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Women in Engineering

MaineLonghornMaineLonghorn 42331 replies2285 threads Super Moderator
edited November 2019 in Engineering Majors
I would like to hear stories from women who have become engineers. What were your experiences like before, during, and after college? What kind of attitude did you go into college with? How did your profs and male classmates treat you? What has your career been like? Did you have male or female mentors? What would you do differently if you could do everything over again?

I worry that high school girls are being told they're going to have a very difficult time in college and in their careers, and I haven't found this to be the case, even though I entered college way back in 1980.

PS - This isn't a thread for statistics. I want to hear from female engineers.
edited November 2019
30 replies
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Replies to: Women in Engineering

  • Parentof2014gradParentof2014grad 1072 replies13 threads Senior Member
    (copied and pasted and edited from my post in another thread)

    My D has an engineering degree from Illinois Tech, one of those schools with a less than balanced M/F ratio. She never expressed to me that she felt disrespected or unsupported by her peers or her professors. She never believed she was less able to succeed academically or would need more help than men in studying engineering, and she was correct to believe that. She did sometimes feel a bit isolated socially and wished there were more women in engineering at her school, in spite of the fact that her (small) major was closer to 50-50. When she was in school she tended to avoid the women in engineering clubs and such where she could have found more support. At the time she didn't want an all-girls club any more than she wanted to surrounded only by guys. Now that she's working, she is involved with WISE and some of the other women in engineering groups and is enjoying that and finding more female mentors.

    She works at a smallish firm where I believe she is the only female engineer. There are other women on staff as architects and who are engineers but currently working in other capacities. She feels valued and respected at work and loves her job. She's had to deal with negative comments from non-engineers on site visits more than once.

    My other daughter has an economics degree and works in economic research. That field is skewed very heavily toward men as well, and I think she's struggled with that aspect more than my engineering daughter has, both while she was in school and in the work environment.
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  • ClassicMom98ClassicMom98 623 replies1 threads Member
    Quick background: Graduated in '94 from a well known public state U in civil engineering. Worked on the private side doing transportation and site design for 3 years and have worked for a public works engineering division in a small city in an economically challenged region for the last 22.

    My first reaction when I hear about women struggling and discouraged from STEM is "huh?" That was not my experience. That being said, when I think about it, this is what I notice... (and this might be a rambling novel)

    Engineers tend to be ISTJ or sometimes ESTJ. I am a strong ISTJ myself. Those personalities are not natural mentors. They are not touchy feely. If you are the kind of person who needs lots of positive feedback "you're awesome! You go girl!" Well, yeah. You're not going to get that. Nobody gets that. If you find someone like that, you're probably lucky.

    My Dad was an aerospace engineer, but my Mom was more involved with our raising so to speak. She was a math/computer science teacher who was born a generation too early. I mentioned earlier that I was raised without race/gender being an issue. And I guess that's not quite true. I was well aware of the struggles she went through. She only went to college because my Dad signed her up for the SAT. She hadn't considered college and didn't know what the SAT was about when she took it. (and got > 1400) She always wanted to play sports, but couldn't. Girls didn't do that. So, she made DANG well sure that her girls could do whatever they wanted and would be independent and able to take care of themselves.

    However, there was never a question that girls weren't smart enough or capable of doing it, or that it would be "hard." In my mind, her experiences were the old days and things were different now. I never felt that I was special because I was going to be a women engineer. As someone mention - I don't truly consider myself a "woman engineer." Personally, I hate labels of any kind. I feel that labeling or identifying is limiting. I am me. You can change my name, my title, whatever. I'm still me.

