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Calvin Asks: How can I be taken more seriously?
I’m a female engineer (one of the 9%!) and I’ve just started working in industry for the first time after getting my PhD.

Most of the people I work with are really nice, but there are couple of the more senior managers (both men) who constantly talk down to me, talk over me in meetings and generally dismiss my contributions and don’t take me seriously.

I don’t want to complain to HR or anything – I don’t want to be seen as weak or a problem as I’ve heard some horror stories from other female engineers.

Do you have any advice for me about how I can handle these managers?
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8 Replies
I'm sorry you're facing this. Here are some ideas:
1) Always do your homework - be prepared for meetings, discussions etc
2) You will eventually have to insist on being heard and whatever point you're trying to make during a meeting considered, so pick a point you're sure is valid and important, bring it up during a meeting and insist on being heard. Be nice though, take it easy, if someone interrupts be polite and say something like "just a minute please this is an important point" or "I'd like to bring this up please..", or "just a minute please I'd like to add something before we move on," etc with a SMILE. Then continue talking without waiting for their permission.
3) Seek support from others in your office - don't complain to them, but ask  them questions or discuss issues with them or have them quickly review something you wrote before you present them to a bigger group. 
4) Focus on practical aspects - unfortunately people with advanced degrees like you are often dismissed in the workplace as "too academic", so always try to link what you do/discuss with every day life or practical issues. 
Good luck, be strong ;)

60 Posts
A former colleague of mine found insisting that they use her correct title of Doctor helped. Especially in meetings where she was always expected to take minutes. That said my assumption on graduates of whatever gender is that they have very little knowledge coming straight out of Uni unless they'd spent significant time out in industry. The qualification only indicates the level that the person is capable of learning.
As Nancy said below, and this again is irrespective of gender:
Speak up... that includes asking questions!
Do your homework.
And develop your knowledge of the practical side. I've known (male) graduates with PhD's who quite literally didn't know which end of a screw driver to hold. So make sure that's not how you're perceived.
Very good luck there are plenty of seniors and companies that do support women engineers. hopefully you can find one who will encour
One other thing that neither Bill nor Nancy mentioned is have a word with your line manager. You said that most of the people you work with are really nice in which case it would be a shame to let a couple of (senior) idiots spoil it for you so you should try to find a resolution and your manager should be able to help.
Like Bill, have known my share of graduates with a PhD who were useless in the real world (but in defence of that, the same is true of some graduates with a Masters or Bachelors degree, and I have worked with a number of people with a PhD who I consider brilliant). While I always try to reserve judgement until I see how they perform in industry, I have known those who have become prejudiced by meeting such people and therefore dealt with later graduates in the way you have described.
Andy Millar
1784 Posts
I will say that this doesn't just apply to female engineers - there is a type of person that rises to senior management by staying in (or making themselves like) their "in crowd" and just doesn't know how to cope with those outside it - or doesn't see those ousiders as useful to furthering their career (hold that thought, I'll come back to it). You see them treating various people in the same way - those from different education, different industries, those who aren't constantly trying to climb the greasy pole, as well as of course those of different sex, race, "class", and even height (seriously - as a male 5'6" I was fascinated by recent research that senior people over 6' often - unconsciously - don't consider short people worth listening to). You often notice that the only junior people they will engage with are junior versions of themselves - whilst at the same time keeping even those people slightly down so their own positions aren't at threat.

BUT as the excellent posts above say, you can cope with this. There is another way by the way, which I absolutely wouldn't recommend but you see people do it - which is to become a female version of them. Not good for yourself long term, or for the business. 

The reason the advice the other posters gave works is because these people act this way having learned that that is how to get on in business (in their particular clique), and their big motivation is to succeed. However they also know very well that their success is through the work of others, they are 100% dependent on the efforts of yourself and your colleagues. So by acting professionally you WILL eventually find yourself in a position where your efforts have helped them succeed, and they WILL know that and respect you for it. 

I have been in this position so many times in my career I have completely lost count. And it's not just senior engineers: sales and marketing people, who work in a very competitive environment, are often much worse.

Find a good role model in your company, a good engineer with strong ethics, and whenever you're in a difficult situation with such managers think "what would xxx do"? Then keep doing your work professionally, and one day (probably in private rather than in front of their peers) one of these managers will come and say "that was a really good piece of work you did" or, even better, "what do you think we should do about yyy?" Then you know you've cracked it! It takes patience, determination, and sometimes knowing that you can't afford to just walk out (never the right thing to do anyway), but you get there in the end and it's really satisfying - and nice - when you do.

