Back up your assertions with numbers. Imposter syndrome exists, and while the classic advice is “fake it ’til you make it,” supporting yourself with statistics or calculations gives you (and your peers) confidence in what you’re saying. One of the questions I ask myself often when doing structural analysis is “does this answer make sense?” Particularly when I was first trying to learn the software, it was too easy to make mistakes just by not knowing where the buttons were. Being able to do a rough hand calculation gave me the confidence to either say “the answer from the software is correct” or go and ask for help and say “the answer from the software doesn’t match my hand calculation, where did I go wrong?”
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Allison Redderson-Lear.
Allison is a mechanical engineer at Saratech Inc. She does a variety of work, including design, analysis, and process automation, maintaining a holistic view of the engineering process. She has a BS in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Irvine.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Back in high school, my AP physics teacher (a former engineer) set out to teach his class what it meant to be an engineer. He showed us a lot of cool engineering things — a Ruben’s tube, videos of the choreographed Dubai Fountain — but the thing that stuck with me most was a movie from the 80’s about an engineer in a nuclear power plant. The plant has some issues, and the supervising engineer discovers that corners were cut back when the plant was first built.
My teacher brought home how the engineer’s first priority is always safety. He talked about how engineers have an ethical responsibility for themselves, the people around them, and the world. In most media, the engineer is typically the person behind the desk, or on the phone, who exists to provide exposition for the heroes. My teacher talked about engineers themselves as heroes, and for me, it was a kind of heroism within reach.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
The most interesting thing about working at Saratech is how much management is willing to listen to its employees. After we reorganized our technical team, we still had some leftover policies and processes that didn’t make sense anymore, and felt unfair to the team. Management was open to making changes, but we needed everyone’s buy-in, both the technical team and upper management. My coworker and I spearheaded the initiative to get the changes made, interfacing with both, until we came to an agreement.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I had been doing some work on a database for a customer for a few weeks, working on-site at their location. They were a big customer. The kind that shows up on the front page of the newspaper regularly and has millions of followers on social media. I was completely new to what I was doing, and to this day I don’t know how I did what I did, but somehow, I deleted the database I was supposed to be working on. I went and told the project manager, and as he was calling the customer to let them know, I figured out how to restore it from the backup. I breathed a sigh of relief — until I went to the customer site the next day and discovered my computer and the nametag on my desk were gone. My contact wasn’t answering the phone. I was sure I’d lost us the contract, and that I’d be fired. Turns out the customer had moved desks around and sent me an email telling me where my new desk was, but since they’d moved my computer I couldn’t access my email to see where I was supposed to go.
I learned two things: backup often, always have a test database instead of giving production access with admin privileges to newbies, and check your email before you leave on Fridays.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Saratech stands out because we’re an engineering solutions provider. Our goal is to build relationships with our customers, and that means helping them not just with whatever work they need done now, but also asking questions about their long-term goals so that we can do things now to set them up for success later.
One example that has come up a few times is when a customer wants to do a finite element analysis and has built their finite element model using almost entirely solid elements. Solid elements aren’t necessarily wrong, but they’re computationally intensive. In many cases, they can be replaced with other element types, cutting down on the time it takes for the analysis to run without losing much in return. Most times, the customer doesn’t realize it’s an issue and it’s up to us to let them know.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes! I’m very excited to be working with aerospace companies on getting humanity off this planet and into space. Pushing our limits is how we improve as a species, and I’m excited to see the new technologies that are born from our endeavors.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
Most importantly, I think that parental leave should be longer, particularly in the United States. Lack of parental leave forces many women to choose between a career and their health and family. While this isn’t a STEM-specific issue, I believe it causes a certain amount of brain drain as women are incentivized (by their employers, by gender roles) to quit or not pursue a career at all if they want to have kids.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
The biggest is feeling welcome throughout their career. Of course there are the obvious social and professional situations where women are brushed off or ignored, but there are also physical barriers as well. One engineering building I worked in didn’t have a restroom I could use. I had to walk to the neighboring building until they converted a men’s room to an all-gender restroom. Personal protective equipment (PPE) and safety gear is often designed for men and doesn’t account for physical differences between men and women, which results in women either needing to make special requests for equipment that fits, or walking around in equipment that’s so large or ill-fitting it’s more of a safety hazard than anything else. We can engage young girls in STEM subjects from an early age, but we can’t stop there. Nothing says “You don’t belong here” like being required to make special requests for basic needs.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?
Something I see a lot, particularly online, are women talking about how hard it is to be a woman in a male-dominated field, how terrible their work environment is, and how maybe they should go back to school or change fields. Obviously, that’s true for many (if not the majority) — it can be hard being a woman in a male-dominated field. The myth I want to dispel is that this is true across the board. Not all engineering jobs are created equal. If you’re in a job where you and your work aren’t valued, or your voice isn’t heard, or it’s just plain toxic, look for a new job! Engineering companies with balanced, healthy teams exist; you don’t need to get out of STEM entirely to find an employer you can be happy working for.
