Left Out

It is not uncommon for individuals who are not part of the dominant population in the workplace to feel left out. And, at many levels, feeling left out reflects very real acts of being left out of critical workplace exchanges, from the social to the strategic. At some point in time, everyone experiences feeling like "a fish out of water." But for women in engineering, being left out can become a recurring problem, leading to entrenched feelings of loneliness, lack of belonging, and isolation and increasingly reducing access to advancement and growth opportunities. Formal and informal professional networks at work are something that many take for granted, but for some, robust networks remain frustratingly out of reach. Being left out can manifest in different ways in the engineering workplace for women. Our first story in this series focuses on a cycle of exclusion that can start out seemingly small, but over time takes a big toll on a woman's career and morale.

The Cycle of Exclusion

It is human nature to be drawn to and interact with people who are most similar to us. Whether in a professional or in a social/personal context, this leads to what is often an unintentional process where women are left out of or have a passive role in the initial orientations or other social activities that come with starting a new job. Initial connections that men make in these activities lead to at the very least the start of an informal professional network that often grows organically as the job progresses. If women are not able to make these initial connections or if they are lonely onlys (e.g. the only woman) on the job, this can lead to a cycle where a woman falls further and further behind in developing a professional and personal network to scaffold her career. Without an active mentor or advocate in her sphere, this cycle of exclusion gets worse over time. In her story, Ashley recounts how the cycle all started when she could not make those initial connections at a welcome reception for her intern cohort at a large, well-known, high-tech company.

Ashley's Story

During the summer of my junior year, I was offered an internship at the most prestigious high-tech company in the area. I was thrilled. The job would look so good on my resume and if I could stand out among the gaggle of interns hired at the same time, I stood a good chance of getting a permanent job offer. And, the internship itself would give me opportunities to work on both hardware and software. It was a perfect storm of career opportunities. I was thrilled and anxious to get started. I could barely wait for final exams to be over. I was ready to be out of school and into the "real world" for a few months.

Because there were so many interns, the company held a welcome reception and social for all of us, so we could start to get to know each other and meet other engineers and project managers well outside our own work teams. I wasn't the most outgoing person in the world but I sure recognized this as the perfect time to push myself to be social and make as many connections as possible. I started easy by chatting with the small group of interns that were from my department at school and enjoying the awesome food, way better than my college diet of fast food and ramen. Once I was loosened up by easy conversation and a happy stomach, I broke off and ventured into mingling mode. I was nervous but ready to be part of the "real world."

I wandered among many groups of people who were chatting and adding noise to the already high volume of voices in the crowded room. I passed by group after group, looking for one that was most likely to be a good fit for me. Finally, I stopped at a group of four young people who seemed to be a perfect combination of young engineers and interns. They were all guys, but what else was new in computer engineering?

At first, I just listened, trying to find a thread that I could pick up and insert into the conversation. I waited for any one of the four to acknowledge me, even maybe ask a question that might bring me into the fold. After a few minutes, it was pretty clear that THAT wasn't going to happen and I was feeling more and more awkward and nervous. I wished that I had picked another group, one that might actually acknowledge me and try to include me in their conversation. But I was here now and there was no easy way to walk away, so I concentrated more on their conversation and tried to find an in. I tried a couple of times to interject. The first time, none of them acknowledged that I had said anything. The second time, someone seemed to have heard me, but at the speed of light, redirected what I had said back to the original topic, again leaving me out in the cold. Fortunately, we were all interrupted by the scheduled speaker, and while the group's attention was on our welcome message, I slithered away, feeling like an alien in a foreign land.

What I didn't realize at the time is how much the connections at that social were going to lead to lunches, coffee breaks, and other variations on conversations by the water cooler. It was all pretty organic for the guys. They weren't intentionally leaving me out, but I definitely started the whole internship on the out. Even over the short three months I was there, I fell further and further behind on networking. The guys were out to lunch. I was at my desk working hard to do my best at my assigned tasks. But working hard just wasn't enough. The guys went out after work for a beer, but after #MeToo, they were too afraid of saying or doing something that would be interpreted as sexual harassment, so I think they thought they were protecting me (and themselves) by leaving me out.

The time started to pass more slowly as I felt lonelier and more frustrated by falling further and further behind on coming up to speed on the behavioral norms. When I had a question, was it OK to admit I didn't know and just keep asking? And who was best to ask? other interns? junior engineers? managers? the older guys? Was I looking for help too much? Too little? Was I making good progress in my work? Falling behind? Falling flat on my face? I had no idea how it was going for me. I tried hard, worked long hours, dreamed about problems not yet solved, debugged code in my head while driving home. But, was I cutting the mustard? Or drowning in the ketchup?

At the end of three months, one of the older, more senior engineers in my workgroup stopped by my cubicle and asked me If I was serious about doing the engineering thing. Trying to keep my facial expression as impassive as possible, I looked him in the eye and in my most confident voice, answered "Of course, why do you ask?". He responded with "Well, I don't see you hanging out with the other engineers and talking tech. You just finish your work and go home. Doesn't seem like you are as invested as these other guys."

Sigh. Really?

Strategies for Increasing Belonging and Reducing Isolation:
Carr, Evan W., Reece, Andrew, Kellerman, Garbriella Rosen, & Robichaus, Alexi. (2019). The Value of Belonging at Work. Harvard Business Review. Full text is available here.

Fraser-Thill, Rebecca. (2019). Belonging At Work Is Essential—Here Are 4 Ways To Foster It. Forbes. Full Text is available here.

Gartner (2020). Build a sense of belonging in the workplace. Full text is available here.

Kennedy, Julia Taylor & Jain-Link, Pooja (2021). What does it take to build a culture of belonging. Harvard Business Review. Full text is available here.

Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania (2019). Beyond Diversity: How Firms are Cultivating a Sense of Belonging. Full text is available here.

More about Belonging and Isolation among Women in Engineering:
Cech, E. A., & Waidzunas, T. (2017). STEM Inclusion Study Organization Report: AAPT. University of Michigan. Full text is available here.

Faulkner, W. (2009). Doing gender in engineering workplace cultures. I. Observations from the field. Engineering studies, 1(1), 3-18. Full text is available here.

Faulkner, W. (2009). Doing gender in engineering workplace cultures. II. Gender in/authenticity and the in/visibility paradox. Engineering Studies, 1(3), 169-189. Abstract is available here.

Hatmaker, D. M. (2013). Engineering identity: Gender and professional identity negotiation among women engineers. Gender, Work & Organization, 20(4), 382-396. Abstract is available here.