Engineering My Career as a Woman With ADHD
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Engineering my career as a woman with ADHD

As a female engineer with ADHD, Kellie Williams is breaking ground in a male-dominated field. She’s thriving now, but the path wasn’t easy. She’s faced harassment and dealt with obstacles like ill-fitting equipment made for men. Hear about her experience. And find out which tools and accommodations she uses at work for her ADHD.

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Episode transcript

Eleni: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "How'd You Get THAT Job?!," a podcast that explores the unique and often unexpected career paths of people with learning and thinking differences. My name is Eleni Matheou, and I'm a user researcher here at Understood. That means I spend a lot of time thinking about how we find jobs we love that reflect how we learn and who we are. I'll be your host.

So, I'm very excited to introduce Kellie. Kellie is an engineer with ADHD working in sustainability, and she's also one of my closest friends. We met shortly after both of us moved to New York City, about four and a bit years ago at this stage. And she's one of the first people to be really open with me about her differences, how they impact her day to day, and like also how best to support and understand her. So, I thought it would be really great to have her on the show and learn more.

So, let's start with where you landed in your career today.

Kellie: Yeah. So, I'm a mechanical engineer. I've done a lot of different types of jobs. I've worked on building design. I worked to design security equipment for the world's largest prison equipment company. I've directed an energy and sustainability department for Texas' largest school district. I've done energy consulting, construction commissioning, and now I work for a New York City utility company as a strategic planner in the energy efficiency department.

Eleni: Wow. That is a lot. So, Kellie, you mentioned that you are a sustainability engineer. What does that mean?

Kellie: Sustainability engineering, energy engineering — this could be something from developing clean energy technologies or to improve efficiency for existing equipment or buildings, so reducing greenhouse gas emissions or, in my context, I work in the building spaces. So I'm looking at how are the lights, the equipment that keeps the buildings cool and dry, and all the programming that goes on behind the scenes. How do we get that to operate in a way that reduces the energy needed to run the building? And that way it reduces the greenhouse gas emissions. And then on the other side, which is more upstream, is looking at like, can we do solar wind, other renewables, that can benefit the environment?

So, in terms of sustainability, as it is today, it's really about environmental impact. How do you reduce it? And there's a lot of different ways you can do that.

Eleni: So, like, what do you like about where you've landed at the moment?

Kellie: I really like that I get to choose what I can hone in on and that it's contributing to a larger goal, being climate mitigation that I'm personally very interested in and have been interested in since I was a kid.

Eleni: Yeah. So, what makes you so passionate about climate issues?

Kellie: I don't know where to begin. Climate issues — it's an existential threat that we have to solve for. I think about my family, my nieces, you know, the world that they're going to inherit by us.

This is such a deep question, where we're facing an existential threat. And to me, it's my personal biggest priority. It's almost like when someone says, "Who are you?" What am I, why am I doing this? And I think climate mitigation is something that is so important. It impacts everything. It impacts the economy, the quality of our air and our water, the ecosystem. It touches on so many things. It's so important that it's the only thing I can really focus on. It's the only thing that I can continue to chase is solving this problem. And I just have this inherent interest in helping it, and maybe it's partially related to being empathetic. I don't like to see communities suffer because of climate change or animals being displaced or, like, going extinct.

It's really sad. You know, I think we should be good stewards of our earth and of our resources and our environment. So, I want to see that. I want to be a part of something that is contributing to make things better. And that's why I'm really interested in climate. 

Eleni: It's so, so important. And how has that interest influenced, like, some of the other earlier decisions you made in your career?

Kellie: I graduated college during the recession. I did not have a lot of options. So that's how I landed with this prison equipment company job. And it wasn't the most feel-good, fuzzy job that I imagined myself doing. But it made me realize that I had to pursue a passion because I dreaded coming into the office every single day.

And eventually I found one that really hit the spot and that was doing energy efficiency and energy management. And once I hit that stride, my career grew very rapidly because I was very motivated. I was in my twenties, a manager, a very young manager. And I was a total go-getter, so much energy, and I felt like nothing could stop me.

Eleni: So you mentioned, like, it's really important for you to have something that you're really passionate about. I would love to know how that relates to your ADHD. We've heard a lot of people talk about motivation, but I would like to hear about your unique experience with that.

Kellie: For me, if I'm not doing something that is contributing to a large goal or feels worthwhile, like I have purpose, I just don't see the point in doing it at all.

So I know a lot of jobs they're really important, but for me, I feel like I need to be needed in order to keep going. Otherwise I just lose motivation and it just feels pointless, and I struggle to continue to do that type of work.

Eleni: Totally.

Kellie: So once I find something that I really like, I've tried to find a way that I can hyperfocus in a way that is beneficial to me, because I've hyperfocused in ways that are very harmful.

