I haven't met many female manufacturing engineers; this is one of those engineering fields that is the true definition of a man's world. I initially wanted to be an architect. But you know how Nigerian parents are (especially mine), I didn't have a say in the matter. I was good in math, science, technical drawing, and art, so I guess it made sense for my parents to tell me to get a degree in Manufacturing Engineering. At the time, I didn't even understand that grammar back then as to what it meant to be an engineer.
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One of my professors in university, who ended up becoming one of my mentors, described it as “Engineers come up with the dream or vision, Manufacturing Engineers make that dream come true; they turn it into reality.” Long story short, if an Engineer has this fantastic idea, manufacturing engineers design, create, and build the tools to make that idea come to life. Whether it is building or acquiring a particular type of screwdriver, hammer, machine or even a robot to produce that product, they get on it.
I went to college in what I refer to as a village in Illinois. My program had several hundred students, and only two were females, including me. That was the first thing I noticed in my engineering class (besides the smell, college boys smell). The other female student and I became friends instantly, and we are still going strong, even to this day. We paired up together on a lot of projects throughout our time in engineering school. She was smarter than me. She grew up around machines and all that stuff, so she already had previous knowledge of what the teachers were talking about. I had to use a dictionary to learn what basic tools were. The names of special hammers, screwdrivers, drills, hydraulic oils, terminology, all of that, from scratch. During my engineering classes and labs when we had to work in groups of two, some guys wouldn't choose me as their partner, because I was a female. I spent my first year in Engineering School trying to catch up with the men. Luckily my female friend was always there to help me out.
By my second year, I came to my wits end. I stopped looking to the guys in my class and started creating relationships with every single engineering professor in the department. I even went as far as securing a student job in my department as well. That changed my life and my grades. Then my classmates started to take me more seriously, and I began to feel like one of the guys. I stopped dreaming of being an architect at that point. Subconsciously I started to pick up on the mannerisms of my classmates, and I thought finally I had made it. I wasn't seen as that one-young-black-girl but as a potential engineer. I'll skip the rest of my undergrad struggles and fast forward to grad school— it was almost back to square one again. I was busy thinking grad school= mature minded people, but I was wrong. A few scenarios that happened in grad school:
Being told I was too pretty to be smart or be an engineer, being told I didn’t look like an engineer. When I wore shorts to class once, someone said, wow! This is what your legs look like. It may not seem like that big of a deal; maybe I'm just being sensitive. But no one said that to any of the other guys in the class. It even made dating difficult because some guys said I was too intimidating or that I made them feel stupid. One of my exes broke up with me because I kept him from being successful.
And So It Began
I was thrust into the serious workforce when I least expected it. One of my professors was retiring after several decades, and my department didn't have time to find a replacement to take over his classes. Since I worked as a student employee for the department, the heads knew me and the qualifications I had. So it was a unanimous decision when they asked me to step in and teach the classes. I probably was between ages 20 to 22 at the time, I don’t know if this was normal, but a lot of the students (still all men) acted like children. I remember one of the classes I taught was a 400 level class. The first day of the semester, I stood in front of the classroom, by the teacher's desk, waiting for them to settle down. It took a while, and I later found out it was because they didn't think I was the teacher, although I gave them the syllabus which had my name on it as the instructor. The entire semester was me avoiding my students in social settings, especially when I went out because some of them would try to hit on me (thinking I'd give them a good grade). I thought I did a great job teaching the class though; it was an exciting adventure I took on as a young woman. In all honesty, a good percentage of my students did very well. At the end of the semester, every class had to do a course review or evaluation of their course and teacher, which goes to the head of the department and college. Then some of my students thought it was okay to comment on my backside, body and looks in the review. All the teachers received the evaluations which were typed up by a secretary without the names of students to keep it anonymous. I felt anger and also embarrassment. I wanted to be taken seriously, for what I had to offer, and not what I looked like.
