Where Are all the Women Engineers?

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

When women consider careers in M/E engineering, one factor that’s often overlookeed is that it’s a fairly male-dominated profession. This, sometimes, can lead to culture shock. This was definitely the case for Marina Dishel, P.E., now a vice president with the Syska Hennessy Group’s New York office. You see, Dishel was born, raised and educated in Russia, where, with very few exceptions, women make up approximately 50% of any profession or trade. “So the biggest surprise to me when I came to this country was that being a [female] engineer was an exception rather than the rule,” said Dishel.

That said, language, rather than a gender barrier, proved her greatest struggle. In any case, Dishel can now look back and see how much more balanced the industry has become.

“On the past three large projects I’ve worked on, women occupied major managerial roles. Women in construction today are not an oddity, but an expected eventuality,” she states.

Cynthia Cogil, P.E., a lead mechanical engineer with the D.C. office of SmithGroup, certainly attests to this fact.

“[Eight years ago], I was the first woman ever hired in this office of 30 engineers,” Cogil relates. “Today, with a larger pool of women coming out of [collegiate] engineering programs, our mid-Atlantic office is now 40% women.”

Despite these improved numbers, a commitment to this career still isn’t one to be made lightly. Whitney Stone, P.E., an electrical engineer at Syska’s Los Angeles office, as a child had first-hand knowledge of the engineering profession, which led to mixed feelings about it.

“My father is an electrical engineer, and I had spent time at his office. The only woman I saw was sitting at the secretary’s desk,” she says.

Despite this disparity, her father encouraged his daughter to follow in his footsteps, always pushing academics, particularly math, science and engineering.

“I resisted for a while, but I finally realized how much he was enjoying his career, so I decided to pursue it,” she says.

It also helped that her female cousin, a couple years older, was also on the engineering track and could relay what Stone could expect along the way.

That encouragement, combined with future mentorship, proved key. “I always found my professors to be very encouraging, and when I came to Syska, our office had a lot of strong women. There is camaraderie and encouragement, which had always been there for me,” says Stone.

Having an engineer father also made a difference for Dorothy Thrasher, P.E., a plumbing engineer with the Phoenix office of SmithGroup. Thrasher recalls spending a lot of time on job sites with her father, and like Dishel, she also emigrated to this country from Eastern Europe, so the idea of being an engineer was not as difficult as the language curve. She did have to improve her golf game, she says, to better fit in with her male counterparts.

Cogil’s father was also an engineer, but he didn’t encourage the career path, in part because it was such a male-dominated profession. But she felt an elemental calling. In fact, she confesses the profession, in part, appealed to her because she was always a tomboy at heart, very much enjoying woodworking and drafting classes in high school. Consequently, the architectural/engineering program at Penn State was the logical next step for her.

As for Sarah Gengelbach, a P.E. and senior electrical engineer at URS Corp., Grand Rapids, Mich., she fell into the profession based on a suggestion from her high school guidance counselor.

“I didn’t even know what engineering was before college,” she admits. “It was really kind of dumb luck, as it worked out for me and I ended up being very interested in it.”

But in the face of all the progress that has been made, not everything was or is always rosy. Cogil quite candidly admits that at graduation it was difficult when she noticed her male counterparts receiving more job offers. Things were also often difficult on those first few jobs. “There were times early in my career when clients assumed I was a student on a field trip,” she says. “It’s been a mixed bag.”

Working with contractors

Of course, no discussion of breaking into this male-dominated profession is complete without addressing working with the men who actually execute the engineering plans. “Looking back, nothing sticks out as unpleasant in dealing with my [engineering] colleagues, but dealing with contractors was something else,” recalls Dishel. “There were a couple of instances when it got rough. It really required more patience and forgiveness, and it also helped for me to learn how to assert myself and keep cool.”

Gengelbach’s first job was with a contracting firm. “That was real culture shock. I was the only woman in the office and heard words I had never heard before,” she says.

Her URS colleague, Cassandra Daller, P.E., a department head and a mechanical engineer, also got off to a rough start in the industry, but she’s not so forgiving of her fellow engineers. Upon taking her first job back in 1979, she was the lone female on the technical side of her company, encountering reluctance on the part of her male superiors to entrust her with work.

“For some men, it didn’t phase them that I was a woman, but others from the ‘old school’ wouldn’t even let me go to the job site. At one point I was so frustrated that I was going to quit, until some of my younger male colleagues helped me relocate to a different group,” she recalls.

Cogil concurs and adds that, in her experience, contractors can sometimes be more civil than engineers. “I’ve actually found contractors to be less argumentative, be on better behavior and use more refined language,” she says.

But the fact that Daller and Gengelbach can speak from a position of seniority shows how far the industry has come, as the idea of having female peers, even as recently as the ’80s, wasn’t even an option.

“I had to wait until they showed up, as it wasn’t until the ’90s that women started coming into the industry,” said Gengelbach.

As a result, both she and Daller are quick to jump in and serve as mentors or be a source of support for young female engineers.

This aid isn’t lost on this generation’s crop of women engineers.

“I am so thankful to all the women who have gone before me,” says Rebecca Ellsworth, P.E., a senior electrical engineer, Interface Engineering, Portland, Ore. “I hear stories of what went on 20 years ago in this industry and I can’t even believe it.”

Engineering Moms, Part 2

Balancing the responsibilities of being a full-time engineer and mom can be very difficult. “When I leave work here at Albert Kahn, I got to go my ‘second job’ of cooking dinner, doing laundry, grocery shopping and cleaning the house! And in between all of this, I’m supposed to spend quality time with my 18-month-old daughter,” says Jennifer Dickey, P.E., and mechanical engineer with Albert Kahn, Detroit .

Fortunately, her firm has been supportive, and she’s able to spend a little extra time with her daughter by being allowed to take Fridays off—which also helps her save on child-care expenses. In addition, when her child is sick, she always has the option of telecommuting, as well as working overtime at home in the evenings or on the weekends when Dad is available.

For Leigh Ann Vogel with TLC Engineering for Architecture, Orlando, the weekend is also a time to catch up with work. But that said, she brings her 9-year-old daughter with her, as it’s quite accepted at the firm.

At the same time, Vogel, an electrical project engineer, can relate to what Dickey says. “There have been times when I’ve had to cancel or postpone trips or meetings. Most people are understanding, but it can be frustrating in a male-dominated field as most men don’t have that level of responsibility as the primary caregiver.”

While a supportive firm is important, it seems that the key ingredient is being fortunate enough to have a strong support system at home.

“It would be impossible without my husband and my mom’s help,” says Dorothy Thrasher with the Phoenix office of SmithGroup.

Similarly, Marina Dishel, P.E., vice president, Syska Hennessy Group, New York, credits her late parents-in-law with being guardian angels when her son was young.

“When they passed away, we had to have a live-in housekeeper,” she recalls. “When my son was about 14, I would split the house chores with my husband. He would cook, as he was home from work before me, and I would clean. That’s how it was…”