Why I'm the worst example of a woman in STEM. Or maybe I'm the best?
This week’s episode of Nevertheless is a bit different. It’s a live conversation that took place at Pearson dealing with the tricky real-world issues of diversity and inclusion. It’s a good reminder that this podcast and these stories don’t take place in a vacuum. These are people who are still growing, learning and reflecting on what it means to create a fairer and better place to work.
Along with this live conversation, we wanted to share the story of one of those people, Vicki Gardner. Vicki joined Pearson in 2015. She now heads the company’s Primary Schools Sales Team providing literacy and numeracy pedagogical schemes. Prior to this, Vicki spent nine years at RM Education in a variety of operational roles supporting strategic managed service contracts with local education authorities.
My first experience of the Nevertheless podcast was back in October when I listened to the episode “Finding Genius” on my commute home one day. By the time I pulled up my driveway, I was dumbfounded and a bit upset, which are both unexpected consequences of listening to a podcast. That particular episode was about lost potential and included a great interview with a female engineer who is passionate about getting kids to invent stuff. Why did this interview upset me? Because my name is Vicki, and I used to be an engineer.
I studied electronic engineering at university and then had a really interesting first job working as an electronics assurance engineer for a global confectionery company in their vending machine division. One of my responsibilities was to research and reverse engineer our competitors’ products to see how they worked, while the other part of my role was to take prototypes of my company’s new products and try to destroy them through any sort of creative means I could think of to prove their quality. I was one of three graduates in the role and as a third aspect to all of our jobs, we each had a research and development project where we got to use our engineering skills creatively to improve the next generation of products.
But fast forward to now. I’m far removed from being an electronics engineer. Now, I work at Pearson in the UK Schools Sales team selling printed and digital resources to primary schools. So how did I get from my first job to here? What happened along the way to change my direction?
I would say that my change in direction began with the promotion panel. To be promoted at my first job, you had to present your research and development project to a panel of senior engineers. Our manager had put my two male peers and I up for a promotion at the same time. The other two graduates were both men my age and we’d all joined the company at the same time, but they were both paid more than me. At the time, I remember being a bit confused about the reasoning behind their higher pay, but I accepted it. They also were both given (I now realise), the really prestigious projects, the ones that were related to the new products that had the most investment and were forecast to bring in the most revenue. My project was interesting and I really enjoyed working on it, but it was on a product that was regarded as a bit of an unknown and not expected to do anything in the market.
“The panel I faced was made up of six male engineers, all much older than me, and an HR officer, also male. I was in that room for nearly an hour, and I was absolutely torn apart. It was horrendous.”
When it came time to speak to the promotions panel, my colleagues went before me, each spending about 30 minutes in his panel and coming back looking confident. When it was my turn, I, a painfully shy 23-year-old, was trembling. The panel I faced was made up of six male engineers, all much older than me, and an HR officer, also male. I was in that room for nearly an hour, and I was absolutely torn apart. It was horrendous. When I returned to the office I shared with the other two recent graduates and my peers asked me how I’d done, I shakily mumbled an answer. Our boss turned up some time later and broke the news to us all together; my colleagues had both been successful and were promoted. And me? He had tried to argue my case and there’d apparently been a long discussion about me, but he was sorry, I would have to try again in six months.
I was gutted, and beat myself up, but my main worry was, how was I going to go home and tell my mum and dad that I hadn’t been good enough? I will never know if unconscious bias was playing a part in the promotion panel, or whether I really didn’t make the grade. What the Nevertheless episode did help me see, though, is that I definitely wasn’t given the same opportunities as my male co-workers. I eventually did get promoted, but I never quite got over feeling like a failure while I was with the global confectionery company, and, subsequently, always felt six months behind my colleagues.
The second event that I now realise changed my direction happened when a new senior manager came in and we recent graduates were all “given the opportunity” to move from the assurance role into technical sales. We were told that the assurance role demanded engineers with more experience, so I moved into sales. Over the 20 years between now and then, I’ve worked in technical sales and managed distributors, technical salespeople, technical support desks, delivery teams, technical operations teams, inside sales teams, and field sales. Having a background in engineering has made me a creative problem solver, and I can always work out how things are going to break before they do. I’m also quite good with data and pretty adept at creating processes, which is handy when you’re running an operational team.
But I’m not an engineer any more, something that I had to work very hard for and overcome lots of challenges to achieve. It took my mum a long time to accept this (she was still telling people I was an engineer years after I’d moved to sales).
“Today, only 11% of the British engineering workforce is female, yet women have played and continue to play a significant role in the field.
Women’s Engineering Society”
I recently volunteered to be a mentor to sixth-form students in a local secondary school because I want to share my experience with girls and let them know that it’s okay to move away from the path you originally set out for yourself. Just make sure that the decision to make a change is your decision and not because someone’s made you feel “not good enough.” I want to tell girls who like maths and science that sometimes, life (and other people’s biases) can get in the way of your dreams, but it’s important to challenge the status quo.
This is why I’m both the worst and the best example of a woman in STEM, because now I can see how easily you can be taken off course.
Nevertheless is a a podcast celebrating the women transforming teaching and learning through technology. Supported by Pearson. Subscribe on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, Soundcloud, TuneIn or RadioPublic.