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Women in Engineering

MaineLonghornMaineLonghorn 39112 replies2147 threads Super Moderator
edited November 13 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 13
11 replies
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Replies to: Women in Engineering

  • Parentof2014gradParentof2014grad 1002 replies12 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 174 replies1 threads Junior 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 231 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 9045 replies79 threads Senior Member
    edited November 16
    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 16
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  • MSU88CHEngMSU88CHEng 231 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 174 replies1 threads Junior 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 39112 replies2147 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 231 replies2 threads Junior Member
    edited November 19
    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 19
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  • colorado_momcolorado_mom 9045 replies79 threads Senior Member
    edited November 19
    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 19
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