Women still discriminated against in engineering; alumna faces lower pay, unconscious bias, harassment in workforce

For all the future female engineers out there, I’ve got some good news and some bad news. 

The good news is this: your field of choice is an amazing one, and you’ll like your work a lot. Engineering will offer you a wide range of jobs, and you are more than capable of succeeding in every one of them.

The bad news is that you may not like the environment you’re working in – or rather, the environment may not like you. 

Marigot, Marigot, Marigot. Come on. What are you talking about? This is the 21st century we’re living in. Discrimination against women in the workforce? That’s a thing of the past, isn’t it? 

Well, I thought so, too. But according to Sara Rahimian, ‘94, the work scene for female engineers isn’t quite as hunky-dory as you might expect.

“Students hear a lot of enthusiasm about getting more women in tech, but that doesn’t really show the reality of the situation,” Rahimian said. 

“We hear about it as this thing that people are trying to make happen more and more, so it feels like it’s just a matter of getting more girls to join the workforce. People make it sound like that’s all we need to do, like that’ll solve the problem. 

“But it’s actually not true. The industry is just not a particularly friendly environment for women, even now. Very much now.”

Rahimian graduated from UC Berkeley with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science in 1999, and has worked as an engineer/engineering manager for various companies over the last 18 years.

For her, college went as expected. The men outnumbered the women in her classes, but that was nothing out of the ordinary.

It was what lay in store for her after college that caught her off guard.

Sara Rahimian, '94
(Photo used by permission of Rahimian)
Sara Rahimian, ’94

“Electrical engineering and software programming have the lowest percentage of females,” Rahimian said. 

“But the thing that becomes clear once you come out of schooling and start going into engineering jobs is how much worse the percentages are. It’s not like 10 percent (of women) start out as engineers, and those 10 percent remain engineers.”

The gender percentages weren’t the only thing that shocked Rahimian. She’s also been confronted with blatant bullying.

“Women who speak up are perceived as louder than men,” she said. “I’ve literally had men tell me to shut up during meetings for trying to make a technical argument. 

“I’ve never heard a guy tell another guy to shut up in a meeting.”

Rahimian has suffered and witnessed wage discrimination as well. As a manager, she could see that her female co-workers were being paid significantly less than their male counterparts – sometimes even less than their male inferiors. Rahimian herself has been consistently paid 15-25 percent less than males in similar positions. 

In addition, she’s often been given promotions in work responsibilities without the corresponding title bumps and pay raises.

“I’ve actually had a really hard time having career advancement conversations,” Rahimian said. 

“I’ve had managements that simply won’t engage in the conversation of a woman becoming a director. 

“Meetings to talk about career advancements were literally getting cancelled, or pushed out and pushed out and pushed out. Or I’d walk in the room, ready to talk, and (the higher-ups) would just take the conversation on a total tangent. 

“One time I sent an email to the VP of Engineering saying that I wanted to talk about what reaching director level looked like. When I walked in, he said, ‘I don’t like your hair. What did you do with your hair?’

“Those sorts of personal attacks can be very disarming. It’s inappropriate for a work environment, and that sort of comment would never be directed towards a male.”

(Graphic by Marigot Fackenthal)
(Graphic by Marigot Fackenthal)

After Rahimian and one of her female neighbors (who, like Rahimian, was a Senior Engineering Manager, but at a different company) realized that they’d “hit a wall” and would not be permitted to advance, the two decided to leave their jobs.

Unfortunately, Rahimian said, situations like these can’t really be brought to justice. It’s very difficult to prove that a woman is being discriminated against – or, in this case, denied promotion – because of her gender, especially “if you’re not building the case as things are happening.” Rahimian’s co-worker, who’d contacted a lawyer, was told that trying to argue her case in court would be “career suicide.”

Rahimian understands that some of the discrimination she’s experienced could be subconscious. 

“It’s called unconscious bias,” she said. “Basically they’ve decided that a certain type of leader looks a certain way. They’re playing to a stereotype they’re not even aware of.

“With women, there’s often this bias where they think that if you do a good job, it’s luck rather than competence – whereas with men, they think it’s because you know what you’re doing.”

In spite of her struggle to find an engineering company that’ll properly acknowledge and reward her efforts, Rahimian remains hopeful and does not regret her choice of career. For the most part, she said, she’s just disappointed that the hardest part of her job is not the work, but the social aspect.

“For me, it’s just been a very challenging road. I love the job, I love the work, and when it goes well, I love the team dynamic and the collaboration. But there are things more at the personal level that make it very hard.”

—By Marigot Fackenthal

kjQ&A with KJ Park, ’12, a senior at UC Berkeley

Q: Is there a difference in the number of men and women in the engineering program at UC Berkeley?

A: Professors, yes. All of my core chemical engineering classes were taught by male professors except for one. Student-wise, it’s about a 70-30 percent ratio of men to women. 

Q: Have you talked to anyone who has a job in engineering about this discrimination? 

A: Yes, this is actually a topic that I feel very passionate about and have also experienced myself. My organic chemistry professor, who got her Ph.D. at Berkeley, used to work for a chemical company doing the same job as a male counterpart and was still paid less.

One of my engineering friends once said she did really well on one of the midterms, and her male friend told her that she must have gotten a better grade because her professor likes her boobs so much.

It infuriates me every time I hear stories like this because I feel women in the engineering field constantly feel the need to prove themselves. I feel that when we do a good job at something, we never get full credit for our hard work.

Q: Have you experienced this discrimination?

A: Yes, indirectly. I got into a research lab at Berkeley last year, and some people who were upset that I got in started a rumor that I flirted my way into the lab. 

Firstly, this isn’t true. I work very hard and was more than adequate for the job. Secondly, I think this is a great example of sexism because if this rumor were true, I shouldn’t be blamed for it; my supervisor who hired me should be criticized. 

If the roles were reversed and a male undergrad got into a research lab, the female supervisor would be blamed instead. 

It is absolutely ridiculous how women engineers can work so hard and their work can so easily be undermined just because they are women.

erinQ&A with Erin Reddy, ’15, a freshman at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Q: Is there a visible difference in the amount of men and women in the engineering program at Rensselaer?

A: Students, definitely. I’d estimate a 60-40 percent ratio between men and women. I know it’s gotten better from previous years, but there are still more men than women. 

Q: Have you talked to anyone who has a job in engineering about this discrimination? 

A: No, we do have a women’s mentoring program that I’m part of, and they hold clinics about the discrimination that still exists and dealing with that in the workforce. But I haven’t gone to any of them because I’m still a freshman. 

Q: Have you experienced this discrimination?

A: No, not in terms of school. However, at an engineering school, there are fewer girls to begin with, and as a result, there is social pressure on women because the men are annoyed that all of the women have boyfriends. 

—By Sahej Claire

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