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My plane ride back from San Diego

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I’ve always held that you can’t judge people by appearance. I also lament the dearth of women in engineering (and STEM in general). Here’s a little anecdote:

On a recent flight back from San Diego (for work), I sat next to two young blonde women. They were both remarkably pretty. If I were to broadly characterize them by their appearance (which I am loathe to do, but am trying to prove a point here): The one farther away (seat F) had a girl-next-door sort of look; the one closer to me (seat E) had a college-sorority look. (I had the aisle seat: seat D.)

As people boarded, I overheard snippets of banter from the two women about plans for the weekend and possibly a popular musician.

I started a conversation the way I start every conversation on a plane: “How are you today?” And the young lady closer to me smiled and said she’s doing great. I asked if they were going home, and she said they were on business.

I asked what it is that she does. We talked for a while, and I learned that they work for Abbott Labs. They are in a rotation plan that lasts 2 years, and each rotation lasts 6 months. She had done a few rotations, and one of them was in Chicago. They are both currently assigned to a location 45 minutes away from San Diego.

What struck me here is that this is how things used to be at Motorola (well, sort of—a better example is Intel). I was happy to hear of a company that still invests so much into young talent. That it’s a Chicago company was a nice bonus.

I asked what they do for Abbott, and they are both engineers. I asked if this was chemical and they said biomedical. Abbott basically spun off their pharma business as AbbVie and retained medical devices.

As we took off and I looked along the coast, I asked whether they worked north or south of San Diego. The young lady closer to me said north, ’cause 45 minutes south would be Mexico. I smiled at my obvious error.

For most of the flight, I put my headphones on as they talked amongst themselves. They were clearly traveling together, and I didn’t want to be an interloper. Plus, I had a Runner’s World to read and statistical data to pore over for work.

Closer to Chicago, I heard them talk about restaurants. I asked if they wanted a recommendation. The young lady closer to me reminded me that she had lived in Chicago and she knows the area. I took this rebuke to mean that they prefer to converse amongst themselves, and so I went back to reading the WSJ that I grabbed from the hotel. (I tend to be on the chattier end of things and have to watch it—especially with strangers.) I smiled and suggested that maybe she should give me a recommendation, seeing as how I don’t get out much.

Finally, near the end of the flight (when they were both quiet and seemingly bored), I asked where they went to school. They had both gone to Cal-Poly (the good one ’cause there are apparently two). I asked where they want to be when they’ve finished the rotation program. They both wanted to move to the Bay area when their rotations were over. The young lady closer to me reminded me that she was almost done with the rotation program.

They both agreed that Northern California was Better. (As a people-pleaser I said how Northern California is nice because it is cooler and that’s good for running—but honestly, I don’t have a preference.) The young lady farther from me talked about how in Northern California, they say “Hella”. Like, “Hella-fun day.” But they don’t say that in Southern California.

At the end of the flight, I told them it was nice to meet them and I hope they have a good time this week in Chicago. I said, “Would that be a hella-good time?” They young lady farther from me laughed and said that I got it. The young lady closer to me smiled and said that I don’t have to say “hella”; she’s from Northern California and she doesn’t.

So, here’s why I’m bothering to write about this particular conversation: I was absolutely delighted that the young lady closer to me acted like almost every other engineer I have met—correcting factual mistakes when dealing with people. Because if you don’t correct people, they will veer off in the wrong direction. And Bad Things will happen.

It made me feel glad that I had evidence for something I’ve long held—that there’s no inherent difference between men and women. And you can’t judge people by the way they look. And you can only know someone by interacting with him/her.

And at some point in the past, these young ladies would have been encouraged to be pharma reps, not engineers. (I do not suggest that being an engineer is necessarily better than being in sales—I do suggest that having more career options is better.)

Well done, America.

Written by PoojanWagh

November 4th, 2014 at 11:54 pm

Posted in Career/Work-Life

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  1. You’re very observant, Pooj. I wonder if I should start getting as chatty as you are, in my 10 minute subway rides where you are usually packed like sardines. If anything, it’ll be a good experiment in sociology.

    Rishi Arora

    5 Nov 14 at 1:04 pm

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