Sadly there are very few companies / professions / industries where the majority of people get to the top by being nice to their staff. But there are exceptions - and to finish on a high can I publicise an excellent recent story of four women who got to the top of their profession. One of these, Carolyn Salmon, has now been my manager in two different companies, as someone who is now in the lucky position to more-or-less choose my managers that is most definitely not a coincidence!


Adding to all that have been posted, employers should provide inclusive workplace to their employees and pursue this with a helpline to look into any form of bullying, exclusion etc.
It may be difficult but setting up a quick meeting with these colleagues to express your concern would be the first point of action. I believe this could prevent your thought of them festering. If you are not comfortable doing that, you should initiate the procedure put in place by your employer to report anonymously any of such exclusions.
All the best and please do not delay  in speaking up to someone or something  that would deny your employer or your colleagues your invaluable contribution as you have earned your position irrespective of your gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, beliefs, work experience, qualifications etc.

I agree with the supportive answers you have received already and will try to add what little l I can to help you get where you need to be with this 'dark ages' issue, by giving you a few principles to consider:

You are the future. The company has invested in you and to lose you because of anachronistic attitudes is a disgrace to the company. Never take your eye off why you chose to work for the company.
No one in the room is any better than you.  As a black belt Chief Instructor, we bring our most junior belts closest to the front of the class, so that we can support them the most.
Understand yourself and your own power base: is it knowledge based, relationship based or position based? Make use of it,
It the responsibility of senior management and leaders to develop the talent within their organisations in line with developing social and corporate attitudes. Or, their organisations will falter and die.  Because, just like the dinosaurs, they failed to adapt quickly enough.
Understand your company's mission and values - these are your reference standards.

ALWAYS prepare for meetings powerfully and thoroughly.
Learn to tell the top notes of a story, the story itself and the story beneath the story. That way you cannot be caught out.
Take soundings about who are your allies and connect with them before meetings. It only takes one other person to support you in a meeting to start to change the direction of a decision or outcome.
Whoever is asking the questions is controlling the conversation.....use it to your advantage! On of my personal aphorisms is: The question is more important than the answer. But, the only answer that matters is the one that kills the question. Both will generate respect for you.
Find out who sets the agenda and ask to raise a particular subject for you to present (with a couple of people ready to support you in the meeting) and follow all of the steps above!

Good luck and let us know what happens

Hi Calvin,
I'm sorry to hear that you are facing these issues. Sadly they are all to real even in today's non discriminatory culture. As others have mentioned, these behaviours are often displayed towards make colleagues too - in fact anyone who is 'different'. This difference is likely to be the cause of the poor behaviour in your managers, they feel threatened by your intelligence, your qualifications or simply because you think differently and so see solutions that they haven't considered. I once worked for a senior manager who confessed to trying to 'break' staff with PhDs (he was quite tall - about 6' 4" - and was unpleasant to anyone taller than him too). His poor behaviour was caused by his insecurities and so was completely irrational. Along with some of the excellent advice below, I would advise you to consider WHY these senior managers are behaving this way and as part of your meeting preparation, think about how to present yourself in a less threatening manner (threatening to them, not rational people). This isn't weakness or capitulation, you are simply influencing them and liken it to teaching in that you modify your delivery style to match the student's learning style. I suggest you also attend course on influencing styles. 

I understand your reluctance to involve HR although I would suggest that you keep a record of these poor behaviours. It is sad to say that bullying does still occur in some workplaces and a record of this treatment may provide the evidence you need. However, as others have noted, ensure your behaviour always remains professional.

I hope things improve for you.

You will always find a mix of characters wherever you work and this issue is not unique to female staff. Whenever you are new in a work place, after the honeymoon period has come to an end you will be expected to prove yourself to those around you. They will be looking for someone who fits in with the team and adds value to what they are doing. This can be difficult when you have very little industrial experience. I would latch on to a mentor who can guide you and use the quality of your work to demonstrate your worth. Unfortunately your qualifications only grant you access to this arena, they do not confer much else early on in your career and in some instances they are actually a hindrance.

That said, as has been mentioned before, I would keep a log of incidents just in case it all gets out of hand and you need to speak to HR. In many companies this is a last resort as no good often comes of involving them in such cases, you may be better off finding somewhere else that values your talents.

For me, self satisfaction, low grief and good pay are the cornerstones of a good job, probably in that order. If you are satisfied with you performance and you get a sense of achievement from it then you are probably in good shape. It doesn't hurt to blow your own trumpet from time to time to the right people to remind them of the excellent work that you have done.



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