    My college days, I was definitely in the minority. I want to say 10% were female? There were some, but plenty of classes of 30-50 students, I'd be the only one. The only thing that I minded was that the profs would learn my name first and always call on me. I preferred to be anonymous and that wasn't going to happen. I didn't talk much to peers (ISTJ remember). Most of my friends were from parties (alcohol helped the ISTJ thing - I'm being honest...) I did carefully choose my lab partners to be the "old guys." They were 23-25 :) but I figured they would care more about school. There was only one professor who was anti-women. I never saw it in class, but the one time I ever went to a professor about something, I heard him say to someone with him "I grade girls harder because they shouldn't be engineers." I left without speaking to him. But I considered him to be an old fart (he was probably mid 60s then) and I had no issues anywhere else.

    In the working world... Women probably have better social skills. I would advise to notice your office environment. Is it highly professional, no-nonsense? Behave accordingly. Is it full of teasing and sarcasm? This might be a problem if you are very sensitive. I was the first woman ever hired in my division. The secretary is technically in a different division. I also got pregnant on the first day! LOL. I don't recommend that... I later found out that they were very nervous about hiring me because they weren't sure how to act. My office is the latter variety. It is comprised mostly of inspectors and surveyors. We tease and make fun of each other all day long. Someone in the office said "if you're teased, that means you're well liked. If you're not teased, there's a problem." This environment is not a problem for me. That's now I am. That's how our family is. If it's not you - you might have a problem and want to seek a different environment.

    Working with contractors, I have noticed the same thing. if I walk onto a site with a new to me contractor, they get all fidgety and nervous. If I have an inspector with me, we joke around and over time, they get more relaxed. It does help that I love sports. ESPN is my default channel and can definitely talk football/basketball. OTOH, you won't see me post about purses, shoes, fashion, perfumes or anything of that nature. I am definitely more spock like. There isn't anything wrong with liking girly things, but I would advise one to remember that a lot of men just aren't sure how to act. It may not be intentional if they say something "wrong." I would not get offended unless I felt it was intentional, but then I would advise to SPEAK UP. I tend to lean toward humor first in those kinds of situations and begin with the attitude that they weren't intentionally being mean.

    yes, I think I'm rambling now. But, attitudes aren't going to change overnight. And I know life isn't perfect now, but things are changing. When I had older S, I had a 1 week unpaid maternity before having to go back P/T until I went F/T at 7 weeks. I nursed my kids, but I was stuck on a toilet with an extension cord stretched across a public bathroom with no heat! (And, our building was not smoke free until after both of my kids were born.) Now, our bathroom not only has heat, but starting in July, new moms get 8 weeks of PAID maternity leave and Dad get 4 weeks! OMG! I never thought I'd see that day. I had to use one of my precious vacation days (I got 10/year back then) for younger S to have surgery. He was the first person in the City to get MRSA in his ears - this was well before the general public knew of it. You couldn't go to the pharmacy to get an antibiotic. Anyhow, policy was such that sick days were for the employee - not family members. That has since changed as well. OTOH, in my mom's day, she couldn't have a credit card without my Dad. That blows my mind.

    And after all of that, while I am NOT a good natural mentor, I am well aware that I am an oddity that can help break stereotypes. I did just spend most of the last 2 days doing "GIS Day" for the schools. I got to teach/play a game with 10 groups of 5th graders. before we start I introduce myself and tell them my title and we talk about what I do. The kids I see generally have poor backgrounds. They are far more likely to have both parents in prison/absent than to have 2 parents at home. So, I make sure to talk about engineering, but I am careful not to bring attention that I'm a woman. It should be a no-brainer that women are as smart of men. I'm not going to even suggest otherwise.

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  • MSU88CHEngMSU88CHEng 241 replies2 threads Junior Member
    I'm going to do my sharing a bit piecemeal, so hang with me...

    Starting in high school, I was a STEM kid in one of the biggest high schools in a small (in population, large in area) state. I was what would be considered on CC an "average excellent" student--NMSC finalist/eventual scholar, pretty much straight A's, but lacking rigor just because of where I lived. We didn't even have calculus on our HS... I had some local math competition awards, so thought I was pretty ready for anything engineering could throw at me.

