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Finding Balance in the Workplace

Generations of women in engineering tell their stories

By Roseanne R. Bensley

Can you image living in an America where women's roles are strictly limited to cooking, cleaning and raising children? . . .

. . . where women are held back from receiving a full education and careers are restricted to stereotypically "female" pursuits like baking, typing or filling?

Simply put: Can you imagine a world where women are told how far they can go in life based on their gender alone?

Shawn Emerson Simmons

Shawn Emerson Simmons, Regulatory Advisor, ExxonMobil, and Patricia Prieto, machine vision project engineer, Delphi Electronics

In 2004, this type of world is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine, but one does not have to look too far back in U.S. history to find instances of women struggling against societal barriers to gain status, respect and equal rights.

Women finally began to be seen as individuals with capabilities in the work world during World War II-when their expertise were needed in the labor sector.

Outside the home and in the workplace for the first time, many women were suddenly given the chance to prove themselves. Since that time, women have entered the workforce in droves and have continued to make astounding strides in professional arenas ever since.

Yet, in one professional area women and minorities are still underrepresented: the field of engineering. Currently, women, minorities and people with disabilities represent two-thirds of the American workforce, yet are only a small fraction of those working in science, engineering and technology. And statistics indicate the situation is not likely to improve anytime soon.

The National Center for Education Statistics report that in 2001-02, women earned less than half of the bachelor's degrees in mathematics (47%), agriculture and natural sciences (46%), physical sciences (42%), computer and information sciences (28%) and engineering (21%).

Ilene Busch-Vishniac, Johns Hopkins University researcher and professor collected some disturbing figures on the lack of diversity in the engineering field nationally: Black women account for 0.6% of the science, engineering and technology workforce. For Hispanic women, the figure is 0.4%. In academia, men are five times more likely than women to choose engineering as their major. In 1998, of the bachelor's degrees awarded to women, only 1.7% were in engineering. The average engineering faculty is 95% male.

There are slight gains, however. In 1970, only 0.8% of engineering degrees were earned by women. In 2001-02, that number rose to 20.7%.

Clearly we still have a long way to go.

Taking Action for Change

These sustaining gender gaps in engineering could be corrected if women entering college had sufficient math and science backgrounds, which would increase the number of women that pursue engineering majors.

Mentoring, encouraging young women to pursue science, math and engineering, and removing negative societal images of scientists and engineers would all work toward increasing the number of future women in these fields.

Dr. Pamela McCauley-Bell

Dr. Pamela McCauley-Bell, associate professor, University of Central Florida and president and CEO, Tech Solutions

Portraying successful female engineers in the media is one important step toward change. Graduating Engineer & Computer Careers is pleased to present profiles of nine outstanding women in engineering. These women are at different stages in their careers and have taken radically different paths towards their chosen professions-but one thing unites all their stories: They are all women who have overcome various obstacles by relying on their inner strengths and the support of others. And they are all proudly achieving success in the exciting and challenging field of engineering. Read on to discover their inspiring stories.

Lisa Morris: On Top of Her Profession

Lisa Morris's interest in all-things-electronic started early. "Growing up I spent a lot of time playing with electronic toys and video games," she says. "And as a musician, I was fascinated by the electronic keyboards that mimicked the sounds of traditional instruments."

Morris soon realized that her pastimes could develop into a career. "I discovered that electrical engineering (EE) would allow me to pursue my interests in the types of 'smart' electronic gadgets and systems that I was exposed to while growing up," she explains. "I could combine my mathematic and analytic mindset."

Morris pursued the typically male-dominated field of electrical engineering even though she was never formally mentored. However, she says, "I've been fortunate enough to have had graduate students, co-workers and managers who have shared their knowledge and experiences with me."

Morris earned a bachelor of science in electrical engineering with an option in computer engineering from the University of Oklahoma. "As an undergrad," she continues, "I was encouraged to seek tutoring when I needed it, to gain technical experience by getting summer internships or co-ops, and to join and be active in student organizations like the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE)."

Morris has been a senior engineer with Raytheon (formerly, Texas Instruments Defense Systems and Electronics Group) for 16 years. "As a professional I've been encouraged to ask questions, to speak up when I have something to contribute, to not be shy about my accomplishments, to do more than just my assigned task, and to participate in company-wide initiatives," she says.

Today Morris continues to assist up-and-coming engineering students by regularly teaching interviewing and resume workshops and speaking to student organizations. She stays on top of her profession by taking advantage of training offered by Raytheon, reading industry magazines and books, and talking to her co-workers about the latest developments in her field. "I enjoy the variety and challenges of my work and the newness that each day brings," Morris adds.

Networking with others in the field has been paramount to her success. "I learned of my current position from a supervisor and was encouraged by others who felt I would be a good fit in the position," Morris says.

