Torchbearer: Cat Childers. Queens, New York. Filipina-American.
What shoes do you wear to work when sneakers are considered unprofessional, but you don’t want to get your suede boots dirty climbing a roof to check a tank?
“About 10 years ago, I was a 22-year-old woman in an office with a bunch of 40-year-old men, and the last thing I wanted to do was say, ‘well, what are you going to wear tomorrow?’” says engineer, Cat Childers, whose mission is to make the workplace more comfortable for women. “How do you figure out the right footwear in a place that doesn't consider a woman's comfort?”
Promoting equality in the engineering field can start with attire but extends so much further.
Here’s her journey, in her own words…
The Little Engineer That Could
Engineering has always been a big passion of mine.
When I was in the seventh grade, I was good at math and science and this one teacher used to say, "you should be an engineer." As a kid, I didn't know what that meant, but I went home and told my parents. For some reason, I was really determined to do this! I'm really thankful for that one teacher because it all fell into place.
When I was in high school, my dad found a summer camp called “Exploring Engineering for Women” by the Women in Engineering Program at the University of Maryland. The camp lasted a week and we stayed in dorms and learned about each of the engineering disciplines. After high school I attended the University of Maryland and graduated with a degree in fire protection engineering.
I’ve now been a Fire Protection Engineer for the last 10 years and I’m currently director of the Code and Fire Engineering Group in New York – doing engineering and project management.
Testing the Waters: Finding the Right Environment
It's important to be in an environment that you enjoy and feel comfortable.
Before I finished school, I knew what to expect. I had two internships at engineering offices and ended up working full time in both of those jobs. Internships are an incredible way to experience the inside of a job without being like – ‘how long do I have to be here before I quit?’
At the first internship, there was maybe a 20-year age gap between me and everyone else. There was no woman to be found! I learned a lot and got a better understanding of the job
but when you can't connect personally with anyone in your office; 40 hours goes by REAL slow.
Then I got to my second internship that had young people, happy hours, company softball games and barbecues. That setting was less intimidating. So, especially when you're young, it's nice to work in an environment where you can ask questions.
Inequality Is Not An Option
I left my first job because I felt like it was too much. I wasn't learning. I was burdened with crazy hours and they were taking advantage of me.
I had a boss that resigned. And when you hear you're getting a new boss – you Google him. What came up was his mugshot from his domestic violence arrest.
Me and two other coworkers were like – ‘Oh God, well, maybe it was a long time ago?’ Then as we started working with him, it became obvious that he thought that women should NOT be in the workplace. It got so bad that one of the other engineers, one who was often mildly offensive himself, wouldn't leave me alone with our boss!
One time when my male coworker and I submitted identical reports – my coworker’s report came back with zero comments; a great job. My report came back with so many things crossed out and all these crazy notes.
Another time we were putting proposals together; it required us to include our resumes and a short narrative on our background. That same boss wrote a paragraph for everyone else and one line for me ‘Cat Childers - engineer who graduated from University of Maryland.’
The woman in marketing asked him: "Hey, why would you marginalize a third of your staff!? Her resume reads better than some of these other guys - what's going on?"
My Boss: "What can I say? I'm intimidated by a woman who's smarter than me. ::haha:: Just kidding."
She forwarded me that email chain and I walked right down those stairs and made one phone call, ‘Do you guys have a job? Yes. I'm quitting today."
I’ve had some shitty experiences, but I love that I had people around me that I knew had my back.
The Shoe Fits ... And Then Some
There are definitely days where I feel like what's the point, they’re always going to think I'm not as good. But you have to find fulfillment in seeing things change.
I think my life mission is proving equality. I've encountered a lot of men who at first, maybe didn't think engineering is a good fit for women. I realized I can tell them they're wrong a hundred times, or I can show them that not only can I do the same job that all these other guys are doing, but I can bring more. I can make the clients feel more comfortable. I can make new hires feel more comfortable.
There’s always this question of ‘do I belong?’ My mission is making sure nobody ever questions a woman’s place in engineering. I started 10 years ago and I’ve watched things change for the better, but there’s plenty more to go. When the next female engineers come around, I want there to be less hesitation and doubt about whether they will fit in.
Time to Step Up
In engineering, women represent 20% of those in school and 10% of the workforce.
I had another boss that quit. Although I had the closest experience in the group, I also didn't want his job. And the truth is, a man in my shoes wouldn’t think twice about taking their boss’ job. But I spent about a year saying no – even though they repeatedly asked me to consider the role! I eventually took the job.
I asked myself, ‘why am I scared?’ ::Well, I don't want to fail. I don't want to have to start over:: But a man would never say that!
A man would think, I've been doing this for two years! I know everything there is to know about this job – so I'm moving up!
I have a lot of skills that are very marketable. If things didn’t work out I could get another job. It was scary at first, but we have a lot of years left to work – you might as well give it a shot. You can always come back from it. You can wake up tomorrow and take an entirely new profession. You just can't stay stuck. You have to do something! I’ve learned you HAVE to believe in yourself. You HAVE to take that step.
Wired for Success
I spent a lot of time thinking this was a me problem. I realized that this is everybody's problem. This isn't just women in engineering, it’s most women, in every industry that faces these dilemmas.
Something to consider, the technical aspects of your job is only one part of it. Obviously, you want to make sure you have that down, but the management and people skills, the stuff women are naturally better at - let that shine through as well.
I think in engineering, people are surprised at how helpful it is to have a personality! If you're trying to put on this fake professional persona all the time, you're going to be bored and the people around you are not going to want to work with you and help you. That takes confidence and comfort. Read those scenarios and find the openings to create connections with your staff, coworkers and clients.
I recommend finding your allies. If you hide your frustration, it’s going to make you hate the industry and hate the job.
If you truly don't like it, that's fine – find something that you do like. If you like the work, and you're just frustrated about the environment or the people, find somebody who understands what you're going through. We all need someone to talk with about work and help us put it in perspective.
Enjoyed Cat's journey? Then let us know! Here are other inspiring moments you can enjoy.