It is estimated that 80% of professionals in engineering are men. Julija Kravčenko, a student at the Kaunas University of Technology (KTU) Faculty of Electrical and Electronics Engineering breaks this stereotype and encourages other women and girls to choose this field. Internships at NASA, creating products and undertaking research in companies, invaluable experience and knowledge gained while studying biomedical electronics are just a few activities in Kravčenko’s résumé.
In the interview below, Julija talks about stereotyping across the younger generation – challenges and means to fight them, motivation and the first steps to be made in the male-dominated field of engineering. The young woman is not only engaged in various activities both inside and outside of the university but she has also completed her internship at the US space agency NASA just a year ago.
Julija, how did you decide to become an engineer?
In school, I was interested in journalism, politics, psychology, medicine and physics. In fact, until last year in school, I didn’t know what to study. However, I didn’t want to study medicine just because of the direct interaction with the human body, and psychology and politics I had as hobbies.
My physics teacher introduced technological sciences to the class; and she was the reason I am studying science. Science and technology are not only mere numbers. I think it is very important to understand how it all works, so we could find new technological solutions or improve the existing ones.
What links do you find between different activities? Do they help each other?
Yes, I am involved in a lot of extracurricular activities. I am interested in project management, business development, psychology, travelling and I like to organise events. These activities are bound to each other.
For example, while developing any technological product, you must make a plan that guides you through the process to reach the best result – to create the technology. It is an efficient way to avoid recourse waste, to ensure quality and compliance.
Knowledge in psychology and communication is useful when communicating with a customer or another engineer. Technical knowledge is useful in developing a business and managing a team. This improves analytical thinking but at the same time – creativity. Travelling is important not only for cultural knowledge but also to broaden worldview or learn new languages, to make new contacts.
I try to do what I like but I also have a plan on how to apply knowledge and experience gained.
You have experience in engineering. Do you think the situation would be different if you were a man? Perhaps the challenges would have been easier?
I don’t think so. In terms of projects, scientific achievements, I have achieved everything through work, perseverance and knowledge. I didn’t encounter any advantages or disadvantages of my gender.
Have you noticed that women and men have different opportunities? Maybe the younger generation doesn’t feel that difference? What about the teachers’ attitude?
While studying biomedical electronics at KTU, I didn’t experience gender discrimination. Lecturers assess students for their work and knowledge. If you don’t understand something, you can always ask. They are sincerely excited that students want to understand and learn more.
From the experience conducting researches at the KTU Institute of Biomedical Engineering, I can say that the environment is welcoming you feel like yourself, regardless of gender – everyone communicates as equals. It doesn’t matter if you are a PhD student, a lecturer, a professor or the head of the institute. I felt the same way during my internship at NASA.
I have had mixed experiences with private companies. I never had problems finding a job, but the environment was less friendly. In a work environment, where the staff was older and predominantly male, I felt crooked glances, and I realised that I needed to earn my position in the team.
However, many companies today invest in equality, education and equal opportunities. Although I have heard stories from girlfriends about the employers’ comments, such as “You want a man’s salary” or “Are you a fit for this position?” I haven’t had to deal with it myself.
However, it is important not to tolerate this kind of behaviour. Experience, knowledge and competencies should indicate the recruitment process.
What measures should be taken to increase the visibility of women in engineering and how to find the solution to these challenges?
In my opinion, senior business executives need to be aware of the problem – gender and age do not determine a candidate’s level of experience and knowledge. Stereotypes are the biggest enemy and I am talking not only about discrimination against women in technology but also about men in social sciences or management.
There are many young, proactive and accomplished people in my environment who weren’t accepted because they were “too young” or of the wrong gender. It’s important not to underestimate a person and to give them a chance.
Companies should educate their employees more and build a team at an early stage. One of the biggest motivations for young people at work is a good environment and team. If companies want to attract young professionals, they should pay close attention to it.
To solve the problem, men and women need to understand that no one will “save” you from discrimination. The person herself should speak up about the problem with the HR, supervisors, etc. If the person is too afraid to talk directly, they should do that in writing. If there is no solution, then they should change the job. I can’t comment about every field but both engineering and the IT industry really needs staff, so don’t be afraid to lose your job.
To what extent can the academic environment influence gender discrimination, especially in teaching technology and science?
The academic environment educates students to be confident and self-aware, not to be afraid to express their expectations to the employer and to deal with challenges. Communication is the key to most of the problems.
To attract more young women into science and technology, it is important to emphasise that after graduating from engineering studies, it is unnecessary to do programming, to solder or to build something. In the job market, engineers who have leadership skills, who are good at sales are also welcome.
With an understanding of the product in engineering, you can communicate with both engineers and customers, to plan the budget and to allocate work. It is fascinating that at the university you have sales, entrepreneurship and other courses in social sciences and humanities.
During the NASA internship, your supervisor was the first African American woman who was trained as an astronaut. What did you learn from her?
She taught me to believe in myself, in my dreams, to work a lot, to not to compare my results with others and to never give up.
How much does inclusion (in terms of gender differences and beyond) depend on the individual’s willingness to engage and to overcome challenges?
As I said, I think the most important thing is to never give up and to communicate, to not be afraid of changes. It doesn’t matter if you are male or female, a student or professional, if the situation does not satisfy and you experience discrimination, you need to talk and to look for a solution.
Don’t be afraid that someone will say that “you will have problems”. It is important to understand that only you are responsible for your life and only you can decide where you will work, study or live.
The engineering industry need good engineers. If your company thinks you are not competent enough just because you are a woman, just smile and say thank you, close the door and email other companies. Life is too short.
What challenges you are facing today? What motivates you?
I am currently working as an engineer and researcher at one company, also on several additional projects. Together with the team we are creating technology for paramedics. The motivation and inspiration come from the environment – I am surrounded by wonderful people who are ambitious and who had accomplished many great things in different fields.
To see how their ideas, projects and businesses grow – it’s a great feeling. We encourage and support each other and it is very inspiring. I have mentors who keep me on track and motivate me. I also try to enjoy small things, to learn something new every day. I ask myself every morning what I want to do today to feel happy and successful. Then I just have to do it.
Women in Tech – a project by the Kaunas University of Technology about women working in technology, engineering and innovation. The aim is to eliminate gender stereotypes linked to career choices and achievements in science.