"I have been very fortunate to have always worked with people who cared more about the quality of my work and the success of my career than about my gender or race.

"I do wish that electrical engineering would be looked upon by the general public as a normal and acceptable career choice for women rather than an anomaly," she adds.

Morris's advice to other enterprising young women interested in engineering is to ignore people who try to deter you from your goals, to recognize the importance of networking, to gain experience from student projects, and to increase work experiences through co-ops.

While the number of women in engineering today may be low, Morris is hopeful for the future. "I am very positive about the field of engineering. I see more women entering the profession than I did when I was a student," she says. "I am also seeing more female aerospace and mechanical engineers than I used to."

While Morris's path toward career success may seem unblemished, she admits to having a few difficulties along the way. "I did have a rough fall semester my sophomore year," she discloses, "I didn't like most of my classes, and I made the worst grades of my life. If it wasn't for an excellent summer internship, I would have changed my major from EE to math and music."

Thankfully Morris was able to find that summer internship and stay on track in engineering. There are far too many opportunities for women in engineering to get derailed since it is such a male-dominated field and there is often little support. That's why it's so helpful for women to have ample guidance from dedicated mentors and teachers along the way.

Patricia Prieto: Proving Gender Is Not an Issue

Patricia Prieto was originally inspired to enter the field of engineering because she had several relatives who were in engineering. "One of my uncles worked in a peanut oil factory," she remembers. "When he would come to visit he would talk to me about becoming an engineer. I was fortunate to have visited his plant and learned that chemical engineering was not for me."

Her interest in engineering, however, did not end there. "Later on in high school," Prieto continues, "I had the opportunity to take an introductory electronics course, and I absolutely loved it! I enjoyed all my mathematics courses in high school as well, so I decided that I wanted to pursue an electrical engineering degree.

Prieto completed her bachelor of science in electrical engineering from New Mexico State University and a master of science in electrical engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology.

"Through my last co-op prior to the completion of my degree, I had exposure to machine vision," she says. Prieto has been a machine vision project engineer with Delphi Electronics & Safety in Kokomo, Ind., for the last ten years.

Women in Engineering

"I hired into this department upon graduation and have been here ever since," she says. "In my current position I am able to do a little bit of everything. I have exposure to design, software, hardware, troubleshooting, documentation, installation and support at different facilities around the world."

Prieto feels very fortunate to have had the constant encouragement from her family and teachers throughout her education. "It is from this encouragement that I've learned things that have helped me be where I am today," she says. "It is through hard work, determination, confidence, and staying true to yourself that a person can achieve anything they set out to do."

To stay on top of her profession, Prieto attends conferences, trade shows, seminars and vendor presentations. She reads periodicals related to electrical engineering and utilizes the Internet. "There is such a vast amount of information on the Internet now," she states, "It has become a valuable resource. I also try to maintain communication with contacts I have developed over the years."

When asked what her experience has been like as a female engineer in a typically male field, Prieto says: "I've never been treated as a 'female' engineer. I've just been treated as an engineer. I don't feel gender should be an issue. If you prove yourself, gender is irrelevant-unless you make it an issue."

Would Prieto do anything differently if she could go back to her undergraduate days? "I would have taken some probability and statistics courses to better prepare myself for graduate school and some business courses to make myself a more well-rounded engineer," she says.

Like Lisa Morris, Prieto believes the future looks bright for women who are entering the engineering profession. "Many of the obstacles that were preventing women from succeeding in the workplace are continuing to disappear," she states. But she adds, "I think women in engineering tend to be more affiliated with industrial engineering. Women should be encouraged to pursue other areas of engineering, including electrical, computer and mechanical engineering."

Shawn Emerson Simmons: The Importance of Mentorship

Since Shawn Emerson Simmons was a child, she has been interested in math and science, and she got a great start in the field since she attended an engineering high school in Houston. Growing up, her father worked for Exxon and mother was a math teacher, so Simmons always had a tremendous amount of family influence and support.

Simmons, who now holds a Ph.D. from Texas Southern University, a master of science from Rice University, and a bachelor of science from the University of Oklahoma, also had many meaningful internship experiences that helped her along the road toward a career in engineering.

"I was certain I wanted to be in the oil and gas industry based on my internship experiences during the summers of my undergraduate years," she explains. "I eventually saw a unique combination of skills needed in the industry: an understanding of petroleum operations balanced with a knowledge of how to responsibly manage the environmental impacts of those operations."

A strong support network also played a big role in Simmons's success. "I have been mentored and now I mentor others," she says.

"I became aware of my current position through inter-company networking and informal mentor relationships established throughout the corporation. I have always tried to prepare myself academically and professionally for any opportunity that might present itself. I was in the right place at the right time, with the right skills to meet the business need."

