Female Engineers

The Ordinary, Extraordinary Female Engineer

I am a female engineer.  I want to be humble and say there’s nothing unusual about me, but the fact is I am extraordinary.   I’m extraordinary because in a conference room of 25 engineers, there are only 3 of us who are female.  If you factor in my specialization, electrical engineering, I am sometimes the only woman in a room of 25.  While the number of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) occupations has grown over the years in the United States, the number of women in engineering has been flat compared to the rate of women entering the Life Sciences. Even more concerning,  women in computer and mathematical occupations are actually declining (Females in STEM Occupations).

Few female engineers I know would describe themselves as extraordinary.  Through all the subconscious bias, hard work (so many late nights studying or working overtime), being a woman in a heavily male dominated field and all the other noise in our profession, we usually don’t brag about our accomplishments.  And I don’t mean being the only woman in a room of 25. I mean all of the merit based accomplishments, like figuring out how to design a road where no road should really go, saving your company millions of dollars by automating a process with software, or building a lifesaving system for boaters lost at sea.   Female engineers do extraordinary things, and that is why we are extraordinary.

Women engineers all over the world are extraordinary.  In 2011 and 2014, I met some amazing women engineers from across the globe at the International Conference of Women Engineers and Scientists (ICWES).  While at ICWES, I connected with a female engineer from South Africa working to develop the latest in fuel cell technology.  Another woman from Germany was harnessing the power of wind to deliver clean reliable power through wind turbines.  I talked to a woman who worked on the design team for a large Japanese auto maker, and we discussed how having more women on the design team had lead to more features that appealed to women buyers, increasing overall sales of the company (check out How Diversity Can Drive Innovation).  I met an Australian engineer who said her employer had been able to retain more women in their engineering department by offering job sharing.  I discussed with a young engineer the limits of her career in Nigeria and how she could hopefully receive more opportunities by applying for grad school in the US.  The British Women’s Engineering Society (WES) conducted a presentation on  their partnership with government and industry that helps female engineers re-enter the workforce after a break to provide in-home service (including maternity leave or elder care).

However, one of the most profound  conversations I had  was with an engineering professor from Myanmar about her efforts to recruit young females into engineering.  She told me that most girls are married and pregnant around 12 years old in Myanmar.   She took the charge to lead the STEM outreach program at her university to show these girls that they have other options: they can become engineers.   This discussion about how to get (and retain) more women into engineering struck a chord with me.  Although our “whys” may vary, talking about STEM outreach and how to recruit more women into engineering is a common conversation.  In fact, it was so easy for me to talk about any of above conversation points (re-entry into the workforce, increasing professional opportunities and development, job sharing, the latest in technology innovations, diversity in engineering teams, etc.) regardless of my conversation partner’s country of origin because the experience of one female engineer is often the shared experience of so many of us (a sisterhood of the slide rule, per se).  We may be from different places, and we certainly are unique individuals, but our experiences are very universal.  We are extraordinary.

Just as we are extraordinary, we are also simply ordinary.  Saying we are simply ordinary, I am not diminishing our accomplishments, but what I am saying is that we are your neighbor, the child you babysat, your daughter, your daughter’s best friend, your son’s best friend, your friend, your wife, your mother, your grandmother, your sister, your colleague, your kid’s coach, your kid’s carpool driver, your acquaintance at Starbucks, and so on.  We are ordinary people that you know.  I believe that it is the aspect of our being ‘ordinary’ that is part of the answer to how we recruit more women into engineering.

Parent, grandparent, teacher, guide, counselor, mentor, coach, friend, colleague, neighbor, minister, auntie, uncle or anyone who influences the life of a potential female engineer can encourage a girl into engineering simply by saying, “I know an engineer.  She is my [insert ordinary person description here], and she has done [insert accomplishments here].”  It is in the simple understanding and belief that ordinary people can be and do extraordinary things  that we will increase the number of female engineers (the importance of Mentors and Role Models). The very act of normalizing a phenomenon makes people believe that they can do it too.  Introducing young women and girls to stories about female engineers that have accomplished extraordinary things will inspire them to believe that it’s possible for them to do the same. Storytelling is an ancient and incredibly powerful mechanism for inspiring shifts in societal thought patterns (Making Diversity Personal).

These stories should be spoken to the exceptional girls you know in your life, but just importantly they should with the average girls you know.  Female engineers, as ICWES showed me, come from anywhere and everywhere.  Some of us are even told we’re not exceptional– I was told my abilities in math were just average by school administrators after taking the honors math qualifying test in 4th grade.   That is why I implore you to share with every girl you know that you know a female engineer, for we do not know who will be the next female engineer.  And if you think you do not know a female engineer, well now you of know me. Together we can make difference and before we know it, the field of engineering will be filled with 50% ordinary, extraordinary women.

Thank you to the extraordinary Jaclyn and her extraordinary colleagues at TechLove for giving me the opportunity to share my experiences and thoughts on being a female engineer in this world.  TechLove is doing important work using technology to promote social & environmental progress in developing countries. The issues that face women engineers, like the flat line growth of women in engineering and how to get more into the profession, are global. TechLove is globally promoting social progress when they share voices like mine on their technology platforms. Thank you again TechLove.

Suzie Olsen

I, Suzie Olsen, am a Staff Systems Engineer in Phoenix, AZ. When I am not busy building and maintaining the search and rescue system for the US Coast Guard, I am performing science experiments and engineering design projects with K-12 students. To encourage all students in science, technology, engineering and math, I have written the book “Annie Aardvark, Mathematician.” You can learn more about me at http://www.suzieolsen.com/. For more information about women in engineering, check out the Society of Women Engineers at swe.org.

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