Liz Gerrish, technical programme manager and senior optical engineer at Wilcox Industries, gives career advice for females in male-dominated industries
I recently gave a speech on ‘Perspectives on leadership’ at a Women in Optics meeting in Boston, Massachusetts, which was sponsored by the Institute of Electronic and Electrical Engineers (IEEE) and the Optical Society of America (OSA). I focused on the following three leadership skills that have had the most impact on my career growth: self-advocacy; leading confrontational groups; and communication.
Although these topics are important to all early career professionals, these have been especially relevant for me. As a young woman in STEM, underlying components associated with being female make these issues multifaceted. I am often aware of the assumptions people make about me because I am a woman, and must consider whether gender perpetuates the professional challenges I am facing. However, once I shared my experience with a group of women working in male-dominated industries – like optics – it came to light that many of them have had experiences similar to mine.
Two things you should know about me are that I am passionate about optics and am an excellent engineer. Not only can I understand complex problems, I am brilliant at implementing creative solutions across multi-disciplinary teams and can explain the value of a solution in terms of overall company strategy to non-technical audiences. I believe in data and love using it in innovative ways to find new solutions.
Liz Gerrish speaking at a Women in Optics event at Boston University
As a young engineer, I believed that if I worked hard and produced outstanding results, my work would speak for itself and I would be guaranteed a successful career. If your career has been anything like mine, you know that this is not always the case. For me, it is an inescapable fact that gender has added a layer of complexity to growing my career.
Because women are estimated to make up less than one quarter of science, technology, engineering and math employees, starting out as a female engineer was lonely and frustrating. For me, the ratio imbalance between men and women in the photonics industry meant long stretches of time that I have worked without a female peer or another woman in a technical capacity. Time and time again, my male co-workers would go golfing together or grab a beer after work, then turn up at work the next day acting like best friends. Suddenly, I would be cut out of project communications and no longer included in decisions.
There were points in my career when I felt so isolated that I believed I was incapable of working effectively and I questioned my career path altogether. As much as the technical projects, self-advocacy, leading teams, and communication represent pillars of my career, I hope that my advice will aid women following in my footsteps to become the next generation of technical leaders in the optical industry.
Self-advocacy has been crucial to my success as an industry leader. When a group perceives a mismatch between my characteristics as a woman and characteristics necessary to perform my job in STEM, there is an automatic hit to my credibility. For me, the act of self-advocacy is difficult because I am naturally shy, but I am not ashamed to explain my qualifications and have learned to speak comfortably about my successes and my failures. When my team believes I will execute on a project, they will work extremely hard to execute on their end.
Leading confrontational groups
I began my career fearing conflict, but have found that my ability to lead a group out of turmoil has become one of my greatest strengths. All groups go through a ‘storming’ phase before they become a highly functioning team. Leading confrontational groups is daunting when I am the only woman in the room, and there have been times when I have felt physically intimidated by my co-workers. I have learned to stand my ground and own my space, using my voice and body language to compensate for the fact that I am not a physically imposing person. If I feel like someone is being confrontational, and I don’t understand the reason, I will ask for an explanation to help me understand their point of view.
In the early part of my career, I brushed off feedback that would have helped me to improve my communication skills because I believed they were unimportant in the technical sector. I was dismissive because I assumed my male peers were receiving technical feedback and that gender played a role in receiving feedback on my soft skills. However, once I began to focus on communication holistically, I realised communication extends to the presentation of my message in a way that my target audience can understand. By becoming a better communicator, I became a better leader because I was more effective at giving the right information to the right people. Most importantly, when I learned to effectively ask for what I wanted and needed from my co-workers, they began to deliver.
I hope these reflections on my experiences can aid other young women starting their careers in male-dominated sectors, and that the conversation around gender equity in optics and photonics continues.
- Prior to her current position at Wilcox Industries, Liz Gerrish was a key account manager for Zemax, where she created a global key account sales programme. In 2017, she completed a Master of Science in management and leadership from Western Governors University, with a thesis focused on female leadership in male dominated industries. She also holds a bachelor of science in physics from the University of Washington and a certificate in Gender Mainstreaming from United Nations Women.