Facing Misogyny In A Male Dominated Industry

By: Donna Mack Illustration: Ana Hard

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If you want to talk about the struggles women and minorities face in the workforce, I can go on for hours. I graduated MIT with a degree in chemical engineering and during my time there, I interned for a variety of companies, including large, multinational manufacturers and a small, specialty materials start-up in Boston. After graduation, I chose to work for a management consulting company to strengthen my business and management skills after working so long in the pure technical world.

While in school, I experienced imposter syndrome, a feeling many people struggle with, especially women and minorities. Essentially, I felt like I shouldn’t have gotten into such a strong school because I couldn’t be that smart. I felt that because my engineering and science classes were so difficult, maybe I had made the wrong choice in choosing the subject. Even now, I wonder if I made the right decision. There are not many concrete examples where I can say I felt discriminated against, but there was always a societal nudge pushing me to wonder if a woman should be in such a strenuous STEM degree program.

During my internships, research work, and in my current full-time position, I have been the only or one of the few women in the room or the entire office building. I have had numerous times where my work and analysis is questioned more than men at my same level. I’ve come home crying wondering if I’ve made the right choice, and if I’m truly cut out to be in a world and industry so dominated by men.

All of these experiences have only served to strengthen my feminist views. I’m proud to fight for any issue and stand with anyone who feels they are discriminated against because of things that have no bearing on such as their professional and academic abilities. I think everyone should always remain vigilant to ensure biases, whether unconscious or not, don’t creep into any aspect of our lives, especially our work. But over the past few months especially, I’ve wondered if I need to take a step back and look at scenarios I felt lesser than because I was a woman, and wonder if it was truly a discriminatory situation, or whether I was being too defensive.

As a woman in a male-dominated industry, it’s easy for me to feel as though the men around me constantly feel they need to compete with me. I’ve felt as though feedback I’ve gotten from male coworkers and managers was unfair, because it seemed as though they were pushing me harder than my male counterparts. When speaking to some female engineer friends recently, we all agreed - I was right in feeling offended at the seemingly unfair level of scrutiny. I worked hard at my job, and did good quality work. The conversation left me validated for the moment, but part of me wondered if I was missing something.

With all the incredible equality movements happening around the world, women and minorities are moving in the right direction. We’re gaining ground every single day. But for me personally, I wonder if the equality pendulum may sometimes swing too far, making it easier for me to be arrogant. I’ve learned that even though we still have a long way to go, you can’t go into the workplace with a chip on your shoulder. I can’t assume that when I receive criticism, or when people question my decisions, it’s coming from a place of malice. While I have experienced some very negative and saddening moments as a women in STEM, the vast majority of my work and the people I work with have been overwhelmingly positive and only looking to make me stronger.

In a world and industry where women and minorities still have so far to go, it’s been easy for me to take the high road and look at every tough moment as an affront to my professional abilities simply because I’m a woman. Are there times when this is true? Absolutely. For many people I’ve met, this has been the story of their entire career. But I still think it’s important that we make a point of constantly questioning our own paradigms. By putting the blame for certain criticism and questions on the fact that I was a woman, I wasn’t growing as much as I could have been on some of my past projects. I’ve learned I need to always be vigilant to help my coworkers be allies for equality, but also to respect their viewpoints and opinions. I can help them grow in their understanding by challenging scenarios people make me feel lesser than, but also challenge myself to understand where the other person’s viewpoint is coming from and know it’s not always a place of discrimination.

I recognize I have significant privilege in today’s world, and am in a place where I can encourage women to ease off the push for empowerment sometimes. Not too many people can do that. But I do think our world can use more empathy and less divisiveness - we should question our own intentions and reactions in parallel with questioning others’. Women and minorities need allies to get to the positions of equality we need, but we don’t want to alienate them because we can’t accept genuine criticism. It’s a balance I’m working to find.