When I was growing up, I never thought about the odds stacked against my success, only about fulfilling my dream of becoming an engineer like my father. Growing up on a Navajo reservation in Arizona, I was insulated from the larger world, and although I’d heard of reports of racism in the neighboring border towns, I hadn’t personally experienced it. Since everyone in my community was Navajo, I was never treated differently for my background, and the close-knit community instilled in me a strong sense of unity and kinship.
After graduating from high school and completing my first year at the local tribal college, I realized that I’d need to look beyond the reservation in order to continue pursuing my career. I decided to move to a bordering town and continue my education at a local community college, eventually attending a state university.
At the same time, I experienced a significant life change. I became a young single mother juggling parenting with attending school and working part-time to support myself and my daughter. The days were long, but I was determined to provide a better life for my daughter.
Growing up, I’d heard that engineering was a male-dominated career. Although I had times of doubting my ability to excel in that type of competitive environment, I knew this was what I wanted. After taking an internship at a technology company, I noticed that most of the other interns were men, but over time, they simply became my colleagues and friends. That’s why it was especially surprising when a fellow male colleague commented that I was “just a diversity hire.”
Unfortunately, it was not the last time I would ever hear that phrase or versions of it. Other colleagues deemed me a “double threat” for being both Native American and a female, telling me I could get hired anywhere. In fact, today, just one in 13,000 U.S. engineers identifies as a Native American or Alaskan woman, according to a report by Sandia National Laboratories. Whether they were meant to be or not, the comments were always hurtful. No matter how hard I worked, the implication was that I didn’t deserve my success.
As I was looking for jobs, I avoided mentioning my ethnicity or revealing other hints about my background. I never wanted to feel (or have others believe) that I had received a handout. At the same time, I longed to find a workplace where I could proudly be myself and open in all the ways in which I identified myself, as a Native American engineer and mother.
Then, at a career fair, I was introduced to an employee at Intel. She was a member of Intel’s Native American Network employee resource group. She took the time to get to know me personally and went out of her way to recruit me—even sending me information about nearby childcare centers. That chance encounter was the start of a new chapter in my life. Now, three years later, I am married and raising my compassionate and inquisitive 7-year-old daughter, and I have a successful career as a software engineer at Intel, where I am able to express all the unique strengths that make me who I am.
Here’s the advice I’d give to others who have faced similar types of workplace adversity.
Continue your self-growth journey
My background may have shaped who I am, but overcoming my personal and professional hardships gave me the courage to face even more challenges. I began pushing myself to attend networking events and become more active in professional groups. Today, I’m a member of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) as well as various groups at Intel. Although it was difficult, my ability to endure difficult situations enabled me to see just how strong I am.
Use ignorance as a teachable moment
Instead of responding with frustration or anger when I get questions about how I ended up in my current job, I now use it as an opportunity to create greater mutual understanding. The last time my background was brought up in relation to my job, I decided to have a face-to-face conversation with the person. I not only shared my personal story but also why that question could be interpreted as offensive to me and others like me. Sometimes bias is born out of a lack of exposure. My hope is that by sharing my perspective, I may be able to open people’s eyes to a new way of thinking.
Pay it forward
I’m fortunate to work for a company that encourages work-life balance and provides benefits for working parents, such as childcare discounts and online tutoring help. This assistance has undoubtedly made it easier to balance my roles as an engineer and a mother. I would not be where I am in my career today without support, and I continue to advocate to ensure these benefits are more accessible across workplaces to anyone who needs them.
Although I may be a statistical anomaly, right now there are girls like me across the country who are dreaming of becoming engineers. Instead of discounting the next young minority girl you meet as “just another diversity hire,” think about taking the time to get to know her first. You might learn something new.
Georgia Sandoval is an HPC performance architect at Intel Corporation.