The issue of 'identity' in engineering is an interesting one. Individuals have at least two identities in their lives (and generally many more) – their personal identity, and their professional identity.
Somebody’s personal, or social, identity is how they present themselves to their family and friends; their professional identity is how they behave whilst at work.
When these two identities align, there will be no barrier caused by identity misalignment to the individual happily pursuing their chosen profession. So, for example, it is so traditional for men (in the UK) to become engineers that in the social context their family and peer group are very accepting of a career in engineering as a good fit with their personal identity. In other words, this is the norm, and can even be seen as a ‘default’ career choice by a man's friends and family.
For a woman in the UK, however, the career of engineer is not so traditional – even in 2018 when increasing numbers of women choose to study engineering and the number of women working in engineering is still only approximately 10%. This means that the family and peer group of a woman who chooses engineering may well see this as an unusual choice, and make these feelings known – and sometimes in unintentionally negative ways, and other times in very blatant ways, with stories of women being told that ‘engineering is not a career for a woman’ being very common. This misalignment of what is acceptable for a woman to do in their professional life causes conflict, and this conflict can be a reason for a woman struggling to 'fit in' and remain in an engineering profession.
Indeed, one way that women often cope with this misalignment is to suppress their role as a woman in the workplace, and this will be a familiar situation to many of us working to promote gender diversity in engineering where female engineers are often not willing to speak up as a woman, but only want to be seen as an engineer. It is seen here in this recent document from the World Federation of Engineering Organisations which reads "Our roles as women are many. But most important is that all of us are engineers first, and we need to work together and with others to meet this challenge of the 21st Century." This concept of there being a hierarchy in which we need to choose which identity comes first is one which can be problematic if we struggle to put the professional identity before the personal.
Anecdotally we hear of women ‘playing down’ their role as an engineer when they are in their social circles in order to continue to fit in with this group, and this is further evidence that there is a conflict that has to be overcome by a coping mechanism. One woman engineer told me recently that she describes herself as a 'designer' so that her friends find it more acceptable.
I would be interested in hearing your opinions on this idea of identity, and finding more evidence of how or whether it is necessary to separate your social and professional identity, and what this might mean for women (or other non-traditional groups) in engineering more widely.