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Getting a Seat at The Engineering Table


Getting a Seat at The Engineering Table

By Tali Fixler, Process Engineer


I didn’t always know I wanted to become an engineer. It was Shirin, the wife of my Math tutor, who told me I should study engineering. She said it confidently, and I nodded with consent, went back home, and informed my parents about my new plan.

They said no.

The best engineering school was in the north of the country, and there was a perfectly good university right next to home. I should learn there, but they don’t offer engineering degrees.

Unfortunately for my parents, I was 16 and headstrong. Even more unfortunate for them, I got one more “no” from the high school headmaster, who told me I shouldn’t waste my time on university acceptance exams, as I would probably fail, and it’s best to invest time in finding a good husband. Naturally, engineering became my only goal in life, and I had no complete picture of what the job entailed. After graduating from university, I was offered a job at a dairy production plant; I was not sure what to do there all day. I wasn’t sure what was in store for me.

Two years into that position, I could better answer, “What is an engineer?”  Coming up with an excellent solution to surprising problems is the short version of “Who opened that valve, and how should we clean a PVC tap-water pipe that contained stagnate raw milk for three days?” The question that remained unanswered (except, of course, “Who opened that valve?”) was what does it mean to be a female in engineering. It can be assumed that graduating and getting a job that allowed me to practice engineering would be the end of any gender-biased discrimination I faced. Well, there was more.

The credibility of a woman on the production floor, a “manly” environment, felt questionable. When I suspected we had a problem with one of the valves, a technician explained that the scenario I described was impossible and sent me back to my office to think about why I was wrong. I thought about it even after I left my office. I thought about it for two days and 1.5 nights. I spent the rest of the second night driving to the facility with a plan to prove my point. I set the scene to have a malfunction that can be caused only by having this valve fail at a specific time. And it happened, just on time. I love my job.

When the engineer whose position I inherited heard the story, she told me she had suspicions regarding this specific valve. When she approached the technician, he said she suffers from “pregnancy stupidity,” an insulting term undermining her competence due to her pregnancy.

Gender-based discrimination is subtly woven into our education systems, societal norms, and unconscious biases. These barriers deny countless young girls and women the opportunities they are destined for—careers that have the potential to shape a better world. And when parenthood enters the picture, an additional layer of guilt is heaped upon women—why would you have a child if you’re going to put them in daycare? These questions are rarely posed to men. Once one stops listening to these voices, the world makes sense again.

Though there may not be a direct line connecting my parents’ objection, my high school headmaster’s insistence on marriage, and the technician’s assumption of my incompetence, the underlying belief remains the same: an idea that women don’t belong in technical fields.

Tasks like designing a process, calculating pressure drops in a pipe, and discussing automation or HVAC, can get complicated. Studies claim that women tend to doubt themselves more than men, a phenomenon that called “The Confidence Gap”, but are those studies taking into account the deficiencies in the education systems that reinforce gender stereotypes? And to take this question down to my actual life, could I be quicker to solve the problematic valve riddle, if I was a man? I was raised to be a sweetheart, not a glass-ceiling breaker, and yes, I admit that in the first years I was strongly affected by the constant need to prove anyone around me I deserve a seat at the engineering table. The fear to make a mistake slowed me down and held me back, not only compared to my male colleagues, but also compared to my actual abilities.

For me, self-assurance, or even just minimizing my self-doubts, was the main difference between being a female in engineering and an engineer. If I am successful, it is because I am good at what I do. If I fail, it is because I still have much to learn. I was born with engineering wings and refused to cut them to meet someone else’s expectations. I enjoy my work, and it was worth it even though I had to stumble to get here. I added each obstacle to my motivation engine and created a monster.

Yes, I am an engineer.


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