    But then there were a bunch of teachers and other people who were all goo-goo eyed about how I was a GIRL who was good at math & science, and it really annoyed me. Yes, I was proud of being good at math & science, and it was what I liked, but I didn't want to be some sort of poster child for girls who were choosing that path. It's hard to explain, but I just wanted to be ME and do my thing.

    I was also grounded by another mentor teacher (male) who was a bit offended that I was planning on going into engineering because I was "too literate." He was my English Composition and English Lit teacher, and I adored him. He challenged me in ways that only my math/science teachers had. He understood my path, but cheered for my social science/humanities side...

    Also, my mom was/is my idol. She was the daughter of immigrants.
    And my grandfather was one of the few who insisted that his daughters go to college--most of his peers wanted their daughters to marry and start a family (this was mid/late '40s...) My mom's sisters both went into education, but my mom actually wanted engineering. However, that was too much for even my "progressive" grandfather, so my mom ended up majoring in Chemistry. But because of her background and interests, NOTHING was out of bounds for her kids (4 girls, 2 boys). And my father was very encouraging, too. He was a HS vocational agriculture teacher, and was one of the 1st in the nation to have girls in his ag classes and as officers in his FFA groups. So I was definitely supported!

    Anyway, that's my early background. I'll come back soon for college/grad school stories...
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  • colorado_momcolorado_mom 9497 replies83 threads Senior Member
    edited November 2019
    I don't have time to write much here. But I will say my experiences at Clarkson (1980-1984) Mech Eng program were fine. Also my years at a big corporation (now a software job) have been fine too, perhaps due to strong Equal Opportunity emphasis. I was rather surprised (and sad) to hear from more current engineering students I know that there is sometimes a bias against female engineering students.
    edited November 2019
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  • MSU88CHEngMSU88CHEng 241 replies2 threads Junior Member
    @colorado_mom My husband is a Clarkson engineer, too--'84-'88 chemical engineering, so you just missed him...

    As is probably apparent from my username, for undergrad I chose MSU for chemical engineering. Long story, but my dad really wanted me to get out of our small state unviersity system, and my NMSC and other scholarships really helped make it affordable for a middle class family who had already put 5 kids through college. It was honestly the BEST thing that could have happened to me. Like @ClassicMom98 , I'm a bit of an introvert, and the big college experience brought me out of my shell. I was also in the honors college and had a place on an honors floor of a dorm for the 1st 2 years. It was actually in the dorm that houses the residential college for political science types--my freshman/sophomore roommate was in that residential college, and was a good part of the reason I knew about that program when DS17 was heading toward that path. He's now in that program and loving it, but I digress... The point is that I was in with a group of bright, talented students from ALL disciplines, and it was a close group that made a HUGE university small, but with all the bells and whistles of the HUGE university.

    Coming from a less than rigorous background--even as a "rockstar" in math/science in HS, the first year of college was a bit of a wake up call. I was (incorrectly) placed in honors calculus, and figured that out after the 1st exam where I got the 1st C- of my life even with studying my ass off. When I learned there was only 1 other in that class who had never seen calculus, I dropped down to "regular" calculus where I was fine--and it was a good lesson in advocating for myself. I also was placed in honors chem which was also probably a bit of a stretch, but I perservered there, and did fine with some hard work.

    In the 2nd year at MSU, I started more in my core engineering courses, and met "my people." I landed in a study group with 2 other female students, and we worked really well together all the way through senior year. The chemical engineering class my year was only ~30 students, and ~8 of us were women. In the end, 6 of the women were in the top 10 of the class, so we ALL rocked the program. And the professors were great--I didn't see any bias. The one female prof was an amazing mentor (to both men and women) and helped me get my 2nd internship and an additional scholarship for senior year. It was a very collaborative group because we were such a tight knit program--there was some good natured competition between study groups but never cut throat, and we all worked together to succeed. I had 2 internships and an honors research project, which ended up with a publication/presentation and an award at an AIChE conference. It also could've been the basis for the start of a Masters thesis, but I chose to go elsewhere for grad school.

