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The Alpha Female Paradox

By Hannah Costello posted 03-07-2019 12:41 PM


When someone says there is sexism in engineering, what do you think it means?

You’re probably thinking that the term is obviously referring to the discrimination against women by men in the workplace. It used to carry the same meaning for me. After all, this has been and continues to be a prominent issue that women face in the industry.

But what if I told you that this term is developing a new meaning for young female engineers entering the workplace? I have found that the newest form of discrimination young female engineers face is being propagated by senior female engineers.

This issue was first brought to my attention in subtle ways. As a young woman starting my career in engineering, I began noticing that often when I went to a senior female engineer for work, she would brush me off and then give the work to a male coworker who was no more qualified for the job at hand than I was. After similar incidents occurred, I began asking other young female coworkers and peers if they had shared the same unfortunate experience. What I uncovered was overwhelming.

Most notably, a coworker shared with me that a senior female engineer’s discrimination toward her was what inevitably led to her leaving a former job. In this situation, the senior female engineer showed great favoritism toward the male workers and would blatantly disrespect the young female in the presence of others, in a manner seemingly meant to discredit her abilities as an engineer. The final straw was an incident in which the senior female made a scene in front of the entire office, yelling obscenities at the young female for no reason. The young engineer was very talented, but she was a woman.

After talking with these young women, I always ask, “Why is this happening?”

The gathered consensus is that the discrimination is the result of a territorial issue. For years, a senior female engineer was probably used to being the only woman working at her company. Not only was she the only woman, but she’d had to fight to the bitter end just to obtain that spot and to earn a little respect. Compared with modern times, prejudice by men against women in the industry was far more robust when the senior female engineers were first beginning their careers. Now the senior female sees a young female engineer coming into the industry with fewer battle scars. In the beginning of her career, the young engineer is higher on the food chain than the senior engineer was years into her career.

We as women must remember that there is room for us all in this wonderful industry. We must be cautious not to become what the women before us fought valiantly against. We need to encourage and support one another. Finally, always remember to, as Ayesha Siddiqi says, “be the person you needed when you were younger.”

Hannah is currently a junior at Fairmont State University in West Virginia where she serves as the student chapter President. She aspires to become a transportation engineer following graduation, and hopes to influence more women to join the profession. 


07-26-2019 07:24 PM

There is more to behavior than simply gender, as you have learned. For example, the surprise you originally experienced that a woman could be so very insensitive to other women in the workplace, is not unlike what we learn men have done. But once you study the facts, those women from a much earlier generation, just like men from that same generation, are, in part, a function of their shared life experiences as they progressed through their life journey in the workplace.


For example, today, we find a significant increase of young men engineers standing shoulder to shoulder supporting women engineers just as we learn that much older men engineers reflected their male-dominating characteristics of their generation.


Let’s make this “Circle of Acceptance” going forward large enough to first understand, and then invite in and engage everyone. If some simply do not wish to participate, let that be their choice.


Meanwhile, be aware we have provided another forum for all to participate in this dialogue, where we can patiently listen to each other’s perspective, seeking to first understand.



This discussion place is for women and men to share their perspective, experiences, and suggestions to increase the proactive participation, management, and leadership of women alongside men in engineering program/project works in the office and field, in the private and public sectors, including plants and academia.


04-01-2019 02:10 PM

I saw this article and thought it also relevant to this discussion. Women who support other women are more successful.

03-20-2019 10:11 PM

Thank you for posting this.  It's really important for senior managers (men and women) to both treat with fairness and also mentor younger engineers, instead of viewing them as competition. 

I've heard this type of behavior called "Queen Bee Syndrome" (and no I'm not talking about Beyonce). A number of studies have documented it for women in the workforce in general, and indicated it is worse in male-dominated fields.  Here's a really helpful article that talks about why this exists and what's really going on:

One of the extremely interesting points the article makes is that one of the reactions to being on the receiving end of gender bias is to distance yourself from other women, especially if you strongly feel that gender should be irrelevant at work.  Another interesting point is that we as a society view conflict between men as normal competition, yet conflict between women is described as damaging in some way (think "Mean Girls", or "catty"  behavior, two terms for which there is no male equivalent). That double standard leads us to being more surprised when female engineers treat other female engineers badly as compared to when male engineers treat female engineers badly.  

To be clear, the behavior you described is unprofessional (at best) and should not be excused. But I do think it is important to understand what triggers this behavior, if only to understand that if you do find yourself in a similar situation, the only thing you can do to rectify it is to find a new manager. You are not going to change a poor manager/superior (male or female), and unconscious gender bias is not limited to men only.  

03-15-2019 10:07 PM

The colloquialism of ''the food chain'' is an  actual operating mechanism.  The best example I've heard of is that a previous male superviser of mine liked to repeat the story of how he started out at the last of ten or twelve  tables, doing engineering construction estimates, by hand calculations (and, to clarify, each ''table'' was an old drafting table...). He was very proud of the fact that he had eventually worked his way up to the (First Table) when there were only males in any of the engineer and technician positions in the entire organisation (yes, this was decades ago...)
Also, I think that the senior supervizing female who is willing to mentor a less experienced female into becomming a potential rival, via a relativey quicker career rise, for future promotions, is still a relatively rare commodity...
It might be more effective to try to perform as a team player, rather than as a work spotlight grabber...

03-15-2019 10:14 AM

OMG!  This is the last thing we should be doing to female engineers, let alone engineers in general.  Sexism does not belong in the workplace.  Period.  As a female engineer who has had a rewarding career for over 35 years (with its share of ups and downs), I think it is great female engineers entering the profession have less barriers than we did 30+ years ago.  It means my generation has made a difference.

Christy VanBuskirk