Women leaving STEM fields discourages young girls from pursuing STEM careers, it reduces the number of role models and doesn’t facilitate change in STEM industries to encourage healthy professional relationships with women.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- People will assume you’re a secretary or other administrative person. Don’t let them treat you like one. One of my female engineer friends was in a meeting with a customer and the VP of her company. She was there to give a presentation on her work to the customer, but as the meeting started, the VP handed her his laptop and asked her — right there in front of the customer — to install software for him. She handed the laptop back, and said, “That’s not my job, especially not now. If you need software installed, ask IT.”
- Back up your assertions with numbers. Imposter syndrome exists, and while the classic advice is “fake it ’til you make it,” supporting yourself with statistics or calculations gives you (and your peers) confidence in what you’re saying. One of the questions I ask myself often when doing structural analysis is “does this answer make sense?” Particularly when I was first trying to learn the software, it was too easy to make mistakes just by not knowing where the buttons were. Being able to do a rough hand calculation gave me the confidence to either say “the answer from the software is correct” or go and ask for help and say “the answer from the software doesn’t match my hand calculation, where did I go wrong?”
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions, particularly “how does x work?” and “why is x done that way?” Technology evolves quickly, but people and processes don’t always keep up.
- Try new things, get your team onboard, and evaluate the change after it’s implemented. The transition will be rough without your team supporting it (one customer I talked to was willing to spend 6 figures on a contract for us to do work in their new software because their current employees “refuse to switch from the old software”). If the new way is just as broken as the old way, you haven’t fixed anything!
- Listen when your team comes to you with a problem, and involve them in crafting a solution. Allowing them agency builds trust in you as a leader and helps them feel invested in the team as a whole.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Come up with optional team-building activities. Saratech is spread out over the United States, and it’s great to be able to get to know coworkers I don’t normally interact with, whether it’s a local activity like an escape room, or a remote activity like playing a game in a video call.
Wherever possible, align a member’s work with their career goals and stand up for the team whenever necessary. You are the connecting piece between the team and upper management, and only you have the ability to make sure their tasks and goals are reasonable and achievable.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Other companies spend huge amounts of time, effort, and money monitoring the productivity of their employees, without keeping track of metrics that really matter, particularly as more employees are working from home. Busywork does not equate to success. Involve your team in deciding on fair, sensible metrics. For example, Saratech used to measure the success of its customer support team by the number of customer support tickets that were closed. But that metric counted quick and easy support tickets the same as long and difficult ones, and after talking it over with the whole team, we decided to measure success by how quickly tickets were being picked up after being opened instead.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Both my parents. Both are former software engineers and not only did they fund my education, but they also supported me in learning new things and hobbies. They started by giving me old appliances to disembowel, then let me help with handiwork around the house to learn how to use power tools and hand tools as I got older. They introduced me to programming and robotics, and put up with it when I got paper and tape all over the house trying to make a scale model of the solar system. There was never “girl stuff” or “boy stuff,” just “fun stuff” and “stuff you’ll get in trouble for because it’s unhealthy and/or dangerous.”
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
By supporting those following a similar path I did, at any stage in their life. Telling my 2 year old relative that her brothers are wrong, she can play video games even though she’s a girl. Not just helping someone with their math or physics homework, but getting excited about it and maybe showing them something cool that applies what they’re learning. Helping a friend update their resume and practicing interview questions with them. I hope all of these things build up the support systems of those around me so that they feel equipped to taking on the challenges — STEM-related and otherwise — that come up in their lives.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Is “critical thinking” a movement? Information these days spreads like wildfire (whether or not it’s true!) and new ideas and ways of thinking are cropping up all the time. It’s important to be able to evaluate your thoughts and beliefs as objectively as possible. Lack of this kind of self-examination plays into misinformation, props up a culture of outrage, and keeps you from growing as a person and staying informed. Critically examining your beliefs and convictions strengthens those that are true, breaks down those that aren’t, and allows you to talk about them calmly to someone who disagrees.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Would you rather have it and not need it, or need it and not have it?”
This works for anything from figuring out if I want to bring a sweater when I go out to figuring out if I want to donate to a particular charity. This quote can be rephrased as “What is the cost of being wrong?” and I wish more people would ask this question when they make decisions, particularly during this coronavirus pandemic. The cost of being wrong (about wearing a face covering, or practicing physical distancing) is the lives and livelihoods of those around you.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Terry Gross, host of Fresh Air on NPR. She’s been hosting the show for almost 45 years and done thousands of interviews with all kinds of people.