Fitting In: The Benefits and Setbacks of Being A Woman in A Male-Dominated Workplace
"In my four years in industry, I've never worked with another female engineer. It's easy to forget this."
3 min read
At my first job out of college, the first time I wore a dress was about eight months in. We all went out for a fancy dinner on company dime to celebrate a fund raise. "Wow, you look really nice," my co-workers said, surprised, and in this tone that suggested a backhanded compliment: that I didn't normally look nice. I suspect they were surprised that I even owned a dress.
This is because I never wear dresses to work. Sometimes it's really practical at a physical level: if I work with tools or adhesives or do heavy lifting, I don't want to feel encumbered by my clothing. I also don't own many dresses, so there's that. I bike to work, so depending on the weather they are often impractical. I don't own purses, only backpacks, so I prefer clothing with pockets. These all add up to feeling more comfortable in loose jeans and t-shirts. But I also want to be taken seriously as an engineer. I've always felt that by dressing casually, like the men I work with, I fit in better.
In my four years in the industry, I've never worked with another female engineer. It's easy to forget this. I don't feel like the only female engineer because I feel like an engineer: the distinction has always been between engineers and salespeople, engineers and management, engineers and designers. Part of this distinction is dress. I, like my fellow engineers, wear jeans and t-shirts with flannel or sweatshirts. I work in startups and it's the unspoken dress code even of the software engineers who never have to worry about drill presses or soldering. It's how I fit in. I don't want to feel like the female engineer and so far I've been successful.
When my coworkers told me I looked nice I was not insulted, but I suspect that was the first time they viewed me as quintessentially feminine. This didn't upset me. I'm not bending over backward to dress like a dude. I honestly feel more comfortable in jeans than a skirt. I feel lucky to have a job where I am not required to dress nicely and I would hate the inverse of this: blouses and jackets and high heels are my personal version of a hellish workplace. But I also know that wearing dresses, or otherwise appearing more feminine, will emphasize or remind everyone that I am the only woman in the room. Some people want that kind of attention—nonconformity can indicate confidence or status—but right out of undergrad I was looking to be taken seriously. I did not want anyone to comment on the way I dressed. I wanted them to comment on the way I worked.
Since transitioning into a job where I meet with clients, I ensure that my jeans are well-fitting and clean and my t-shirts are graphic-less. I have a single, nice dress shirt: it's white and I'm terrified I'll stain it. I have bought a pair of simple ankle boots to occasionally replace my sneakers. But it's still clear I'm an engineer; there are no skirts or blazers in sight. I do occasionally wear a sweater dress in the winter. I'm experimenting with looking more feminine, mostly because I do less physical work as I have shifted into more computer-centric roles. I'm also more confident now.
Mostly, though, I hope it doesn't matter too much. Wearing jeans was my de facto choice, not a carefully planned plot to appear less feminine. I have friends who've seen success in dresses or jewelry or heels. Aside from what I would consider to be gender-neutral dress suggestions—nothing too promiscuous, consider if the company has a dress code—it's on the onus of the companies and co-workers to evaluate people based on skills and competence, not the way they look.
Katy Gero has been lucky enough to work at two tech startups with female CEOs. A year after finishing her undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering, she slyly transitioned into data and computer science roles. A long time writer and poet, she loves getting people interested in science and technology and bridging the gap between the arts and engineering.