Want More Female Engineers? How Do You Retain Engineers?

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By Poornima Vijayashanker (Founder & CEO, BizeeBee)

Looking back 21 years ago I never would have fathomed I would have become a femgineer. At the age of eight, I had decided I was going to be a lawyer, writer, and professor, because I loved to read, write, and speak. I spent the next 10 years of my life working toward that goal. In elementary and middle school, I wrote short stories. In high school, I joined the debate team, and when it was time for college. I chose Duke because it has a really great law school.

So where did I get off course and decide to become an engineer, pursuing two majors (Electrical Engineering and Computer Science) — then decide to move to California, work in the tech industry, then join a startup, and then start my own company?

Well the truth is I was NEVER encouraged by anyone to become a lawyer. In fact, as I’ve pointed out in this blog a number of times most of the men in my family are engineers. And when I told most people I wanted to be a lawyer people were actually shocked that I didn’t want to be a doctor or engineer despite coming from an Indian immigrant family.

But what led up to me actually switching? While I was growing up no one told me to be an engineer, my family didn’t even push me towards a particular career they just figured I’d end up in finance, engineering, or medicine. But there were a couple things that were happening on the sidelines. First my mom and dad really pushed me to excel at math and science mostly because they wanted me to keep up with the other Indian kids, which I didn’t really care about but it did make me more competitive in other areas like high school debate. Second, I’ll never forget the day I went to my cousin’s house and saw she had a computer, I really wanted one badly… Why? Because I wanted to play video games, type up my short stories faster, explore on the internet, and submit pretty book reports to my teacher.

I just wanted a computer to live a full life and accomplish goals I had. Finally, there was the time that my dad took me to see his fab when he worked for Texas Instruments (my dad has actually worked for a lot of the big players: Sony, TI, Intel, Samsung, and Microchip). I was just blown away when I saw how the little robotic arm picked up each wafer (computer chip) and moved it over. I just sat there and stared at it for hours. Despite the curiosity of how things worked, the lifestyle of being an engineer was not glamorous to me. I grew up watching Ally McBeal…

So what did finally got me into engineering? Realizing I was a builder.

I realized that all my life what I really enjoyed more than anything was building and creating things that made life more enjoyable. I always loved technology, I taught myself how to make my first webpage using Geocities in high school, I used to hang out with the nerdy boys who would burn CDs on the weekends, and spent hours on the internet reading, researching, and of course chatting with people who I wasn’t supposed to (a/s/l ring a bell?!).

I was literally sitting in my freshman economics class bored to tears and tired of just reading and writing papers. I wanted to build something. I wanted to create. And that’s what drove me to taking my first computer science class in college. The rest is history.

How do you encourage engineering?

But enough about me, this is about how we can encourage young women or girls to become femgineers. Well let’s start with what it means to be a femgineer. I coined the term almost five years ago and started this blog. To me being a femgineer means you are an engineer at the core, you enjoy building things in software or hardware, but you are chic and sophisticated, you have a personality beyond being a nerd. Maybe you like to travel, speak a few languages, play sports, enjoy cooking, and the list goes on. Its not enough to tell girls what they should become or what society needs, you need to sell them on the vision of what life will be like, and how you affect the world. In order to that you need to have role models.

When I was growing up there were hardly any women in engineering that were strong role models — until I met my college professor Lisa Huettel. She was the first female engineer who inspired me. She was young, energetic, and I loved her method of teaching and the time that she took with each student. She was one of the driving forces for me switching into engineering in college.

We need more role models and we need to showcase them front and center. Point out their achievements both as an engineer and in life. It’s important to take a holistic approach — work isn’t everything.

How do you retain engineers?

When I was graduating from college, I noticed a lot of my peers actually didn’t go on to become engineers — both men and women — even people who were better engineers in college than me! What did they go on to become? Investment bankers and consultants.

Why? Because they saw absolutely no value in being an engineer. What they had experienced through internships were dull days of sitting behind a desk coding, little to no social interaction, and forget the opportunity for travel or making bank. Being a consultant had a glamorous lifestyle at least on face value.

Then I saw the same thing happen at large companies. Women who were engineers were leaving to become mothers or pursue other jobs where they could meet with people on a daily basis instead of sitting behind a desk.

Those who were initially interested in engineering are dropping out. It’s not that they don’t like building or problem solving — they’re unhappy with the their job or the lifestyle. These people initially bought into the vision of building, problem solving, and creating products that improve people’s lives. But the reality of it was long hours, lack of appreciation, and unhappiness caused by sitting at a desk coding all day. Being treated like a cog will not inspire or motivate people.

We can encourage young girls and boys to pursue jobs as engineers all we want. But if we don’t do a good job of keeping them motivated, they will drop out at some point whether its high school, college, or even after the enter the industry. Part of the reason many engineers join startups is because they get to be part of the product, process, and profits.

When children are growing up, explain to them what it means to be an engineer. Point out the jobs that are out there in hardware, software, and design. Show them the value in building and creating.

Want more femgineers or mengineers?

Encourage them every step of the way — it’s the only way to inspire and motivate anyone!

This post was originally posted at Femgineer.

Editor’s note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below.

About the guest blogger: Poornima Vijayashanker is Founder & CEO of BizeeBee. Prior to that, she was at Mint where she began as employee #3 in 2006, and stayed through the startup’s acquisition by Intuit for $170M in 2010. Prior to Mint, she was in the Master’s degree program for computer science at Stanford University but dropped out to join Mint. Poornima holds a double degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering and Computer Science from Duke University. Poornima blogs on Femgineer.com and is a competitive yoga. Follow her on Twitter at @poornima.

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