What It's Really Like To Be A Female Engineer

Photo: Courtesy of Rija Javed.

Rija Javed is a senior engineer at Wealthfront, an investment services platform, where she leads the brokerage and banking platforms and serves as the project lead on one of the company's major initiatives. Her job entails supervising the progress of the project and making sure that her areas are up and running — something that may be a one-off, 15-minute task or a three-month project.

Before starting at Wealthfront in 2013, Javed worked as an engineer at gaming company Zynga. Here, she tells Refinery29 why she decided to become an engineer, discusses the important of mentorship, and explains why she thinks so many women — even those who love math and science — steer clear of the field.

When did your interest in electrical and computer engineering begin?

"I come from a family of engineers but I wanted to be different and make a point to not study engineering when I went to college — my version of rebellion!

"Math was always one of my strengths and interests, so I started at the University of Toronto on track to get a bachelor’s degree in commerce and accounting. Much to my surprise, however, I realized that major was not for me. I chatted with my dad, who recommended that I study electrical engineering, and then reluctantly took his advice. Soon after switching my major to electrical engineering, I knew that I had made the right choice and found a field where I could really excel."

What was it like to be a woman studying engineering? Did you feel supported and challenged in a positive way? Did you have a network of people to reach out to?

"I had a really great experience studying engineering both in undergrad and grad school because I love the field. However, I was acutely aware of the fact that I was often the only woman in many of my classes, out of 30 or 40 students. It always struck me as odd because I had so many girlfriends in high school who loved and excelled at math and science, yet none of them chose to pursue engineering; most of them found themselves in fields like health sciences.

"Being the only woman in the majority of my classes also made me very aware of the differences in how men and women asked questions, presented information, and even carried themselves. I noticed that men always had a certain confidence whenever they asked a question or presented information, whereas many women used clarifiers or even apologized when they posed a question or presented an idea. The experience was great preparation for what working in engineering would be like in the 'real world.'"

What was it like working at Zynga, especially during such an incredibly busy, growing time for that company, and what brought you to Wealthfront?

"Zynga was an incredible place to kick off my career as a software engineer. In school, I spent half my time working on hardware projects and half on software, and Zynga gave me the full software experience I needed to be successful in Silicon Valley, as well as see the client-facing aspects of software. It was also my first job right out of school in a different country — albeit not a totally foreign one to Canadians. All of my internships in school had been in Canada and the whole Silicon Valley atmosphere was very new, so it was also a personal learning experience for me since I was living alone for the first time.

"I worked at Zynga from August 2012 to September 2013. Zynga's engineering team was large at the time and divided in a way that almost made each team feel like its own mini-company within the company. Initially, I worked on a small infrastructure group and was the only woman on the team. After about 10 months, I moved over to the gaming side and there were more women on that team. It's interesting to see that even within engineering, women tend to gravitate to more client-facing projects and team versus infrastructure. During my time there, the company was going through a growth phase, so there were several organizational changes, both in terms of management and the game studios. I learned a lot there and got an invaluable skill set, but I reached a point where I wanted to work at a smaller company that would allow me to have more of a hand in how the company was being built. With 30 employees, Wealthfront has provided me with exactly that.

"Initially, I was really impressed with the engineering blog; from there, the mission and company culture drew me in. There are peers I can learn from, but it's small enough that I feel like an integral part of the company. Since joining, I've taken the lead on a massive infrastructure project that will impact much of the company's future. As for the mission, Wealthfront is going after a huge undertaking that I find personally rewarding and exciting — to change the way financial services are delivered, and create access to good financial management for more people."

What do you like about engineering and being an engineer? Do you think people have any misconceptions about what it's like to be an engineer or about the field itself?

"There are huge misconceptions about what it means to be an engineer, especially among women — and I almost fell victim to this myself. Engineering gets a reputation for being purely technical, and in some cases, involving hands-on work with machinery. [In the past], electrical engineering in particular sounded to me like a job that would involve being out in the field doing manual, technical work. But the piece that is overlooked in engineering is the pure logic behind it, which is what I love the most.

"Most of my work involves intense critical thinking, collaboration, and problem solving. At Wealthfront, we are trying to change the way people in my generation understand and interact with financial planning. That means we often have a blank canvas to build something that hasn’t been built before, which requires a lot of collaboration and relationship management across teams inside and outside of the company. These are all things I find women inherently excel at. Unfortunately, misconceptions about engineering persist among women because there are few good resources that educate people about what being an engineer actually means. It’s one of the reasons I believe mentorship for young women interested in math and science is so important.

"We need more women in engineering! I want to get rid of the idea that being an engineer means you sit alone at a computer. The more women there are, the more we can dispose of stereotypes about women in the workplace and [ideas about] how they should behave."

Why has it been important to you to work as a mentor for young girls interested in math, science, and engineering? And why do you think so many girls and women are still underrepresented in these areas and professional fields?

"I took it upon myself to start mentoring and help young girls and women have the real facts about engineering, so that they can make more informed decisions about ways to use their chops in math and science. There is a huge misconception that women don’t excel in math and science. It’s just not true. More often, there’s a lack of awareness about engineering and what it actually entails, which causes many women to disregard that option in school.

"I recently tutored a young girl in math and science for a few years here in the Bay Area through [a nonprofit] called the We Teach Science Foundation. She came from a less fortunate background, and when we first started working together she was not up to speed for her grade level in either math or science. I’ll never forget the day when, after a few months of tutoring, she came to our session completely excited to show me a high grade she had earned. It was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had the chance to participate in."

Do you feel like the sociopolitical climate we’re currently in, in which many women have started speaking out more, will change issues of gender bias, racial discrimination, or wage inequality in any way?

"We’ve come far with regard to people feeling comfortable discussing topics that used to be considered taboo — diversity, gender bias, inequality, et cetera — but if we are truly going to be successful and find tangible solutions to these problems, we need to go beyond discussion to action. Getting people in leadership roles to commit to being a part of the discussion and ideation for solutions can help move us forward here. For instance, I see a lot of discussion around the pay gap, but we won’t see a solution to this until leaders at companies are willing to look within their own organizations, ask themselves hard questions, admit to failure, and fix it. Some folks in Silicon Valley have taken the lead and done this; I think more need to follow suit.

"Something else that can help take us beyond the discussion phase into the action phase is ensuring that employees have sponsors and mentors in their organizations. This helps increase awareness of unconscious bias in the workplace. More often than not, these biases don’t happen out of malice, and recognition and encouragement for folks speaking up for these issues would also go a long way."