Celebrating Women in Engineering as a non-binary person
When I was six and at a catholic primary school, I experienced both my first conscious instance of sexism, along with my first moment of gender dysphoria. A priest told me that I couldn’t be an altar boy. I was put down for wearing male costumes to school costume days, put into detention for constantly wearing my P.E gear and told by male teachers that to be a scientist I had to pick a women’s field like marine biology (to this day I still don’t understand that).
I would love to meet six year old Katie and tell them how much things have changed since those days. I’m studying a PhD in coastal engineering and through my PhD and industry work I’ve gotten to do fieldwork in pristine streams, canoe through rapids and run along beaches during storms to follow water quality issues. I’ve been able to integrate my love for the ocean and environment into my work. I’m also out as non-binary, and I go by she/they, something that confuses a lot of people. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, non-binary means that I don’t neatly fit into the binary of man or woman1. For me, I’m still happy to be referred to as she, but I equally like being referred to as they and I don’t really like being called ‘woman’, ‘lady’ or ‘girlie’. For a long time, I wasn’t sure if this was due to the sexism I was experiencing by not being a man in STEM.
I still celebrate women in engineering. Whilst I don’t feel that being a woman fully describes my experience, I don’t feel fully divested from it either. Presenting with long hair and a feminine face, I’ve experienced a lot of the same challenges and discrimination as other women in engineering. I’ve found both ends of sexism throughout my journey. I’ve been rejected from recommendations from teachers despite male students with lower grades being offered them. In the workplace, I was told that I wouldn’t be able to build a reputation in construction as a woman, referred to on site as 'the ecologist', and was made the secretary of my team as I was assumed to be the most organised.
During university if I received a good grade I was ‘smart for a woman’. At the same time, I was the face of my company through the ‘Engineer your Career’ newsletter at university and through the career days. I was told to my face at another job that I was a diversity hire and not up to the job. Barriers to women and gender-diverse people in STEM are often nuanced and discrimination is hard to quantify2. However, we can use what statistics are available to see the state of the engineering industry from other perspectives.
In STEM, representation of women in engineering is growing, yet men still vastly outnumber women and gender diverse people in leadership roles. Five years after graduating, men with a STEM qualification were 1.8 times more likely to be working in a STEM-qualified occupation compared to their women peers3. In 2021, the proportion of women in STEM-qualified fields rose to 15%, yet the gender pay gap for full time work was still $26,7844. There are few or no statistics for non-binary, transgender, or gender non-conforming students2. These would be hard to come by anyway as the Census only provides respondents with two choices for gender: male or female. I’ve met two other engineers that were out as gender-diverse during my entire career.
I’m lucky, as a queer person who can pass as cis-straight, I have an extra privilege. I like to be referred to by she as well as they, and this means that for the most part I pass under people’s radars. At WRL, for the first time in my life I am out in the workplace and yet this article might still surprise some. I am lucky to be in a team of diverse people and experiences. I’m also lucky to have great female role models at my workplace and to have had a gender non-binary lecturer in my undergraduate studies. Not everybody gets to see that representation and we desperately need it. Being able to see myself in those in the careers I aspired to gave me more confidence to actually pursue those aspirations, along with the assurance that people can be accepted in these roles regardless of their identity.
I still experience discrimination as a minority in STEM. In one notable LinkedIn encounter earlier this year, I was called a 'displeasure' just for having my pronouns visible on my public profile. But now, I am in a safe space where I am supported by friends and colleagues in my workplace, where I can be a proudly queer, neurodivergent academic.
I gladly celebrate International Women in Engineering Day, as not only does it validate my experience through engineering and look forwards to a more equitable future, but it also acts towards the equity of other minority groups such as queer, neurodiverse and people with disabilities.