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The power and plights of female network engineers

Impostor syndrome burdens female network engineers, due to discrimination, as well as a lack of representation and education. But many of these women are working to change that.

Most female network engineers recognize the relatively universal experience of being the only woman in the room. Even in spaces dedicated to women in technology, female network engineers find themselves in the minority, securing their place as one of the rarest breeds of IT professionals.

The lack of female network engineers doesn't have one specific root cause. Even for women whose draw to networking stemmed from a desire to find solutions and connect point A to point B, no satisfying answer exists for why few women join network engineering. And, despite discrimination and stigmas against them, most female network engineers wouldn't trade their career for anything, as they know it's where they want to be. This was the case for Eyvonne Sharp, a former network engineer and current senior solutions engineer.

"It wasn't until I got older and really started looking around and going, 'Huh. There's no person here like me,'" Sharp said. "But … it's what I love. It's what I was good at, so I don't know. I just couldn't see myself doing anything else."

Love for the field doesn't mean female network engineers have had easy journeys. Many women believe they wouldn't have joined IT without support from mentors or managers, and a lack of support can hold women back from exploring opportunities in networking. Female network engineers also face discrimination and obstacles, such as impostor syndrome, which plague their day-to-day experiences.

Female network engineers and impostor syndrome

When network administrator Lise Garcia left active duty in 2018, her first taste of civilian networking hit hard. In the U.S. Air Force, Garcia had the supplies, instructions and information she needed to succeed at her fingertips. She lost that after leaving active duty.

Lise GarciaLise Garcia

"Something I still struggle with is … the self-doubt where I feel as though, [now that] I'm in the civilian world, I'm not good enough. Because I previously had the military … so sometimes, I didn't really have to be good at my job. I'd still get a paycheck, or people will still respect me because I had the rank," Garcia said. "Coming out, I don't have that."

Impostor syndrome is one of the most common challenges female network engineers face, in which they believe they're frauds and their successes or opportunities result from luck, rather than their skills or abilities. This challenge is aided by the fact that female network engineers rarely interact with women in the same roles. Many women have never worked with another female network engineer, or if they did, there were one or two others, maximum.

Eyvonne SharpEyvonne Sharp

Garcia said she also faced blatant discrimination early on in her career, where people told her to stay quiet because she didn't know what she was talking about -- something Sharp said she experienced as well. This can fuel impostor syndrome, as it affirms the falsehood that these women don't have the skills or knowledge to be networking professionals.

Amy ArnoldAmy Arnold

This experience is not uncommon for female network engineers. A technology consultant once overlooked Amy Arnold, a systems engineer, and gave his business card to all the men she was with, despite her being the only technician in the group. Sarah Kimmel, a centralized services engineer and technical marketing manager, once showed up to fix a company's server room while she was eight months pregnant, and the owner asked if Kimmel's company could send someone else to fix the issue.

Sarah KimmelSarah Kimmel

Women aren't always taken seriously when they discuss these issues, which can further fuel impostor syndrome. Arnold said she experienced this even while training new network engineers. "I worked with one [male engineer] that told me there was no sexism in IT because he hadn't seen it. I'm like, 'Oh, wow, you just started IT yesterday,'" Arnold said.

Morgan LucasMorgan Lucas

Discrimination is often heightened for women of color. Technology blogger Morgan Lucas recognized the growing movement of Black women entering IT and networking, yet as a Black woman, she said most people in networking teams still don't look like her.

Adrian McClanahanAdrian McClanahan

Not only do female network engineers constantly battle impostor syndrome, but they also must constantly prove themselves even if they don't always believe in themselves. Adrian McClanahan, a network control center engineer, said always proving herself is her biggest challenge.

"I can propose the idea, but because [I'm] young and Black, getting people to [be] hands off and let me -- that was a challenge for a really long time until I proved myself over and over again. But, anytime you transition to another position, you'd have to do that again," McClanahan said.

Charis MayhornCharis Mayhorn

Another catalyst for impostor syndrome is that female network engineers feel they must change how they speak or reengineer themselves to fit in with primarily male network teams, something McClanahan and network architect Charis Mayhorn noted.