Simmons is currently a regulatory advisor with ExxonMobil Development Company. She has been in this capacity with ExxonMobil for five years and is the recipient of the Exxon Mobil Shared Visions Award. She is also a member of the National Society of Black Engineers and Society of Petroleum Engineers. When asked to speak about her unique experience as a female engineer Simmons says, "The challenges of being in a male-dominated industry are being able to show that you can perform and get the job done. The toughest part for me is being able to create a healthy work-life balance.

"I enjoy my job but have the desire to spend more time with my family and contribute time and talent to worthy charitable causes."

Simmons is hopeful that other young women will follow in her footsteps and begin to populate the field of engineering in larger numbers. "The field of engineering is wide open for anyone who has an interest and is willing to work.

"Listen and learn from others," she advises, "network, share information and experiences, set reasonable goals for yourself, and be willing to give of your resources to help someone else."

Dasha Estes: Benefiting From Her Unique Status

Dasha Estes began her career in engineering because she had an enthusiastic interest in math and believed that engineering would be a lasting, marketable career. Turns out she was right: she's been an engineer for over 21 years.

Estes has a bachelor of science in electrical engineering from New Mexico State University and a MBA from Southern Methodist University. She is presently self-employed in a contract consulting services business, Emulation Experts, which she started due to her niche expertise.

Throughout her career she's been able to view her unique status as an asset. "Because I am a female engineer, I feel more people remember who I am," Estes says.

However, her outlook for the future of women in engineer is not entirely optimistic. "It does not seem that there are increasing numbers of female engineers graduating," she observes. "Many women tend to move out of technical areas quickly and into marketing, sales or other functions that require some technical knowledge but where people skills and time management are more critical.

"I believe that women tend to work up to middle management, but lose the drive to move up further because they generally play a bigger role in the care of their families," she adds.

However, on a more positive note, she does add, "having a technical degree does give [women] more flexibility in the selection of job functions, job availability and pay scale."

Pamela McCauley-Bell: Trailblazer

Pamela McCauley-Bell's path toward to industrial engineering was a unique one. "I entered engineering because my dad wanted me to be a medical doctor," she recalls, "so I had taken a lot of math and science, but when I didn't want to study medicine the ergonomics aspect of industrial engineering was a very attractive option."

McCauley-Bell completed her bachelor of science, master of science and Ph.D. in industrial engineering at the University of Oklahoma. From January 1997 to June 1999 she held the position of Martin Luther King Jr. visiting professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

She is now an associate professor at the University of Central Florida and president and CEO at Tech Solutions, a position she began in 1999.

Her role as a single mother also made industrial engineering a particularly attractive option. "I needed a degree that would give me an income ASAP," she asserts. Today McCauley-Bell has a 24-year-old daughter and is married to Michael Bell, a manager at NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

In 1993 McCauley-Bell became the first African-American woman to be granted a Ph.D. in the field of engineering in the state of Oklahoma. She says her role as a female engineer has been exciting and enriching, but there have definitely been challenges and feelings of isolation as well. "I wish I could change people's mindsets who still find it unusual for a woman to be an aggressive engineer," she says.

McCauley-Bell has a history of service to the engineering, female and minority communities. In 1999 she was elected to the national board of directors for the Women in Engineering Program Advocates Network (WEPAN), an organization tasked with increasing the presence of women in engineering and technical fields at all levels. She has also authored over 50 technical papers, book chapters and conference proceedings.

"My advice to students is to know your stuff," she says. "Be focused on the mission of your company and know your contribution. Find a mentor, support other women in engineering, and don't take things personally.

"The future of engineering is bright, but it can be brighter if we help people see what an exciting profession engineering is! Engineering can make a difference in many areas, and it is up to us to prove it."

Closing the Gap, Standing United

Women in the field of engineering generally agree that the gender gap is slowly closing. It certainly is not as vast as it was twenty or thirty years ago. And each of us can work toward ensuring that it continues to close.

Women may be outnumbered in engineering classes, but professors are beginning to look at them as equals who are interested in learning and not interested in being singled out simply because they are female. The same holds true in the workplace.

Women engineers also seem to agree that hard work, strong individual goals and a good support system are the keys to success in engineering, as in any profession.

Many women who have found success in engineering also advocate joining professional and trade associations, exploring different specialties to discover what you truly like about a field, spending as much time as you can on internships and co-ops in order to gain experience, and networking with professionals as much as possible.

Another helpful resource for women in the field of engineering is the Society of Women Engineers (SWE). SWE was founded in 1950 and has four chartered sections in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. Today there are 86 sections and 274 student sections in ten regions throughout the country with about 17,000 members. The Society of Women Engineers is a driving force that establishes engineering as a highly desirable career aspiration for women. For more information visit or call 312-596-5223.

Roseanne R. Bensley is assistant director of Placement and Career Services at New Mexico University in Las Cruces, N.M.

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