Q&A: GM Engineer Shannon Chiarcos on Her Work, Being Female in a Male-Dominated Industry

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When you hear a job title like “Human Factors Engineer and Interaction Designer,” who do you picture? Think long and hard about this one, because what I’m about to describe may come as a surprise you: General Motors’ Human Factors Engineer and Interaction Designer is a sharply-dressed, blonde, blue-eyed mother of two. Not what you were expecting? Shannon Chiarcos is used to that.

Chiarcos spends her mornings with her two daughters, Winnie (two and a half) and Scarlett (11 months), before heading to the Warren Technical Center in Warren, Michigan (about 20 minutes from GM headquarters), where she’s responsible for researching and designing radio and rear-seat entertainment interfaces (you know, those things that keep kids busy in the back seats).

We spoke to Chiarcos to find out more about what it’s like to be a female engineer in a male dominated industry and the advice she’d offer young women wanting to break into similar industries.

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Tell us a little bit about what you do.

As a Human Factors Engineer for Cadillac’s in-vehicle technology, my job is great in that it changes. One day I’m in a different state doing user testing and the next I am working on a prototype trying to figure out how fast a list should scroll. My job involves a lot of design and collaboration; there is idea sharing, mockups, revisions. It’s a process that continues until one of us falls in love with the design.

How many other women do you work with?

Women are definitely a minority in the engineering department. However, I think it’s so important for us to be represented in this space. We design for customers, and half of the people buying our products are women.

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What are some challenges you face being a woman working in a male dominated space?

You have to compensate for the perceived advantages of being the ‘fairer’ sex. If it’s believed that your management isn’t as critical of your ideas, that you get promoted simply to give the illusion of equal opportunity—these are all things you have to carry with you. Additionally, being a working mother, you have to play both roles so it makes it hard to compete and feel like you are giving your career all the attention and time your male counterparts are. You are at war with the paradigm that good employees are bad mothers and good mothers are bad employees.

Do you feel these things on a day-to-day basis?

The feelings are always there under the surface but most of them are self-inflicted. The point is to be conscious of them. I think Sheryl Sandberg had it right when she said we are biologically different. Why wouldn’t we be different in the workplace? If we can embrace that we have different ways of thinking, different working methods, different reactions, then we see value in them rather than detriments.

What advice would you give to women who are trying to break into male dominated industries?

Go for it! Industries, like the automotive industry, that are male dominated are some of the most powerful, secure, and fastest growing industries in the market. If you count yourself out, you shut so many doors.

What is your greatest accomplishment (work or personal) to date?

Two children and the launch of the Cadillac Rear Seat Entertainment system in the 2015 SRX crossover in a three-year span… phew! When we designed it, we talked to children through the whole design process. It led to a lot of funny comments and creating an interface and a remote that we knew children would enjoy using. Becoming a mother during this time gave me a new perspective; it’s wonderful to design something you think your children may use one day.

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Who are some of your role models?

Professionally I think General Motors’ CEO Mary Barra’s career has been impressive. It’s wonderful to see the company start a new chapter, and I am so excited to see where her leadership will take us. Personally, I love Tina Fey. I think we could all learn something about how to take criticism from her. A sense of humor goes a long way.

This story originally appeared on elle.com

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