So, I have to be really disciplined and set up structure for myself to think: "What is this contributing to? Is this a question that needs to be asked now? Is this going to be a worthwhile exploration?" And if it's a "yes," and if it's a "yes, now," like the near term, then I can usually follow that. And that can be pretty beneficial.

Sometimes it looks like coming up with really innovative ideas or very collaborative ideas or thinking on the fly. So, with ADHD, for me, it manifests as racing questions, and I will sometimes get caught up in the wrong question. Or sometimes it's the right question, the very obscure question, and I get to chase that, and that's like chasing the white rabbit, and then it leads me down to a really cool solution sometimes.

Eleni: And I can also see how, if you're chasing the wrong thing, that can also be a challenge.

Kellie: It's horrible, disastrous.

Eleni: So I think that that's a really good segue to hear about maybe some of the challenges that you face with ADHD, perhaps in the lead-up to, like, becoming an engineer. And then also — actually, let's stop there.

Kellie: OK. So, I actually took some notes because I knew I was going to forget. This is a very meta thing right here because you put, like, what's in the challenges, so, OK. Remembering things, um, especially when I'm under pressure. I had test anxiety like nobody's business. I've blanked out on the simplest things, even formulas like the Pythagorean theorem, which is very simple for an engineer; you learn that in middle school.

So my challenges were gaining enough confidence to believe that I can have the answers when I need them, which took a lot of exercise and practice and, like, all the cheesy affirmations. So, I went through all these things to help me through the test anxiety. So, once I got through that and I was doing well and making good grades, that helped. But actually, what was challenging about this? I was undiagnosed until my sophomore year, and my boyfriend at the time, who is now actually an ADHD coach — 

Eleni: Oh, wow. I didn't know that.

Kellie: He said, "Kellie, I think you might want to get diagnosed. I see that you're really struggling." And so I got diagnosed and I actually thought — I had so much self-doubt. Am I even smart enough to pursue engineering? I had so much, like, imposter syndrome, like, who are you? There's no — you've never even met an engineer. How are you going to be an engineer? You don't even know what they do. You don't even know what they look like, how they act, nothing. I had no model for this.

So, when I got tested and they said, you actually have like an above-average IQ. And I was, like, what? Who, me? I'm smart? Are you sure? They got those scores mixed up. But then they gave me some tools and medication, and that completely changed everything. It was so much easier to study. I had all the tools I needed in order to get through my degree.

It took me six years. I worked full time, and some of those semesters, it was really challenging. But I made it, and I did it, and that is one of my biggest accomplishments in life.

Eleni: So, you mentioned tools. Do you want to talk a little bit about what some of those tools are and how you came up with them or how you discovered them?

Kellie: Yes. Trial and error is how I came to learn what works for me. The most unfortunate part of all of this is I finally figured out what my best study strategy was in my final semester of college.

Eleni: Six years later.

Kellie: Six years later. But the good thing is I was able to use that for the rest of my career. If I didn't have to study so hard and put all that time into figuring out how I learn best, I wouldn't have been able to succeed as much in my career because I did all the work ahead of time.

So, now, if I have a certification I'm studying for, or if I'm learning about some, like, new technology, it is so much easier for me to internalize it. I've learned that I need to externalize my memory. I need to externalize my time constraints, and I use a little cube with the minutes, like five minutes, 10 minutes.

I use tools to keep me on track. The one thing that helped me through all this is giving myself permission to use the tools and not feeling shame about it. And saying, "You know what, this is what I have to do to get things done, and that's OK. And it's going to be OK. And, yeah, it looks different because I'm at work.

I've got all these, like, noise-canceling headphones. I have the cube. I'm in the corner because I cannot be distracted. I tell people if you see me at the office with my headphones on, send me an invite, do not disturb me, because I will go off the rails and you're really going to screw up my day. So, it's socializing and normalizing what I need to do to get things done.

And because I've been successful, I am very confident in standing out in that way and being very vocal in what my needs are.

Eleni: So, while you were talking about tools, you mentioned this cube. What is it?

Kellie: I have this yellow cube. It has the numbers 5, 10, 25, and 45, and a blink on each side. When I flip it for that number of five, it will give me a five-minute countdown. It'll beep and it'll blink. So, if I have my noise-canceling headphones on, I can see it blinking. I just, like, put it in sight, and it has a countdown timer.

Eleni: Oh, wow, that's so interesting.

Kellie: I use the cube for task management. So I use this to set goals and to have a reminder. Now, fortunately, I can usually remember what I was working on, what I needed to do before the timer goes off.