    I had SO MANY opportunities, and I worked hard. I'm truly not sure if the opportunities existed because of the program, the huge university, or if gender played into it (I hope not--but I'm not completely naive). Regardless, it was a work hard/play hard environment where one could thrive if they put in the effort.

    The negative gender issues I saw were all outside the program... I had 2 separate female friends/roommates whose parents thought they should go more into STEM, and the young women really didn't want to--they didn't have the interest or aptitude for it. One was going into education and is amazing with kids--her mom wanted her to go into something with more earning potential, and was pushing her into things she didn't want. The other was in the political science residential program. Her dad and sister were engineers and thought she should be, too--they even tried to enlist me to convince her. I declined... She successfully navigated through law school, and although she's pivoted her career a bit since then, she's still wildly successful, and not at all interested in STEM. This is possibly one reason why I hesitate to "mentor" too much to younger girls. Yes--they absolutely should be encouraged that they can go into engineering and do anything they want, but if that's not their passion, they should also be encouraged to follow the passion that the DO have.

    So, that's the undergrad story, still more to come with grad school...
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  • ClassicMom98ClassicMom98 623 replies1 threads Member
    To the old timer engineers - how many female profs did you have in college - in engineering or overall?

    I am not sure what is more odd. The fact that I did not have a single female classroom prof in any subject while in college, or the fact that I did not even realize that was the case until maybe 5 years ago.
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  • MaineLonghornMaineLonghorn 42331 replies2285 threads Super Moderator
    I didn't have many female profs in college, come to think of it. Freshman English might be it, actually! I didn't think about it one way or the other.
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  • MSU88CHEngMSU88CHEng 241 replies2 threads Junior Member
    edited November 2019
    I had one female chemical engineering professor in undergrad, and a female EE prof in grad school for an elective. The chem eng prof was great, and I considered her a mentor. The EE one was so-so. In undergrad, I also had an amazing female chemistry prof, and female profs for psychology and biochem who were just ok. My undergrad senior research advisor/prof was male, and my grad school dissertation advisor was male, and both were very good mentors to me.

    To me, it didn't matter so much if a professor or advisor was male or female, but rather how we interacted, their viewpoints on subject matter & research, and how they taught and worked with students.
    edited November 2019
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  • colorado_momcolorado_mom 9497 replies83 threads Senior Member
    edited November 2019
    For Engineering classes, I do recall having an excellent female/Asian teacher from Statics & Fluid Mechanics classes. I think my other female professors were for electives.

    I'm pretty sure that all of my Teaching Assistants were male - my main complaint at the time was that often English was not their first language. Female students had only recently ramped up, and I had no expectation of female profs or TAs.
    edited November 2019
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  • MaineLonghornMaineLonghorn 42331 replies2285 threads Super Moderator
    So I'm not reading a bunch of horror stories from women who actually became engineers. I urge parents not to scare their daughters about how much they will struggle if they go into a male-dominated field. They won't, from what I've seen.

    I'm still open to hearing negative stories, but I don't want to read, "My neighbor's niece said..."
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  • HPuck35HPuck35 2148 replies17 threads Senior Member
    When I started in engineering in the mid-70's it was very much a male dominated field. There were horror stories about how women were thought about in engineering.

    But forward to today and from my experience women are quite accepted and even held in high regard for their engineering skills. My daughter is a mechanical engineer and is doing very well five years out of college. Her raises and the authority that she has been given would stand up to, or even exceed, those of her male peers.

    I would encourage anyone, male or female, who has the desire and the skills to go into engineering if that is a career path that they wish to pursue.
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  • KnowsstuffKnowsstuff 7620 replies36 threads Senior Member
    I am surprised that this thread didn't get more traction. But maybe it's because there isn't the separation there was in the 1980s? That's a great thing.

