The Inside Perspective: One Woman’s Journey Through Engineering and Beyond

By Jessica Irons

During the scope of my engineering education, I learned that I could always earn respect from my peers, male and female, for my hard work and accomplishments. When I was transferred to a new engineering department in Arlington Heights in 2011 I was shocked to discover the poisonous environment of the notorious “good old boys” club.

After being treated with respect for years I suddenly had been reduced to a “woman” and not an “engineer.” Every aspect of my appearance and personality was picked apart and became an opportunity for judgment and ridicule—my perfume, my clothes, my jewelry, and even my nails.  I was held to different social standards in which the men could say things I was not allowed to say—and the things they said! I had to constantly listen to offensive, rude, insensitive comments from men of all ages and levels of experience.

In my previous engineering experiences, any gender bias that might have existed was quickly erased once I’d proven myself. At Miami, group members who were once wary quickly turned to me for leadership. At Northwestern, I was treated with nothing but respect and courtesy by my classmates and professors. The men in the program were younger than my co-workers, yet more mature and didn’t show bias against women the way the working world does. I graduated Cum Laude from Miami and earned a 3.8 GPA from Northwestern.

The correlation between success and support is easy to determine. After proving myself, my peers supported me, which gave me more confidence, which led to more success, and more respect, etc. In my new department the exact opposite effect took place. The men’s horrendous behavior continued even after I had proven myself.

Soon, engineering was no longer enjoyable for me. My confidence began to wear away as I lived in constant fear of being picked on, ridiculed, talked down to, and had to listen to the  horrible, derogatory way my co-workers talked about women. I dreaded going to work each day and even the engineering became tedious and repetitive.

During this time I was thoroughly enjoying my marketing classes at Northwestern and the way they focused on the bigger picture of strategy, business development, organizational behavior, and marketing. I jumped at the opportunity to transfer to the marketing department when the opportunity arose. My current boss is not a member of the good old boys club and treats me with the utmost respect. My health has improved and I couldn’t be happier, though the men from my former department still hold a great deal of resentment for me.

Although I’m happy to have escaped the negative environment that was holding me back personally and professionally, my journey raises many questions. Do respectful men end up in higher positions or do I prefer marketing because it is not gender-biased the way engineering is? Why is there such a large discrepancy between gender-bias in the classroom and in the workplace? I reported the men to the HR department, but what can be done to change the good old boys club mentality in the workplace?

Jessica Irons is a graduate of Miami University in Ohio and Northwestern University’s Master of Engineering Management program. She is from Midland, Michigan, but currently lives in Palatine, Illinois, and works as a Marketing Specialist for Sonoco Protective (Formerly Tegrant, Protexic Brands).

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