Sorry for existing: the struggle of being a woman in engineering

Caroline Zhu, Staff Columnist

Now more than ever there seems to be a growing demand for women in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, after several high profile cases drew attention to the largely male-dominated cultures in tech companies. However being a woman in the workforce, particularly in STEM fields, means being a part of an environment in which there is no space to truly be comfortable as a woman. Discrimination and the boys’ club mentality exist at every level of the profession and create a toxic environment that causes confidence and self worth issues in many women in STEM industries.

Research from the American Psychological Association shows that 40 percent of women who obtain engineering degrees either leave the field early or never enter the field at all. This is largely due to the work culture of technology companies and other engineering firms, which simultaneously dismisses women out of hand and places them under intense scrutiny. Although women are often dismissed when achieving at a standard or higher level, they are labelled as incompetent when they make simple mistakes. Their male counterparts face no such discrimination, and as such, many women in these situations begin to see themselves as incapable of succeeding in work environments.

As such, women carry the burden of having to constantly achieve at the same level or higher as their male counterparts with the increased risk of negative backlash should they fail and without the promise of reward if they succeed.

We can clearly see why women struggle so much with confidence and self worth when they are surrounded by this environment. The effects of experiencing constant self doubt in the workplace is so powerful that it spills over into everyday life in one common habit: over-apologizing.

From accidentally brushing against someone in a public place to using sorry as a filler word, many people over-apologize, but this seems particularly prevalent in women. Most women apologize for issues that they share no blame of, particularly in the workplace. One commonly cited example is that of the interruption in a conference: while someone else is speaking, a woman will bring up her own idea, often prefacing it with a “sorry to interrupt,” or “sorry, but,” as if to apologize for offering input.

This over-apologizing carries over to all situations, and ultimately, it becomes that women apologize for even existing.

However, this behavior is not the real problem but is in fact emblematic of the larger issue of how difficult it is to be confident as a woman. In the workplace, being confident and assertive is often labelled as aggressive, which comes with its own negative connotation whereas none exists for men. When women are called assertive and confident in their own rights, it is only because they received the validation of men in some way.

This also prompts an examination of why women put so much stock into being accepted by men. Examples of this include becoming more sexual to appeal to men or trying and emulating men in an effort to enter the boy’s club. It seems as though the options are to knowingly objectify oneself or to try and become someone else in order to succeed, which is never a burden placed upon men.

This is not to say that men are collectively out to keep women from entering STEM fields. However, men who do not speak out against these cycles of negativity are complicit in allowing them to continue.

Saying sorry too often confers a sense of responsibility onto women for things they have no control over. This lack of confidence arises from the professional environments that women work and develop in. These toxic workplaces must be restructured so that discrimination, no matter how minor or seemingly inconsequential, is noted and responded to in order to normalize the presence of confident women in STEM fields.

These developments will take time, but starting with changes to the treatment of female coworkers, we can begin to create healthier workplaces. Increasing the amount of women in the field to address the issue of discrimination does not solve the issue but only brings more women into the toxic culture of engineering and technology firms. Instead, changes in companies’ cultures must occur to allow women the same upward mobility as men and to allow women the same opportunity to grow. In order to effect real, lasting change, we must first alter the environments we live and work in.

Caroline Zhu is a first-year computer science major with an interest in economics. She spends her time reading good literature and watching trashy movies or belting out ‘80s power anthems.