Seven things I do to stand out in my male-dominated classroom | Top Universities

Seven things I do to stand out in my male-dominated classroom

By Nthatisi H

Updated May 23, 2022 Updated May 23, 2022

When I enrolled in my engineering degree at Lovely Professional University in Punjab, India, I was one of only three female students in a class of 60. 

At times, I could have felt like I was an outsider in a very male-dominated environment, but I learned some habits that helped me to feel more comfortable in class and thrive in my subject. After all, this is my education and my career too.  

These are the seven things I do to stand out and succeed in my male-dominated engineering classroom. 

I make my voice heard 

There are many ways to communicate and some are more effective than others. For me, the key is to use assertive language and tone. 

I make a point to use strong, clear and direct phrases. Instead of saying "I think we should try this method", I'll say "let's use this method." This sends a verbal cue to my classmates that I'm confident in my ideas and that I expect them to be given weight. 

As a result, I've found that my classmates are more likely to listen to my suggestions and value my input. This, in turn, has helped me to feel more comfortable speaking up in class and has given me a greater sense of ownership over our shared learning space. 

I also make eye contact with my professors and classmates when asking questions or discussing a topic. Not only does this show that I'm engaged, but it also commands attention. 

When I don't make eye contact and look away or down, it sends the message that I'm not confident in what I'm saying. This can lead to my classmates not taking me seriously or discounting my idea, which would not be valuable to my learning.  

I sit at the front of the class 

It may seem like a small thing, but there are a few benefits in taking a seat at the front of the class. It makes me more visible to my professor, which means that I'm more likely to be called on for the interactive elements of the class, and I’m more likely to stay engaged in the lecture.  

It's also easier for professors to see when someone is raising their hand from the front row, so if I have questions I am more likely to have them answered. This means I can make sure I fully understand the subject being covered. 

When writing long equations in my physics class, I always have an unobstructed view of the board and the professor. My classmates always come to me for help because they know that I can see everything and have clear notes. 

My male course mates always seem to dash to the back row, but I prefer the front so I can get the most out of my learning. 

I’m not afraid to be the only woman in the room 

This one is easier said than done. My grades quickly changed when I decided to stop focusing on the downfalls of being one of the few girls in my class. I felt the pressure to outperform my classmates and to make friends. I also felt like I was being stared at a lot.  

The truth is that there have been countless women before me who have conquered male-dominated fields, and there will be more after me. Always reminding myself of this gives me the strength to walk into my class and be confident in my abilities. It feels really empowering to know that I'll be one of those great women of engineering.  

I have a list of powerful female figures in my field that I look up to. I call this list the ’she-roes’ of my career. The list includes women like former IBM CEO, Ginni Rometty, who is the first woman to lead the tech giant in its 100+ year history. There is also Ellen Kullman, the first woman to lead Dupont.  

Each time I need some extra confidence, I look at my list of inspiring women and remember why I’m here, to help create a more diverse and inclusive engineering profession.  

I vigorously participate in group projects 

Group projects are a huge part of the engineering curriculum. And guess what? They're not going anywhere after university as working in teams is commonplace in solving engineering problems in the professional world.   

I remember the first group project I had to do in my engineering class. Our task was to design a smart home and the other three members of my group were boys from the same student accommodation. 

I'll admit that I felt like an outsider, but I refused to be a wallflower and decided I would take charge and be an active participant. I brought my ideas to the table and contributed just as much as they did. 

Of course, there were inside jokes only they could understand and laugh at. I didn't let that stop me from collaborating, being a valuable team member and getting as much out of the project as I could. 

Not only did we get an A on the project, but I also gained the respect of my course mates. 

I celebrate my wins  

Society tells us that we shouldn't celebrate ourselves or ‘toot our own horns’. 

But when you work in a male-dominated field, you have to celebrate your own successes, whether they’re big or small. It’s not guaranteed that other people will do that for us. This is especially true for women of colour, like me. We have to work twice as hard and hustle 10 times as much just to get our foot in the door. 

So when I achieve something, you can bet that I'm going to celebrate it. This doesn't mean that I'm bragging or being arrogant. It simply means that I'm acknowledging my hard work and accomplishments.  

Some of my big wins include getting my research paper published in a prestigious journal, but my small wins are just as important. They include things like acing a difficult midterm exam, or simply being acknowledged by a professor for my hard work. 

I don’t take things personally 

In my experience, comments or jokes made by my male counterparts are rarely directed at me personally. Instead, they are usually a result of their insecurities or lack of knowledge about the topic. 

I remember one time when a male classmate in my group didn't want me to use a soldering iron during our lab work. He said that women are clumsy and I'll burn myself. I could have taken it personally and felt offended, but I chose to see it as an opportunity to educate him. 

I calmly explained why his comment was wrong and why female engineers are just as capable as men when it comes to using electronic hardware. Choosing not to take things personally continuously saves me from a lot of unnecessary drama and stress, and it allows me to step up when my course mates subconsciously take a lead in certain experiences or tasks. 

I ask for help 

One of the biggest misconceptions about successful women is that we have to do everything on our own. This could not be further from the truth. We all need help from time to time, regardless of our gender. 

Asking for help does not make us weak or unintelligent. It shows that we're smart enough to know our limitations and aren't afraid to ask for assistance. 

In all honesty, I have found that standing out in my male-dominated classroom has not been as difficult as I thought. It does take a bit of effort to continuously find new ways to show your uniqueness and personality, but it is worth it.  

By being myself and embracing the things that make me different, I have managed to form connections with my classmates and professors that will last far beyond the semester.  

Remember, we belong in the engineering space as much as our male course mates. 

This article was originally published in May 2022 .

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