People who are not part of the majority population in the workplace are often discredited, undervalued, objectified, or made invisible, whether intentionally or unintentionally. This is true of underrepresented racial and ethnic groups and sexual minorities. It is also true for women whenever women are underrepresented in their professions or work environments – as is almost always true in the engineering workplace. Of course, by being the “only” one in a room, women are actually even more likely to stand out. But ironically, this does not always counteract the diminishing behaviors of colleagues that can cause women to be treated as invisible. Further, outnumbering can be made even worse when the workplace culture values more masculine behaviors. In these settings, women are viewed at best as unusual and at worst as inferior. In fact, this same diminishing of those who are different tends to also happen to men and non-binary individuals in engineering if they fail to display highly masculine traits.

Death by a Thousand Paper Cuts

Workplace research has confirmed and underscored the ways in which women are diminished in engineering. Women are more likely to be:
  • Ignored or disregarded in meetings
  • Assigned less technical or less critical tasks
  • Presumed by others to have a non-engineering role during new workplace encounters
  • Given more of the office “housekeeping tasks” like planning birthday celebrations
  • Be evaluated on personality rather than job performance
  • Be passed over for promotions
While, in general, no single diminishing behavior demoralizes a woman or wipes out her career prospects, over time, the behaviors add up. And over time, they can dramatically reduce job satisfaction, and also cause women to have inadequate time and opportunity to improve their skills and advance their careers. Even worse, since many of these diminishing behaviors are subtle, women often brush them off. Without clear proof of being marginalized, women push through feelings of being diminished, treating it as weakness in themselves rather than fault within the work culture and environment. In the following story (based on an accounting of actual events), Jada experiences that very feeling. While tempted to internalize marginalizing behaviors from her coworkers, she decides instead to try an experiment – to see if indeed the behaviors that have hurt her are a function of her abilities or instead of her gender.

Jada's Story

When Jada was young, she got hooked on video games. She loved losing herself in the virtual worlds, creating and developing her characters, gaining skills and experience to progress through levels of the storyline, and interacting with other gamers from around the world. Gaming for Jada was entertaining, challenging, and a vital part of her social network.

So it was not at all surprising that Jada decided to pursue a career in creating the games she loved. She knew it was a difficult path – many more people aspired to this than there were jobs available. So, she set about it with the determination she brought to anything she was passionate about.

Jada researched universities and chose one that had a history of strong connections to the video gaming industry. She graduated top of her class with a double major in computer science and graphic design. Of course, she was mostly surrounded by men during her time in school, but she was perfectly comfortable with that. She was used to being around lots of guys, both in person and virtually, from her game-playing time. Their common interest was what mattered, not their genders. And sure, the guys were often more crude than her female roommates, but she really wasn’t squeamish about that stuff.

So when she landed her first job at Wizard Games, she was ecstatic. She couldn’t wait to learn the business and move up the ranks. She was perfectly content with starting at the bottom, but she also had a career path planned that would direct her into leadership roles in technical and creative game design.

A few months into her new job though, she started to feel her enthusiasm begin to crack. At first, she thought it was just a sense of loneliness. But she wasn’t too concerned. Of course, she would expect some awkwardness as she tried to settle in and learn her way around. She did sometimes wish that her new co-workers would invite her now and then to join them as they gathered for lunch or talked about weekend plans. But that was a minor concern; she really didn’t feel like she needed to be best friends with her coworkers…at least that was how she felt most of the time.

Eventually, though, she did connect with Dan from her group, and Ella, whom Dan introduced her to at lunch one day. Dan and Ella both had each been working there for a few years and Jada enjoyed being able to listen to them and pick up on the subtleties of the decision-making processes at Wizard. Knowing that she could bounce ideas off them or talk to them about her struggles with other coworkers really helped her to feel like she could shake off those feelings of being diminished.

Jada charged on, determined, and after she passed her two-year anniversary, she felt she had the lay of the land and was ready to propose a new project that she was really excited about. She prepared and over-prepared and prepared again for her presentation at one of their division meetings. After it was all over, she was sure that she had nailed it. But when her presentation was met with a few polite but clearly disinterested comments, she was not only shocked but deflated. She couldn't understand what went wrong.

At lunch the next day, Dan, who had seen her presentation, affirmed her presentation and was as surprised as she was about the lukewarm, offhand response she had received. Dan's reaction only made Jada’s disappointment turn into frustration – and if she was honest, even a bit of anger. So, she brought it back to Dan.

“Look, I want to do an experiment. I’ve heard people say that sometimes women’s ideas are just dismissed because subconsciously, tech guys don’t take them as seriously. In a month, we have another division meeting. Will you ask for a spot on the agenda and give my presentation? You can have all the materials I used…just bring it as a new idea.”

Dan looked at her skeptically. “Jada, really? I mean I’ve heard that stuff too, but these guys aren’t like that. They aren’t the stereotypical tech guys who live like they never left their wild fraternity houses. They’re good guys. Besides, won’t I look stupid presenting something they have already heard?”

Jada insisted. “Dan, I just want to know. Would you please do this, just this once?”

Reluctantly, Dan agreed. The division meeting arrived, and Dan gave Jada’s presentation. He used her slides and her script. As Jada would later say, “The whole room was like, oh my gosh, this is amazing!”

Dan was shocked, speechless. His face turned beet red, and when he looked at Jada, his dismay was written all over his face. This was something he couldn’t unsee.

Read more in our Women in Engineering Blog
Additional stories about women's lived experience in the workplace can be found on our blog.

How to recognize and diminish Diminishing behaviors at Work:
Bryan, J. (2020). How to Combat Marginalizing Behaviors in the Workplace. Gartner. Full text is here.

Henry, Alan (2019). How to Succeed When You’re Marginalized or Discriminated Against at Work. New York Times. Full text is here.

Krbecheck, A. & Tagle, A. (2020). How To Survive In A Mostly White Workplace: Tips For Marginalized Employees. National Public Radio. Full text is here.

More about Marginalization of Women in Engineering:
Foust-Cummings, H., Sabattini, L., & Carter, N. (2008). Women in technology: Maximizing talent, minimizing barriers (ISBN# 0-89584-278-5). Catalyst. Full text is here.

Hewlett, S. A., Luce, C., Servon, L., Sherbin, L., Shiller, P., Sosnovich, E., & Sumberg, K. (2008). The Athena factor: Reversing the brain drain in science, engineering, and technology. Harvard Business School.

Hewlett, S. A., Sherbin, L., Dieudonne, F., Fargnoli, C., & Fredman, C. (2014). Athena 2.0: Accelerating female talent in science, engineering, and Technology. Center for Talent Innovation. Full text is here.

Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (n.d.). The social identity theory of intergroup behavior. In S. Worchel & W. G. Austin (Eds.), Psychology of Intergroup Relation (pp. 7–24). Hall Publishers.

van Veelen, R., Derks, B., & Endedijk, M. D. (2019). Double Trouble: How Being Outnumbered and Negatively Stereotyped Threatens Career Outcomes of Women in STEM. Frontiers in Psychology, 10. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00150

Williams, J. C., Li, S., Rincon, R., & Finn, P. (2016). Climate control: Gender and racial bias in engineering? (p. 152). Center for Worklife Law & Society of Women Engineers. Full text is here.