Last night I read an article about Ruth Bader Ginsberg, following the news of her death, and I was reflecting on my own experiences as a woman in what was historically a male profession. I don’t know as much about RBG as I’d like to, and I don’t think I agree with all of her ideology, but I have immense respect for the commitment she made to advance the opportunities available to women so that my experience 50 years later would be strikingly different from her own.
Early in my career I was involved in mentoring a few elementary school classrooms in a STEM competition sponsored by my employer. After meeting with one class, I was visiting with their teacher (who was in her 50s or 60s), and she asked me how I overcame obstacles to get to where I was. I was sincerely stumped for a moment, and then she made some indication of the fact that I was both female and engineer.
I gave her the only answer I could, the honest one: no one had ever clued me in that there were obstacles. That teacher shared with me that she was already seeing capable girls in 3rd or 4th grade shying away from math and science, and that broke my heart. I guess here is where I say thank you to the men and women who raised me, coached me, and taught me for never letting me believe my potential was limited by any external factors. Throughout high school and college, I really didn’t jump any hurdles because I didn’t even know they existed.
In hindsight, I wonder if my independent personality meant I was just too absorbed in my own interests to really notice or care what anyone else thought. Maybe my peers all saw something I didn’t. Math made sense to me, and so I enjoyed doing it. I also had an aunt and older female cousin who were engineers. My mom was an accountant. Both my grandma and great grandma had attended college. I had numerous strong female examples to follow.
I actually never wanted to be an engineer because my dad was an engineer, and I had no interest in being like my parents. I loved sports, and was planning to go to school for Physical Therapy. When discussing my plans with one of my math teachers, she gave me a little nudge by simply asking me to look into engineering. Being the compliant kid that I was – I did, and what I found changed my mind. Two degrees, three years of work experience, and a 16-hour exam later, I became a Professional Engineer.
I can’t say that I’ve never been made aware of my gender throughout that journey. I have. I can, however, say that I have never felt threatened in my workplace, and I have always believed my supervisors to be supportive and unbiased. I can also say that throughout my career, the gender imbalance has been improving. I work with more women right now than I ever have, and I sincerely can’t recall the last time I was reminded of my gender at work.
I hold engineering licenses in three states, and none of them indicate my gender. I am not a Woman Engineer. I am a Structural Engineer.