When I chose a career in engineering, I knew it would be challenging work. However, when I actually found myself as the “only” in one of my first roles out of college, it was even more challenging than I had envisioned. Not only was I the only female engineer, I was also the only Southerner, the only millennial and person under the age of 30, and one of the only singles in the office. It was a lot of only going on. And yes—it was very lonely being only.
I faced a difficult environment as soon as I arrived. Upon introducing myself to my new manager, he turned to another man and laughed, “Did you understand a word she just said?” My Southern accent was further ridiculed as I was shown to my desk. I was told that even though engineers were usually given offices, the last empty office was promised to the engineering intern who would not actually be working there for another two months (I was a full time employee).
For months the harassment continued as my colleagues told blonde jokes and lamented that my presence required the removal of posters covered with scantily clad women—and other worse things. But I pushed on, determined to learn and show them that I was capable of achieving success in a male-dominated field.
I was looking forward to my upcoming career planning session with our office manager. This was a corporate requirement that included creating a detailed plan, outlining the steps to your objective, asking people to be mentors, and planning a timeline to achieve career goals. I had decided that one day I would become an engineering project manager.
I met with my office manager expectantly and pitched my carefully thought-out plan.
He shook his and rolled his eyes. “We used to have a girl—Ellie—who wanted to be a project manager, too. But she got pregnant and left us.” He then shooed me out of his office.
I was not given the opportunity that every other person in the office had been given to discuss future career plans. My career in project management was not given the opportunity to succeed just because I was female and had the ability to reproduce. It seemed insurmountable, and I was devastated.
I ran to the nearest restroom and didn’t worry about my heavy ugly crying, because there were no other women to come in and catch me.
I did what any grown millennial would do. I called my mother.”Well, maybe he’s right! Maybe I’m just not cut out for this type of work and should try another career.”
My mother—the meekest person I know—became suddenly quiet on the line. I thought we had gotten disconnected until she tensely replied with ice cold anger, “Do NOT let a jerk tell you what you’re not capable of. The only jerk who can tell you that is yourself.”
I hadn’t received many pep talks from my mother—and never in such an angry tone. I knew she was absolutely right, and immediately made the decision to seek employment as an engineer elsewhere.
I survived and thrived. I obtained a professional engineering (PE) license, a master’s in engineering, and achieved Project Management Professional (PMP) certification after making the leap into the field.
It’s important for young girls and women of all ages to be surrounded by other women who give them the courage to thrive. There are so many events in our lives that erode our confidence and undermine the amazing things that we are capable of. We need other women to support us in these times, especially when we internalize our limitations and don’t see a path to achievement. A great woman reminded me that a jerk doesn’t have the right to tell me what I’m not capable of, and I’m grateful that I wasn’t the jerk who didn’t listen.