Celebrating Women in Engineering

When I was accepted into the College of Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, I received a letter from the Society of Women Engineers, congratulating me on my achievement and noting the advancement women had made in the field. Women would represent eight percent of freshman engineers – a new high!

Four years later, only one other woman walked the stage with me to accept our diplomas in civil engineering. The gender gap was so obvious that professors used to ask if I was lost when I walked into the first class of a new semester.

Why such a disparity? What stark misconception existed at the time that pushed so many women away from degrees in engineering? My high school math teacher told me I liked people too much to be an engineer. "It wouldn't suit you," she said, even though I was in the highest level math class the school provided. With due respect to my favorite teacher, I'm glad I didn't let her comment sway me.

The thing is, I never really felt uncomfortable being the only woman in engineering class. In fact, I sort of thrived on the idea of bucking the norm, something my mother became very proud of. However, not every girl these days is armed with tough skin and a progressive mother. The young women of today have the background, the ideas, and the potential to bring so much knowledge to an industry that thrives on ingenuity. If they never make it past the misconceptions, we'll never be able to see what they could have done.

National Engineers Week has dedicated today to bringing out the engineer in every girl, and many of Dewberry's female professional engineers can pinpoint a particular childhood experience where their professional curiosity first piqued.

Engineering-Girls-Day

It's Like an Itch You Have to Scratch

From the youngest age, I've always had an interest in laying things out. I would take careful measurements and create scale drawings of our house. On the driveway, I chalked out roads and buildings to map out entire cities. Though my maps weren't very resilient (they had a particular weakness to rainstorms or car washes), it was my outlet – the way I scratched my creative itch.

Many women who are now engineers found their passions by being exposed to engineering by a member of their family. I came to realize that my ornery nature supported my professional curiosity in lieu of having an engineer in my immediate family. When people are telling you at every turn that engineering will be the hardest thing in your life, you either have to ignore them or have a solid support system to move past it.

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A Match Can Only Burn So Long Without A Candle

A number of women leave the engineering industry due to a lack of role models. If the spark of curiosity experienced at childhood doesn’t have something to latch on to, it will go out.

The discovery of what you love is a gift reserved for children, but it's the responsibility of adult professionals to stoke that fire. And a young woman's role model doesn't have to be a woman – just someone who can recognize a spirit of inquiry and is prepared to encourage it.

A veritable plethora of organizations exist today that pair mentors with mentees. Two organizations I'm involved in, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and the California Transportation Foundation (CTF), both sponsor events to broaden the engineering opportunities of young minds, regardless of gender and ethnicity. I was incredibly proud to see the diversity and talent of the students who participated in the CTF Education Symposium last November.

"There's A Little Bit of Engineer in Every Girl"

I get the impression, certainly less so today than a few years ago, that girls simply aren't exposed to the many facets of engineering. It's easy to assume that our industry is quarantined to the hyper-visible projects that give our maps character, like bridges and canals, but that's just not true. The diversity of this field is one of its great attractions, and it's up to us (men and women alike) to share those opportunities with students of all ages.

DiscoverE, an organization dedicated to spreading STEM opportunities across demographics, says, "There's a little bit of engineering in every girl." As a girl that has a lot of engineering inside, it's encouraging to see more female certified professional engineers speak out about their love for this industry and the work they do.

There is indeed a bit of engineering in every girl, and it's time we encourage them to bring it out.

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  • Rachel Vandenberg
    Rachel Vandenberg
 
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