could go up a 90m-high phone transmission tower.

In Brazil, you have to pass an accredited course to work at height. I said that if I didn’t pass in the top ten, I would resign. As the only woman out of 50 people on the course, I passed in first place and so I was invited to join the team. On the floor with my new team of 150 there were just two women – myself and the secretary.

In the second week at my new job, the boss needed a team to solve an emergency in the field. Looking around at our feet, he chose seven men who were wearing sneakers, as they would be more able to climb up the building to reach the antenna (you often need to climb on the outside of the building, up a rope ladder). Seeing that I was in a skirt and high heels that day, he smiled sarcastically and sent me along with the team.

I overheard him tell the director, ‘Let’s see how long she lasts here.’

I couldn't give them a reason to say that women can’t do the work of a male engineer. So, with my reputation for stubbornness, I climbed up the building barefoot, burning my feet because it was so sunny that day. After that I always kept jeans and a pair of sneakers in the trunk of my car.

 

Too young to be taken seriously?

When I was younger, I thought the problem was related to my age, but even now in my forties the issues continue.

I am now partner and principal investigator at my engineering, research and innovation start-up. The first time I met an investor at my office, I opened the door and before I could even introduce myself, he gave me his coat, and asked me for coffee and water. He thought I was the secretary. You could say it was just a mistake, anyone might get confused. But I ask you this: if a man had opened the door, would the investor have assumed he was the secretary?

I’ve lost count of the number of times people have asked me if I’m really an engineer, ‘with a degree? And you graduated from this renowned school?’

When speaking to potential clients, I've heard more than once: ‘Great work, but do you have men on your team? You won’t be heard if you present your project here. Can you send a man to present it instead?’

Some of the partners I work with only started to respect me after I won first prize at the RAEng’s Leaders in Innovation Fellowships (LIF) programme. That’s why programmes like LIF are so important and I am very grateful to the RAEng for the visibility and respect that both me and my work achieved after this award.

 

Times are changing

It’s true that things are changing. I've never had any problems with my team in my own company. They’ve never questioned my decisions, and these decisions never had to be repeated by a man to be heard.

But even now, few men are going to close a significant business negotiation with me. When I have an important meeting, I always bring along a man from my team. I know this doesn’t help solve the problem, but between this or losing the business, I'd rather not take the risk, especially when it's important for the future of my company.

And that takes us back to the start of the story. Will I have to sign documents as a man to be taken seriously as an engineer in 2018?

I know these problems won’t disappear overnight. That’s why it’s vital to share our stories and talk about the prejudice women face in engineering, if we want a better world for our daughters and the female engineers of the future.

 

To read the original text, visit Lisane's blog. To learn about Lisane's wearable technology solutions, visit her website.