When I started in engineering there were two women in my college class in the Aerospace and Mechanical School. There were other women engineering students, scattered throughout the other schools that make up the engineering college. We met together once at a Society of Women Engineers, or SWE, chapter meeting on campus. The University of Oklahoma had a small and rather inert chapter at the time. In fact, this particular meeting is the only one I remember attending or that was even offered.
The guest speaker that night was a real, no kidding, living, thriving, woman engineer. They really did exist! I remember being excited to actually meet someone who is not only female but also works and gets paid for doing engineering work. Anticipation grew.
A large woman in a yellow polyester pantsuit entered the room. Her hair had that old lady, bowling league look. She appeared as Susan Boyle before we knew she could sing. I was scared to death. Was that my future? Was this the ‘uniform’ of the female engineer? Was I doomed to a career that put fashion last; make that dead last?
This stereotype of women engineers sat in front of the room talking to us about the joys of the profession, but all I could wonder was: does she own a mirror? Didn’t she at least live with an elderly mother who would tell her she looked like that?
A year or so later, my suspicions of what I was up against as a female in the engineering world entering were confirmed. It was late in the summer of my first job at Halliburton. One of the men I worked with, and had gotten to know quite well over the course of the summer, confided that he had been unsure what to expect when told I was joining the group. Well, not exactly ‘me’ per se, but a female engineer. He admitted his vision was that of a tank of a woman, very butch, tomboyish, much like the first woman engineer I’d met.
I think or at least like to think this man was relieved that I didn’t resemble his vision. Physical appearance certainly doesn’t trump technical expertise, but it evidently keeps the guys from being intimidated.