I was having lunch with friends recently. Elizabeth is a successful woman engineer in her late sixties. She has run her own company for many years, having worked for the MoD, Ferranti and other big engineering companies.
We got to talking about the work we do at Aspire Leadership with women in general and engineers in particular. Elizabeth and I have never seen quite eye to eye on this subject so it was a lively discussion.
The way any individual woman tackles her journey through the engineering field varies. Some steadily challenge the status quo, some quietly establish a reputation and others confidently blaze a trail. There are many different paths and who’s to say which is best for any individual?
Elizabeth has never had a problem working in a traditionally male environment and always gave as good as she got, working on exciting and challenging projects and delivering to the highest standard.
She has little, if any, sympathy for women in engineering who find attitudes towards them difficult. In her view:
They knew what they were getting into and if they don’t like it they should get out.
I’m more likely to challenge stereotypes and try to change culture – hence the work I do on our Women Drivers programme.
As we drove home I was debating in my own mind some of the things Elizabeth had said and how her attitude had shaped her experiences as a woman engineer. What struck me quite forcibly was that, contrary to her claims that she had just been lucky, she is actually a remarkable woman and she was right in many ways – something I’ve never admitted to her face!
What sets her apart from many female engineers that I’ve met in my life and work is her unshakeable faith in her ability, experience and intelligence. She knows her own strengths and has always had faith that they will see her through any temporary glitches caused by, as she puts it, ‘silly men’ – i.e. those men with archaic attitudes to women engineers.
Elizabeth never challenged any of the attitudes or practices she met with. When I asked her what she would do if asked to take minutes just because she was a woman and therefore ‘must be good at that sort of thing’, she said she’d just do it rather than challenge the stereotype. But interestingly, that doesn’t mean she’s a pushover or was constantly put upon. Far from it.
What Elizabeth did was to hold her belief in herself so firmly that others could see it and be influenced by it, whether consciously or unconsciously. She understood, believed in and lived her Personal Brand way before anyone had coined the term.
And that’s the key to her success as a woman engineer.