Fitting In: The Benefits and Setbacks of Being A Woman in A Male-Dominated Workplace

White gummy bears with a red gummy bear in the middle, male-dominated workplace concept


In this piece, Katy Gero discusses 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.”

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. 

About the author

Katy Gero

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.



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