    My son and a friend started a tech club at Michigan on Augmented reality /XR. The very first thing they did when building their board for this student org was to reach out to Wise. They got 2 women engineering students joining the board. Everyone sees each others as equals. They together have built something very impressive on campus. Now they have 8 board members with 4 being women. They interviewed candidates for these positions.

    Even when I talk to women that are students at a school like Rose Hulman which is 70/30 men /women on its best day. They tell me they all feel equal. They just wished there were more women on campus. No one from either school see's a gender issue with getting internships or jobs either...

    I hope this is a realistic view and not an anomaly.
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  • MWolfMWolf 2789 replies14 threads Senior Member
    edited February 14
    My wife did her undergraduate in CS + math at Hebrew University, and did her PhD at UIUC in CS.

    However, when she started at Leningrad (now St Petersburg) State University, she had to deal with unashamed and blatant misogyny from faculty. In one of her core courses, she had a professor fail her on the final (which were oral) on a minor typo in a formula which took her TA 10 minutes to find. When she retook the test (every student can retake it), despite providing perfect responses, she still only got a B, and was told that she was "smart for a woman". BTW, the professor was Jewish, so she thought that finally she wouldn't have to deal with antisemitism. She left after a year to immigrate to Israel, where she did her BSc in CS and math.

    When we cam to the USA, and she started her PhD, she was unhappy how the "Women in Engineering" was run, which was mostly to complain, but seemed to have no interest in finding solutions or empowering women, so she and a friend established "Women in CS", which was pretty successful and is still active.

    She did have to deal with all sorts of crap, like the male students who claimed that, every time she got any sort of award that "it's because you are a woman". Luckily, her adviser was not at all like that, and she had a good core group of friends and colleagues.

    As a faculty member, in a department which is actually very women-friendly, she still had to deal with making sure that she was not saddled with more than her fair share of service, like being the same number of regular committees as everybody else, and then ALSO being put on any diversity or women's issues committee. There was also a number of cases of blatant misogyny in other departments in the College, with ME being the biggest offender.

    At conferences she has had to deal with the fact that men will think that the fact that she is talking shop with them at a social demonstrates an interest in have sex with them. She was also talked over, had her ideas belittled, or was ignored and then had her ideas credited to a man who just repeated them. Luckily, she makes allies and doesn't take crap, and will call men out for bad behavior, for claiming her ideas, etc.

    As a senior faculty and being well established, things are easier, but she still had to tell a colleague that, when introducing the members of a Q & A panel, it was inappropriate that all the men were introduced as Dr this or that, Professor this or that, also mentioning where they worked, while she, the only woman on the panel, was introduced by her first name, without mentioning a title or degree or where she was working. She still gets mansplainers, and has had the dubious "pleasure" of telling a man who was quoting an article to her to help his 'splaination, that she was the lead author on that article.

    She is doing good work getting more representation of high ranking women in professional societies, and as invited speakers at conferences. She noticed that, when deciding on invited speakers, women were rarely, if ever, considered. It wasn't even that they were considered and rejected because they were women - they weren't even considered. When my wife would mention the names of a few women who were appropriate, the response was, almost invariably, "I didn't even think of her". It all stems from the fact that, in engineering, women are assumed to be less than men. In general, a woman is considered to be inferior to a man with the same, and often lesser, accomplishments.

    She has been extremely successful, overall, and has recently started her position as the director of a major research institute at large state Flagship, so things are going well for her. She is still very active in issues of women in STEM, and often volunteers to speak at middle schools and high schools.

    A woman can be successful, but she needs far thicker skin than her male peers, needs to be more aggressive, more ambitious, and more talented for the same level of success. A woman will benefit less from a network of male colleagues than will a male peer.

    On the up side, there are more men out there who understand this and are actively working to reduce bias and to increase the number and the profile of women in engineering. Another positive trend is that women in STEM are networking with each other and helping each other a lot more than they were back in the 1990s and 2000s.