When Mayhorn looks back at her 20 years in the technology field, much of the technology changed, yet her teams look relatively the same as when she started. However, early on in her career, she realized she didn't look the same to herself.

"I completely changed myself -- the way I joke, the way I carry myself, the way I walk, the way I interact with people, what I accepted, the boundaries I permitted to be crossed in order to be part of my team -- so I could keep and continue to develop in my job," Mayhorn said.

If other women felt they must transform themselves to get by in network engineering, Mayhorn said, that could be one critical barrier in keeping women out of the field.

3 factors keeping women out of technology

Lack of education, flawed representation and volatile scheduling are prominent reasons why women don't enter network engineering. In addition, support from managers or business leaders -- or lack thereof -- is a key factor in getting and retaining women in technology. Mentorship is not only critical to retention, but also to show women that IT and networking are career paths available to them.

More of us need to be in management positions on this side to help make these decisions. … There has to be a voice at the top saying, 'Yes, she can do it.'
Adrian McClanahanNetwork control center engineer

For Lucas, a mix of these factors inhibits her career. Lucas has held some contract positions in networking but isn't sure she wants to pursue that path because she's heard the hours aren't convenient and network engineers often lack the necessary support from management. While she hasn't experienced this personally, she said it's hard to tell if an environment will be toxic when looking at prospective roles. She also fears burnout and struggles with the inaccessibility of job opportunities, as most are in major cities far from where she lives.

"I don't live near a major city. … If I lived in a bigger city, I could probably not be on year three of looking for work," Lucas said. "Not everybody lives where the networking is. Not everyone lives where the jobs are right now."

Networking is also inaccessible and underrepresented for most in education. Most female network engineers said they didn't know network engineering was an option for their career until higher education. Women like McClanahan are hoping to change that, though.

McClanahan teaches coding classes to children and helps host a free technology summit annually to show local kids different areas of IT. Kids can attend coding, gaming and various other types of workshops. Kimmel and Arnold both said they enrolled their daughters in technology classes as well -- not because they want their daughters to follow in their footsteps, but because they want them to know technology is an option.

"It starts really young, where they need to be able to picture themselves as smart technicians rather than [think technology] is just for boys and for nerds," Kimmel said.

Sweta ManeSweta Mane

Mentorship is also critical. Senior network engineer Sweta Mane said her first job had a buddy system that paired her with another female network engineer when she started, and that person showed her the ropes. Sharp, Kimmel and McClanahan also said managerial support was important for their careers, as well as being given a chance to prove themselves. Without that, their careers wouldn't have been the same. These women hope to show this same support to aspiring female network engineers.

"If I can reach back and bring anyone over, that's my ultimate plan," McClanahan said. "More of us need to be in management positions on this side to help make these decisions because that's honestly the only way anything's going to change. There has to be a voice at the top saying, 'Yes, she can do it.'"

Connecting point A to point B

From blogging, to YouTube channels, to sizable Twitter presences, female network engineers are no longer hiding in the IT shadows. Many women said, if they are present and if they can be their own representation and show the world female network engineers exist and can succeed, then a new generation of women in technology will hopefully be inspired.

Like in their day-to-day jobs, if female engineers can connect point A to point B -- or aspiring engineers with opportunities -- that could make all the difference.

Mane, originally from India, said she luckily grew up in a culture that encouraged engineering and other science and technology fields. However, she said coming from a developing nation and seeing the lack of internet connectivity in rural areas there lit a fire in her to one day return with her expertise in order to connect people -- particularly to create educational and career opportunities for children.

"It certainly goes a long way to show this particular career is not just about making routers or switches or firewalls work, but it's more about connecting globally and being able to have everybody get the opportunities they need," Mane said.

This was last published in October 2020

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YES!, This pretty much hit the nail on the head for my 27+ year career! I too wished there where more women and women of color while I was working for other companies! I recently started my second stab at my own business and am growing! I am also connecting with other women in tech, I am starting an online informal chat about this on Thursdays @ 2PM EST, email me if any woman or man would like to join in the discussion! [email protected]
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I think it's ok, I have a lot of women colleagues. 
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