On the Right Track

By Barbara Horwitz-Bennett, Contributing Editor August 1, 2006

There’s a lot of pressure being a third-generation engineer. Add to that equation that your grandfather happened to found the firm you work for, your father is the current chairman of the board and, oh, you happen to be female—and young at that. Those were exactly the cards dealt to Shelley Vanderweil, an electrical engineer with—of course—R.G. Vanderweil.

Consequently, when she began her career at the firm’s Boston office in 2002 she had to prove she was more than just the boss’ daughter.

“It took about a year before I really felt accepted,” she relates.

But at greater issue was another fundamental challenge for women in engineering—not just a gender gap, but an age gap.

“It wasn’t so much that my co-workers were male, but that they were male and my father’s age,” says Julie Paquette, P.E., Vanderweil’s colleague, who started working at the firm as a plumbing engineer in 2000. “The first six months, I don’t know if I even talked to anybody,” she said.

One resource that Vanderweil found herself taking advantage of was an organization called New England Women in Real Estate.

“I was able to meet a lot of women in the construction industry, which was very supportive,” she said.

That’s excellent advice, according to Mary Alcaraz, an electrical engineer and lighting designer with EwingCole. Similarly, she has found the Assn. of Energy Engineers and the Illuminating Engineering Society to be supportive of both women and professionals in general.

“Everyone I’ve worked with here has been extremely supportive,” she says.

Extracurricular activity is very important, acording to Alcaraz, as sometimes young engineers need a little push to reach outside their offices and comfort zones. As a result, Alcaraz makes a personal effort to involve young engineers at her firm, even interns, in the community by bringing them along to job sites, seminars and industry events.

But moving beyond gender, perhaps the greastest issue in the engineering industry today is getting young people interested in the profession period.

As a fairly recent graduate, Vanderweil saysshe believes that young people are migrating more toward careers such as law and consulting because it appears to be a more interesting social scene. Consequently, Paquette says engaging these folks, both socially and professionally, early on in their careers could go a long way in keeping young talent around.

“We need to spread the word and raise awareness of how great our industry is,” said Vanderweil.

More words of advice

But just because things have gotten better doesn’t mean women won’t encounter sexism, resentment or resistance in the workplace.

“When I first started out in my career it was a little bit tough,” says Rebecca Ellsworth, P.E., senior electrical engineer at Interface Engineering, Portland.

A challenge she often encountered in her first job was being asked to fill in for the receptionist when she needed a break. While Ellsworth was happy to help when she could, it wasn’t so easy when she had her own pile of work to contend with and male colleagues weren’t being bothered with the same request.

According to Jennifer Dickey, P.E., a mechanical engineer with Albert Kahn, Detroit, sometimes you’ve just got to be tough. “If you appear intimidated, people with take advantage of you,” she says.

Cheri Bringley, P.E., an electrical engineer, and Dickey’s Kahn co-worker, has found humor to be an effective tool to “approach anything that any male colleague can throw at you.”

Alcaraz clearly remembers one of her most intimidating experiences, where without any male colleagues, she had to travel to Singapore and convince a room of 20 Asian men why her firm didn’t want to accept a lighting fixture that had been specified for a race course. Not only did she survive, she was successful in the endeavor, the experience made her stronger.

Headed in the right direction

With such recognizable pride in being female engineers, it seems that growing confidence among women will only continue to balance out the industry, bringing women’s valuable contributions to the profession.

And with so many women doing their part, whether it’s serving as a mentor to a younger female co-worker, reaching out to colleagues via industry associations or getting involved with students, it’s only a matter of time until women really come into the industry in full force.

And as people like Cheri Bringley have proven, it’s never too late for a career in engineering.

“When I graduated high school in the late ’70s, women did not pursue engineering. While my friends were becoming nurses and teachers, I was a wife and mother. It wasn’t until the 90s that I went back to school to become an engineer,” she says.

Still, there’s lots of room for improvement, but there’s no reason that women themselves can’t bring about positive change. Ellsworth certainly believes so: “We still have a long way to go, but I think we’re on the right track.”

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