    PS. This is all stuff from what she has said, as well as stuff which I have seen as an observer.
    edited February 14
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  • MaineLonghornMaineLonghorn 42331 replies2285 threads Super Moderator
    edited February 18
    That's too bad. I just have not run into ANYTHING like that. I've never felt that I was seen as inferior to any man.

    I would still prefer to hear from women in the field instead of people sharing second-hand knowledge.
    edited February 18
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  • MSU88CHEngMSU88CHEng 241 replies2 threads Junior Member
    Like @MaineLonghorn, I really haven't dealt with that type of discrimination, except once. When I was in grad school, there was *one* guy who told all the women in our grad class that the only reason we were there was because we were women, and that was also the only way we got the grades and accomplishments to get into a top 10 chemical engineering grad program... We all were strong enough to tell him that he was an idiot--and so did almost all the rest of the guys in our class (including the one who ended up as my DH). Most guys really do get it.

    Also, I'm the only female engineer in my department at work. Last summer, there were 3 women who were routinely around. Then one woman drifted away from the group (she is a continuous improvement engineer, and our dept had the routine down to chart our progress and track our biggest barriers, so we didn't need her around fulltime). The other female engineer (young, and building her career) then got moved to a different dept., so I was the "lone" woman. But it seriously took me 3 months to realize that I was the only woman surrounded by 12 men. I just did my thing, and they did theirs--if I need their help, they listen and help, and vice versa. I've had my disagreements with some, but I feel respected and listened to.

    There was recently a problem with a guy in the department bullying and making crass comments to production employees. One of the employees (male, not that it matters), finally had enough and took it to HR. It just so happened on the day this all went down, I had a very public disagreement with the guy who had been accused of bullying--I stood my ground, and he pretty much backed down after he scoffed at my response and I ignored him--at that point, he wasn't worth my time. But then he was on suspension pending investigation of the other event with the production employee. My boss actually pulled me into the office because he'd heard about my confrontational event with the bully "to make sure I was ok" and felt safe. I was perfectly FINE. And I told my boss it was a disagreement, but it was handled. So MAYBE there's a feeling of needing to protect me?? But I made it clear that I can handle myself, and my boss agreed that I don't put up with crap from anyone.

    I think that's kind of key for women engineers--speak up for and advocate for yourself, be professional, and expect professionalism from others. If people aren't treating you professionally, they're not worth your time.
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  • LuanneLuanne 88 replies5 threads Junior Member
    I went to Michigan Tech in the 80s. I had no problems with classmates or professors at all. The only things that stand out that were different as a woman were the bathrooms. The men had bathrooms on every floor of all the engineering buildings and women had them on every other floor. It was not the same (even/odd) per building either. The newer buildings had them on all floors and I don't know what it is like there today.

    As a working engineer, I had a similar problem at my first internship - bathrooms for women were really far away! Other than that, I do not ever recall being treated poorly by other engineers at the companies I worked for. I do remember a meeting with Honda or Hyundai (I do not remember) in the early 90s or so and they kept asking my boss (male) questions and I would give the answer because he didn't know it, I did. I know it was their culture, and I found it amusing at the time.

    Growing up, I never thought I shouldn't be an engineer. I was always on the math teams that were selected by the teachers, I was the first to take AP Physics in my school, etc. I don't see a lot of pushing girls out of STEM now either. In fact, it's almost the opposite. When I was looking for summer coding camps for my son years ago, all I could find was great sounding camps for only girls. It was difficult to find a co-ed camp.
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  • momofsenior1momofsenior1 10441 replies124 threads Senior Member
    Yes, the bathrooms! When we toured schools a few years ago, I remember D and I having a very hard time finding the ladies room in one building. They were however working on converting some of the men’s bathrooms to gender neutral or women’s room.
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  • Parentof2014gradParentof2014grad 1072 replies13 threads Senior Member
    My daughter would tell some funny stories early in college about how many men’s rooms she had to walk past to find the one women’s room and what that women’s room would be like when she finally found it. Good news is IIT had corrected that problem by the end of her four years there.
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