I don't know how long things actually take me. I thought dishes took me one hour. I timed myself; it takes me less than five minutes to put up dishes and less than five minutes to put them in the washer. I use this thing not just for work, but I use it for life tasks because now that I have a data point to say, "No, dishes do not take you an hour to do; you have a machine to do this for you." It feels like an hour because I hate dishes. But I just say, "Look, get the clock, gamify." I use the cube to gamify tasks. Oh, I'm going to win — I can beat the clock. And so I use it for getting ready, doing my chores, sending emails. I'm only going to let myself do research for 45 minutes undisturbed, and then I'm going to take a five-minute break or a 10-minute break. So I use it to task manage, time manage.

Eleni: I have been witness to this. I don't know if you had the cube while we lived together because leaving the house when we would go out, I'd be, like, 10 minutes away from getting ready, and it'd be, like, 45 minutes, 60 minutes later. "Kellie, where are you at with getting ready? Like, what's happening in there?"

Kellie: It's bad sometimes — I didn't have the cube back then.

Eleni: How do you think mood relates to ADHD and how that varies day to day?

Kellie: Oh my gosh. As a new engineer, when I graduated college, I looked at everything as, like, so technical and mechanical. And I really ignored feelings; I ignored emotions. And I was doing a disservice to myself because I needed to acknowledge "I'm feeling really irritable" or "I'm feeling really sad" or "I'm really, really happy." And if I can work my tasks around that mood, it's much better. So, if I'm feeling really introverted, I might just do the research task that day, bump it up a week early. And if I'm feeling really social, I'm going to do all my collaborative activities then. So, I just try to work with these moods, work with these needs, instead of resist. 

Eleni: Yeah. It's all about having self-awareness. Before you started work, did you have any idea, like, how any of your differences would impact you at work, and were there any surprises or things that showed up that you didn't expect?

Kellie: So, some surprises were, I had one of my doctors tell me I was a highly sensitive person, and I just took that as emotional and some sensory things. But the way it showed up in different jobs, as it still shows up, is surprising to me still. Like, construction noise and dust, and just, like, the sound and texture of grit underneath my shoes really bothers me. In New York City, I was commissioning construction projects, meaning that I'm checking to make sure that the work they said they were going to do was actually done.

And I'm walking new builds with, like, where the steel frames are up and they're just put in the concrete floors, or I'm doing a retrofit, where they've put in an air conditioning unit at Grand Central Station or at Penn Station. And I have to inspect the whole thing, and it is damp, dark, gritty, dirty, loud. There's jackhammering next door, because they're doing all this work. There's dust everywhere. My senses are completely flooded, overwhelmed. My hands are dry because, you know, you have to pick up tools to open panels and like do electrical work with multiple layers of really itchy material, heavy boots, two layers of gloves for electrical work. Plus tools. 

Eleni: In potentially suits that don't fit, right? 

Kellie: Yes. I've had to do electrical work in a suit that was three sizes too big for me — a men's suit — because they only had electrical equipment for men. It drives me crazy. And I learned that I can't force myself to be happy in these roles, and I have to honor my sensitivities and just work with it instead.

So, now I have a better job. Now I'm working from home, and I love that because I get to shield myself. But what I've learned is that I need to avoid certain types of work. It sounds good on paper, but in practice it is just terrible for me.

Eleni: Yeah. So when you were pivoting between jobs, were you doing so with the awareness or with the knowledge that, "Oh, I need to move away from like this particular environment; I need to do something differently?"

Kellie: Yes. There's a lot of intentionality behind the work I was seeking. Right now, I'm in this strategic planning role. I wanted to do more project starting. I'm great with idea generation. I'm great with getting people jazzed up and onboard for a new initiative. I am not great at finishing a project or following the instructions. It is not for me. And I learned that in my previous roles in New York City being an energy consultant or construction commissioner, I had to do copy-paste. So repetitive, different building but same procedure. Not for me. I cannot do that. So I learned, "Oh, what's the pattern here between all these different roles I've had?" 

The pattern was, I love starting things. I like new initiatives; I'm going to do that. And I'm doing it now. And I love it.

Eleni: I'm so pleased for you that you are able to, like, make that connection. So, earlier in the conversation, you mentioned you really enjoy managing people and you really enjoy collaborating, you know, knowing you, as well. It kind of links to having like a really strong sense of empathy.

Kellie: Yes.

Eleni: And it's being able to read people. And so, you're really, like, attuned to what other people are doing in the room.

Kellie: Yeah. When you said that, I just got goosebumps on my legs because, I don't know, I am so sensitive to the minor differences in people's behavior, voice inflection, micro-expressions. Even working in a virtual environment has been really interesting because you remove so many layers of that communication and my ability to read, which makes it feel more anxiety producing.

But you just learn to, oh, it'll find its way. You will find a way; you'll learn how long the silences are and what to pick up on in different people. But I think, because of the sensitivities, I am very empathetic, and I can try to view a problem from the lens of whomever that stakeholder is. And with that, I can already do a lot of information gathering and hypothesize and then present it.

