07/25/2013 01:41 pm ET Updated Sep 24, 2013

How to Raise Your Female Voice


As I heard state senator Leticia Van de Putte state a couple of weeks ago, "At what point must a female senator raise her hand or voice to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?" I couldn't help but think of the many other instances where I have wanted to say the same, switching the word "senator" for "engineer."

I had forgotten what it felt like to be a female engineer until I came back to Texas. Somehow during the four years I spent in California I was more aware of the ethnic diversity in my classes than gender. But once back, when I stepped into my first engineering graduate school class, I quickly noticed I was the only female in the room.

In my male-dominated course, I butted heads with the boys in my group. I literally felt like I had to scream to make my voice be heard. I had to struggle with them challenging all of my ideas, their chauvinistic remarks about our female professor, and them taking credit for my work. This was a prototyping class, in a manufacturing and design degree, and the boys were scared of using table saws and making rapid prototypes. Given their limited knowledge, I never quite understood why they felt entitled to treat me that way. At the end of the day, I had to learn to put up with it.

I certainly did not have that experience during my undergraduate years. I completed my senior project with two great guys who I certainly did not have to convince my ideas might work, even when they didn't. Granted, we probably spent more time sharing puppy pictures and Dragon Ball Z links, but the group just worked.

From my time working in both functional and non-functional male-dominated groups I have learned a couple of things that have helped me in making my voice heard:

  • Analyze your group. Be very aware of the personality types you have. When you're placed in groups you often start to catch on to who will be the slacker, who is going to want to lead, and who is going to just sit back and go along. Understanding how the dynamics of the group will work from the beginning will help you be the one pushing the project forward.
  • Decide what role you want to play. If you don't think the person leading the project has the skills, let it be known. Be conscious of what you want to get out of the group or project and adjust your role accordingly. Lastly, if you're ever assigned to a group where you know beforehand you will not get along with the people in it, ask to be changed.
  • Be consistent and persistent. No matter what group you are in, whether functional or dysfunctional, be consistent in your tasks and persistent in your goals. The best way to push your ideas forward is by showing you can be dependable with any assignment. No one is going to take the slacker seriously when it comes down to making a group decision.
  • Be friendly or be friends. There's a big difference between being friendly and being friends. Friendly was me having casual conversations with the guys who had to verify any idea I came up with. Friends are the guys I still get random Snapchat updates from or random e-mail updates a year after we graduated. If you go into a group knowing you can never be friends, establish a cordial relationship and set boundaries. If you can tell you can be friends, let it be! There's nothing better than being able to laugh at your combined misery after working on a project for ten hours straight and suddenly realizing it's breakfast time.