March 8th, International Women’s Day, is a day of pride, action, and celebration. Women have come an extraordinary way in society, but there’s still more to be done. Madhu Mathiyalagan, Principal Product Manager at Stratus Technologies, talks about important issues facing women in the workplace, growing up in India, and what it’s like to be a woman in the engineering field.
What led you to this career path? Was engineering a “typical” path for a young girl in your community and did your family/friends encourage it early on?
Being Indian and growing up in an Indian household, it is expected for you to become an engineer or something in the medical field. If not, you are looked down on by your family, peers, and others. A lot, if not all, of my friends have become either doctors or engineers. I looked at the medical field, quickly seeing it wasn’t for me, but I loved math. However, it became clear to me that though I had a passion for math, it wasn’t necessary to use to become an engineer.
Growing up my father was a role model for me. He’s an engineer who became CEO of his company in Civil Engineering. But the more I watched him, I realized that the CEO position wasn’t something I wanted to pursue. Seeing the sacrifices he made for his family and otherwise, though honorable, is something I knew I didn’t want. Instead, my goal is to become a CTO.
What are some of the biggest challenges you faced as a woman in engineering early in your career and how have things changed since?
Interestingly enough, in my field I don’t agree with the statement that, professionally, women have it harder than men. In my experience, within the technology industry you come in having the same knowledge as everyone else, and people treat you as such.
However, though I’ve never personally experienced gender bias, I’ve noticed that where it gets hard for women is getting out of their own head. As young girls, we grow up thinking we need to be perfect at everything and know all the answers. If we don’t, we’ll be perceived as weak, or stupid. Starting out, I used to be so hard on myself if I said the wrong thing and became negative. Women in engineering need to become more confident – in their work, in their attitude, in their voice. For example, I’ve seen that when women are faced with applying to a new role, they’ll hesitate if they are not 100% qualified, and are less likely to apply. Whereas men will easily apply because they have all the confidence in the world!
To this day I face some of those insecurities, but what I find helps me is finding a mentor (preferably female) and make a connection with them.
“Women need to become more confident – in their work, in their attitude, in their voice.”
How (if at all) was your education different in India than in the U.S.? What was the difference between your undergrad and grad experiences?
Education requirements in India are completely different than of that the U.S. In India when I attended SRM University, the workload was much more extensive. You need to know all of the minor, minor, details of every topic you learn. I went to graduate school here in the U.S. at Northeastern University. Though the topics themselves were the same level of difficulty, the workload was a cakewalk. Homework and exams were incredibly less laborious.
However, I must say, the reason I had the opportunity to get so much work done in India was that all of my other responsibilities were taken care of by other people. Culture-wise, in India your mother cooked, a cleaning woman took care of the house, there were drivers to escort you… all you really had to focus on were your studies! When I came here, I didn’t have a clue how to do anything! I was completely dependent on myself. I saw that the reason the workload wasn’t as heavy, was that here, you have more responsibilities to take care of yourself. So, though I achieved the same grades in both India and the U.S the way of earning them was very different.
In short, what do you do at Stratus and what do you love most about it?
At Stratus, I am the Principal Product Manager for the ztC Edge. Being a product manager is all about creating an idea for a product and making sure it’s executed correctly. With creating the ztC Edge, after developing the concept my team and I had to follow through with delivering it to the right people. We work with engineering, product marketing, technical documentation, sales, customer accounting and financing, licenses, etc. to make our vision come to life.
Something that I love about my job is the creativity that comes with it. There’s so much room to be innovative and make a change. At Stratus, it’s such an open community. People are so approachable and willing to hear your opinions and be receptive. It’s a great environment to be a part of.
How can we get more women excited about a career in STEM? What are some of the misconceptions we need to break?
I think by showing more known women in the STEM field, it will encourage women. By making women in STEM more visible to young girls it gives them someone to look up to and something to strive for. We hear of so many male CEOs but barely, if any, women. We need to celebrate our women leaders. I think Michelle Obama is a great leader. She influences the world in a positive and inspirational way, and we need more women like her.
Regarding misconceptions, it’s common to say to girls that it’s acceptable not to apply yourself because your husband will provide for you. This misconception that girls shouldn’t have to earn their own money is wild. There’s a certain self-satisfaction that comes with earning your own money, being able to buy things, and support yourself. Not having to depend on someone for your well-being is such an empowering feeling, which is why I am proud that more women (in engineering) are becoming an undeniably extraordinary part of the workforce.