The following blog post was contributed by Diversity & Inclusion Task Force member, Vanessa Raponi, EIT, regarding her experiences as a young, queer, woman of colour working in different engineering workplaces.
The International Women in Engineering Day (INWED) is the perfect time of year to reflect on the progress our profession has made, and to think about how far we must go!
First, the great news: we currently have female presidents at Professional Engineers Ontario (PEO), Engineers Canada, and OSPE! This shows the great steps women have taken in leadership positions. However, sadly, the overall statistics are still far from optimal, as only ~20% of P.Eng’s identify as women in 2020.
When we have these conversations, we ask: what is the benefit of diversity? Why do the stats need to change? As a young, queer, woman of colour, I can tell you from first-hand experience that the difference between male dominated and gender-neutral engineering workplaces is exceptional.
Creating a Comfortable Workplace Environment
As a student intern at a manufacturing facility, I could count the number of women working with me on one hand. The negative realities of toxic “bro” culture were rampant—I walked past an operator looking at pornographic images on his phone, I overheard close colleagues making explicit jokes about women in the kitchen, expecting me to join along, and finally, an extremely inappropriate comment about where I could “put my hands,” caused me to snap. I couldn’t tolerate this culture anymore, and I confronted leadership about the blatant and aggressive sexism I was experiencing.
This is the reality of what some women in engineering experience. I could easily have changed careers after this experience—was a lifetime of gender discrimination and discomfort worth it to become an engineer?
Fortunately for me, I persevered. Now, I see the exact opposite at my current company Spin Master. The Product Development team has 50/50 engineering representation along gender lines, and a strong, supportive female leadership, represented in Directors and VPs, guides our team.
The result is a thriving, innovative environment where everyone is respected and treated equally. Instead of alienating and making our young female interns uncomfortable, we trust and motivate them. Female engineers find camaraderie in one another’s company, and alongside our male peers as well. Our male colleagues, having seen the value and impact of diverse workplaces, know that we are just as smart and competent as they are, and act accordingly. Our safe work environment allows us to be ourselves, and the entire company reaps the benefits of the creative thinking that springs from a workplace like this. We make it through challenging timelines, we bring impossible ideas to life, and our products win best in class awards. Our efforts for an equitable workplace result in hard, technical, tangible rewards.
Building Community, Together
In the male-dominated spaces I’ve worked in, there’s been little emphasis on spending time to get to know one another. The few events or opportunities to socialize get cancelled for budgetary cuts and socializing casually is reprimanded as you’re encouraged gruffly to “get back to work.”
Whereas where I work now, we have a deeply entrenched “work hard, play hard” culture. We take time to celebrate and get to know the people we spend eight hours a day with. Birthday parties, happy hours, goodbye cards, baby showers, extremely elaborate group Halloween costumes, and 10km runs. We’re surrounded by sentiments of affection and care for one another, and that creates an environment of openness, empathy, having each other’s backs, and overall happiness to come into work every day.
We’re more than colleagues: we’re a hard-working family. That means we have better understanding of one another’s motivations, pitfalls and perspective, and this facilitates a much easier time when working together. I’ll say it again, tangible rewards for intangible efforts.
Gender Neutrality Begets Intersectionality
Talking about diversity means talking about intersectionality.
When a workplace has an overwhelming imbalance between men and women, it makes it impossible to talk about anything else. Being too focused on the question: “How do we include more women?” means having no time to ask the question “How can we make Queer persons, Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC), or persons with mental and physical disabilities, feel more comfortable?”
And if you don’t ask that question, you miss out on all the brilliant queer women, innovative BIPOC women, and fiercely intelligent women with mental and physical disabilities, contributing to the team.
And now, you just unintentionally waved goodbye to immense female talent.
At Spin Master, we have several openly queer people on the team, a multi-cultural workforce where the white folks don’t miss a beat before passionately joining the fight for racial justice through the current Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, and you witness open conversations about mental health on a daily basis. People like me, with intersecting identities, live out loud and feel comfortable. We engage, communicate, and live freely.
Is that not what we all want from our workplaces at the end of the day? A place to contribute to society in a way that is significant to you, doing what you love, and being unapologetically who you are.
This INWED reflect on what changes you can make, what work you can do, and who you can empower to bring a brighter future for the female engineers of tomorrow. Let’s breed an entire profession with a culture of respect, camaraderie and inclusion, and I promise you, the intangible will become tangible in no time.