Wearing baggy clothing, avoiding makeup, and refraining from painting my nails are all things I have personally done to try and fit in with “the boys.” But by doing that I felt like I wasn't being true to myself and I was hiding who I was.
After three years of industry work in the world of engineering, between working in irrigation systems, mechanical engineering, and crop systems management, I have found five ways to maintain my femininity while not compromising my work quality or my work relationships.
1. Find Clothes That Are Work-Appropriate but Also Flattering
It can be tricky to find clothing and personal protection equipment (PPE) that fits well as a woman in the engineering industry. For the longest time, the only solution for women was to downsize as much as possible and hope that they could find a size that fits. A common solution for women was to size men’s shoes two sizes down. But for women with small sizes, they couldn’t find them, because they just weren't being made. And it’s not always safe to settle for just "sizing down." Baggy clothing can get caught and is a hazard on site. For women who are working on-site, popular brands like Carhartt and Lincoln Electric are slowly introducing women’s lines of overalls, coveralls, welding protection, and PPE into their clothing.
New brands geared specifically for women have been popping up as more women have entered engineering.
For women who spend a good portion of their time in office engineering, it can be tricky to find office wear that transitions to field checks. New brands geared specifically for women have been popping up as more women have been entering engineering. With cute and functional fashion, Xena is one such brand that has taken this challenge and succeeded. They design blazers with clean lines and practicality in their multiple pockets. Their patent leather booties and boots are OSHA-approved and designed by women for women. Their founder Ana Kraft wrote this about Xena: “I decided to develop versatile workwear so that we never have to make a choice between function and fashion.” With clean-cut blazers, leather boots, and simple accessories, it's never been easier to meet OSHA standards and look amazing at the same time
2. Don’t Be Afraid of Nail Polish or Makeup
Women in the industry often avoid nail polish because it sets them apart and makes them an easy target for jokes. But for that same reason, I enjoy it. Red nails make you look cool and confident in who you are. While fake nails can be a work hazard, there’s nothing wrong with basic polish or gel nails. And with nail wraps, it's never been easier to keep your hands looking nice while not compromising on safety. If your coworker doesn't take you seriously because you have painted hands, they aren't going to take you seriously anyway. If wearing nail polish makes you feel more put together or comfortable, do it. Female engineers deserve cute hands too! Besides, you’re going to work better if you’re more comfortable.
Makeup, when done tastefully, is perfectly acceptable, but it was something that I shied away from for years. I thought that wearing mascara or foundation might take away from my credibility in my field, but that is so far from the truth. Makeup can’t add or take away from your knowledge, experiences, and expertise. If you’re working outside for a long period of time you need to be wearing SPF, so you might as well find a tinted one that you feel fabulous in at the same time.
3. Ask for Help When You Need It
Asking for help is hard, especially when you’re trying to break into an industry that values independence and go-getters. But compromising your health by trying to lift something too heavy or lying that you understand the project helps no one. There’s no embarrassment in asking for help. Be upfront with your needs and what you’re struggling with – your co-workers can’t read minds. Communication is key in any job, but especially in high-risk and stressful environments.
Communication is key in any job, but especially in high-risk and stressful environments.
I was once asked why I was asking a fellow classmate in a lab to carry a sheet of metal for me. I explained that the metal was almost half of my body weight and I didn’t feel like throwing out my back just to move it. When fully explained the guys understood. They often forget that smaller people have lower limits of strength and are completely understanding if reminded.
4. Don’t Pick Up Swearing Just Because “The Men Do It”
Everyone knows locker-room talk is a thing, and crude language and gross jokes are commonplace in the world of engineering. But just because the men do it doesn’t mean you need to. If you don't swear, don't start just to try and fit in. Be confident in your choices. If someone is pressuring you to swear, they probably won’t respect your boundaries in other aspects of work. Call them out, say that you don't swear or appreciate the pressure to swear. And stick to your boundaries with this. Having grace and class is not just how you dress but also the way you hold yourself with poise and the words you use.
5. Expect the Men To Treat You with Respect
Imposter syndrome is hard to combat but just because you might feel insecure about your abilities doesn’t give someone the right to mistreat you. Some of the best female athletes, singers, and artists have opened up about imposter syndrome. Sonia Sotomayor, Supreme Court Justice once said, “I have spent my years since Princeton, while at law school and in my various professional jobs, not feeling completely a part of the worlds I inhabit. I am always looking over my shoulder wondering if I measure up.”
You might feel insecure about your abilities, but that doesn’t give someone the right to disrespect you.
If someone isn’t respecting you either on a work project or in the field, don’t let it go unaddressed. While girl boss culture comes off aggressive and flamboyant, there are ways to be assertive without compromising your femininity. Trust the professors, industry leaders, and bosses you have previously had to have done their job well in training you. They believed in you, surely you can believe in yourself.
No matter where you are in your career, whether an intern or have had a lifetime career in the industry, never compromise your values for the industry. If you want to wear red lipstick, wear red lipstick. Hold your head high, embrace your femininity, and don’t be afraid of an industry just because it's male denominated. You belong there just as much as they do. Remember that the younger generation of women engineers or tradesmen is looking up to you, and your actions can encourage them to succeed in their careers. Be the person you needed when you entered the industry.
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