And they're like, "Oh my gosh, you're so good." Or — no one's ever asked this to me before. I'm so glad you did, though. These feel like superpowers in a lot of ways.

Eleni: Oh, totally. Also, it makes me think about this trope around engineers not being emotional. In a way, you're kind of debunking that or re-creating what it means to be an engineer.

Kellie: I love this question. So, mechanical engineering has some of the least representation from females in the entire engineering industry.

Eleni: Yeah, and engineering on its own is not well represented, let alone —

Kellie: Oh my gosh. Engineering on its own is so far behind with gender parity. Well, mechanical is even further behind. 

Senior year of my engineering degree, I was the only female still in some of those classes. It, actually, the number of women actually decreased as I continued.

Eleni: Wow.

Kellie: A lot of women drop out. Being an only female engineer, yeah, I had a lot of harassment just straight up. I had so much anger in that; I felt discounted for being a young female engineer. I felt discounted because I have learning differences on top of that. Having people say, "Who do you know; who hired you?" There's rumors about how I got this job, blah, blah, blah. I thought I had to adapt. I thought I had to assimilate in order to be successful. At some point, I was said, "Screw that; I'm not doing this. I'm going to be my authentic self." 

It actually took therapy and a lot of reading about how to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. And a lot of that I was able to connect with my experience with ADHD.

Eleni: Yeah.

Kellie: So, it was really cool because I had decided I'm not going to act like a man, act like this man engineer who's 30 years my senior. There's so little representation of women engineers in my field that I had to pave the way because I was the only one. And I thought, "I get to make this change. I get to decide what this role looks like, because I am the first."

Eleni: Yeah, it's interesting you bring up the idea of assimilation, how it links to ADHD. One thing that I've been hearing in my research is that there's almost, I'm going to say, a spectrum, but it's, like, there are people that think of their difference as something they need to assimilate. In other words, something that they need to hide, versus all the people that say "No, I'm going to own this and feel real pride around it." And there's, like, a real dichotomy there. And I think making that shift away from assimilation to pride is really what allows people to let go of shame or really see the superpowers that you talked about. 

Kellie: I am me, and I like it! 

Eleni: So, if you were speaking to someone who wanted to become an engineer, and perhaps they have ADHD or they're a woman, what advice would you give to them? 

Kellie: I would recommend that they seek out something like "engineer for a day" and others, these groups, especially with communities of color, women, groups for young female engineers, there's all of these segments of making engineering accessible to young kids from all different backgrounds. If they could find a group that can provide some level of exposure. Do the work, test it out. You've got to try on these jobs, go do a site visit, try to learn if you can from somebody and just spend a day on a construction site. Because, as a mechanical engineer, there are so many different avenues that you can go into. I could do energy. I could do design, airplanes. Like, it's all over the place.

And it's not always on a construction site. There's a lot of times when you're just at the desk, reviewing drawings. Put on their glasses and like a literal magnifying glass and just marking up drawings, doing all these checks and balances. It can look like a lot of different things. So, figuring out how much of your time is going to be in the field versus in the office.

I'm someone that likes to do both. So, I initially sought out jobs that would give me that flexibility to go explore in the field and also be in my desk, like doing research, having enough conversations with people to find out what is the good blend for you. And also look into your own personal life to see, are you a homebody? Do you like to explore things? And see if you can replicate that into your work. 

Eleni: I love that; such good advice. 

Thanks so much, Kellie, for being here and for sharing your story. 

Kellie: Thank you so much for having me. I'm very excited to share this. 

Eleni: This has been "How'd You Get THAT Job?!," a part of the Understood Podcast Network. You can listen and subscribe to "How'd You Get THAT Job?!" on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you heard today, tell someone about it. "How'd You Get THAT Job?!" is for you. So we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Go to u.org/thatjob to share your thoughts and to find resources from every episode. That's the letter U, as in Understood, dot O R G, slash that job. 

Do you have a learning difference and a job you're passionate about? Email us at thatjob@understood.org. If you'd like to tell us how you got THAT job, we'd love to hear from you. As a nonprofit and social impact organization, Understood relies on the help of listeners like you to create podcasts like this one, to reach and support more people in more places. We have an ambitious mission to shape the world for difference, and we welcome you to join us in achieving our goals. Learn more at understood.org/mission. "How'd You Get THAT Job?!" is produced by Andrew Lee and Justin D. Wright, who also wrote our theme song. Laura Key is our editorial director at Understood. Scott Cocchiere is our creative director. Seth Melnick and Briana Berry are our production directors. Thanks again for listening.

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  • Eleni Matheou

    leads user research for Understood. She helps Understood to center its work on the lived experiences and voices of people who learn and think differently.

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