Throughout her career, Heidi Shyu was no stranger to discrimination. The under secretary of defense for research and engineering shared some of her early experiences and advice in the workplace in a Women in Technology summit, hosted by the University of Maryland Laboratory for Physical Sciences.
"[In] every challenge in my career, I ended up learning a very valuable lesson," the undersecretary said today. In her very first job interview out of college, with a master's degree in mathematics, she was confronted with sex discrimination at a large aircraft company, she said.
"I was shocked during the interview [when the hiring official said], 'I [looked] at your resume and your two degrees are in mathematics. So what makes you so sure you can actually do engineering?' I was literally flabbergasted by that question. I leaned into him and told him in my junior year, I took a complex analysis course with 32 other male engineers in the class. I was the only female and only non-engineer. I came in No. 1 in the class, by far, so I'm not the least intimidated by engineers."
She said she was sure when that came out of her mouth, she wouldn't get the job. "But it actually didn't matter whether I got the job or not. What was important to me is not being looked down upon and treated as a second-class citizen." And she landed the job.
Shyu shared several lessons learned with the audience.
"You have to have self-confidence. If you don't have self-confidence, and speak up on your own behalf, you can be walked over," she said.
And while she got the job, she still faced challenges working in a predominantly male environment.
"The first week I was on the job, a fellow engineer came into my office and actually told me, 'The only reason we hired you is because you're a female minority [Asian], because we hire male engineers,'" she said.
Shyu had a breakthrough eventually at the company when she voluntarily solved a three-dimensional mathematical problem for a male senior scientist. She tackled the problem, solved it and took it upon herself to extrapolate it to the end dimension, so it would be any dimension the scientist wanted.
"I walked down to the boss's office and said, 'Here's the solution to your three-dimensional problem. And oh, by the way, if you're interested, I generalized the equation,' and he was literally stunned by it. After that, I can tell you, his attitude toward me flipped 180 degrees."
One of the key lessons she learned very early in her career is that respect is not automatic. "You absolutely have to earn it," she said.
Shyu added that because of those unpleasant exchanges that occurred early on, she was determined to go back to school and get an engineering degree, so she wouldn't be treated as a second-class person who "only had a mathematics degree."
Her next lesson learned was she should never reject any opportunity and she should continue to learn.
Five years into her career, she learned to speak up when others around her were being promoted and she was not.
"I noticed my coworkers were much more verbose about their accomplishments, and I would just very quietly sit in my office doing calculations to solve engineering problems." She sensed her achievements weren't being noticed, until she began to speak up and communicate. "Once I started doing that, the perception of my managers literally changed," Shyu said.
She said that lesson learned was don't be afraid to speak up. "You have to communicate and you have to keep your communication very succinct. Get to the heart of the problem quickly," she advised.
Another lesson learned is that women should not let their bosses pigeon-hole them in a narrow area of expertise. "To move up in your career, ask to broaden out your base," Shyu advised. "Every single step of my career, I looked at people, two levels above me [and asked], 'what skills do they have?'"
Get out of your comfort zone and don't be afraid to take on very high-risk projects, she said. "Set a high-quality bar for you and your team. Make sure you remove roadblocks for your team for them to try to achieve ridiculous goals, but to also help them achieve is very important when you're in a high-stress job."