After that opportunity came to an end, I found a new job. At that point, I had learned how to weld, work on and with some machines in manufacturing industries. But that didn’t prepare me for dealing with men in my field. I received the same comments about my body, as I did in school, at work. The company I worked for had a 100:1 man to woman ratio.
Several times I had the supervisors tell me I caused their employees to shut down production or make mistakes, because of my presence at their workspace. The men couldn’t concentrate. Like it was my fault. I kept getting the same thing—you're too pretty to be an engineer, it's weird that you're smart, you know you'll be better off as a secretary, you don't belong here.
Now I don't wear any makeup to work; I don’t even dress up for work. I usually wore a pair of jeans or khaki pants, with a t-shirt and steel toe boots. I also was not afraid to get my hands dirty at work, if I needed to. I learned not to be obsessed with my hair and clothes early on if I wanted to “fit in.” I still painted my nails though; they were not going to make me lose all my sense of femininity. Again, some of the guys complained about my nails.
Regaining My Voice
In a bid not to completely lose myself, I spent some of my spare time reading female empowering pages online and listening to shows about female empowerment. I also started dating my now husband who gave me tips as to how to handle my co-workers, because he worked in the same field. Whenever my nails were brought up, I would say —how does that affect my job? Or my nails are painted, but I still do this better than xyz person or you. In meetings, the guys would try to talk over me and overpower me, but I learned whenever a man would try to do that I just needed to keep talking to shut them up.
I noticed that in some meetings because I was the only woman there, some of the guys tried assigning me the role of secretary; telling me to take notes and run errands for them. I paid them no mind on a good day, but on other days, I asked them to use their own hands to do the job. I had also learned that I had to be brash when I spoke, to be taken seriously. I learned to use certain phrases and words. There were days I would leave work crying or go to the bathroom to cry out of frustration and the lack of respect from certain people. I didn’t want that to continue, because it was going to affect my performance. So I decided to speak up for myself. I also reached out to women who were in similar fields and watched more videos. I began to embrace being a woman. I recently read an article on how 30% of women in the engineering profession leave their jobs, because of the workplace culture. I know I am not alone and I've learned to find my confidence by standing my ground and speaking my mind and being blunt. Sometimes, it caused me being called names, but it also helped me gain respect. With my new found confidence, my male counterparts began to approach me, this time around, to help speak to the boss on certain things. They now wanted me to bring up specific topics at meetings because I was being taken, seriously by my boss. Don't get me wrong, the environment in my field has not by any means changed, but my attitude has. I think it has gotten better or maybe I've matured or learned to live with it? Who knows! But I know for sure it still has its ups and downs.
I love my co-workers now, and I think that makes a difference in the workplace. I don't regret going in to work every day. I no longer try to avoid certain people. I enjoy being an engineer; I enjoy the challenge. I don't know what other engineering fields are like— chemical, mechanical, petroleum, biomedical, etc. But the manufacturing engineering space is fairly new, and I still have time.
Although it’s not what I'm going to do forever, I love knowing how things are manufactured. I believe someday I'll climb the ladder towards management, and hopefully influence the culture; so women are treated differently, with respect in the workplace. If you are currently faced with a tough situation like mine, my advice is, have a good work-life balance. Be assertive; talk about your experience with friends and family in the same field as you. It truly helps.
Join in on the conversation—has anyone had such an experience as Ghenero shared? If yes, how did you handle it? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below. Also remember to like, share, and subscribe never to miss an update. Don’t just stop here, click this link, to explore other related articles on Business Today. Happy Women’s Day!!
About The Author: Ghenero Omu-Scharfenberg is a full-time Manufacturing Engineer and Part-time Bartender/Mixologist. She spends her spare time hanging out with her husband and decorating their home. She also loves to run races, exercise, box, paint art, and spend time with family and friends, when she is not binge-watching Korean dramas. You can connect with her on Instagram with @nertwig.