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Final Thoughts: The Evolution of Women in Engineering: Moving from Ground Zero

Robert Schickel on April 1, 2017 - in Column

I have more years of experience than any woman engineer who I have worked with. Let that sink in … This wording is true, because when I started my career in 1971, there were no women engineers in the workforce at the Indiana Department of Transportation. And I have never been fortunate enough to come across any of the “pioneers” of women in civil engineering since I started working. I mention this only to say that during my working career, although the number of women in engineering has greatly increased during the last 45 years, it started at close to zero.

I will leave the actual statistics about the number of female engineers in the early 1970s to others, but there were no women in my engineering classes at Valparaiso University, and there were no women engineers in any of the departments at the Department of Transportation in 1971. This is merely a reflection of the times. Civil engineering wasn’t a popular profession then. Diversification of staff wasn’t yet an issue. Besides, all the men I worked with were very good engineers, and they taught me a lot. So why change if things were working fine?

A Gender Advantage?

The workforce has evolved through the years, and there are studies as to why and how. Although I have little expertise in assessing the reasons why, my career spans this time, and I witnessed this evolution first hand. And I realize that I sometimes forget that because of my gender, I’ve had an advantage.

I’ve worked with many women engineers since those early days, and I’ve noticed—without exception—that there’s no difference in the technical abilities between women and men. We are, after all, engineers, and live by numbers and sound judgment. But yet the profession still struggles to attract and retain female engineers.

Is there a difference we should be aware of? I recently read an article by Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz from The Chicago Tribune [Oct. 27, 2016, “Women engineers describe unfriendly work environments in study”] pointing out that there’s a gender bias in our profession that’s stronger than other professions. Why is that? Why are we still experiencing this?

As background for this column, I spoke with some women engineers (not a scientific survey by any means). I asked a few questions such as “what does it feel like to be in this profession that has been historically male” and “have you been treated differently because you are a woman?” There was enough material to complete a year’s worth of columns, but I will try to point out a few recurring issues.

Engineers First

None of the women think of themselves as “women engineers” first: they’re engineers. But often they’re perceived as females until they can “set their brand,” as one woman noted. This was a common thread. There is a perception among women that they need to prove themselves—and more than once. Their high expectations of the profession often are not met. The lofty goals of making a positive impact on society are sometimes met with typical gender roles in meetings and on project teams.

Another common thought is that women (and minorities) are being pushed into leadership roles based on diversity goals. One woman said that this is when she feels like she is being treated differently. “I don’t want to get an opportunity just because of my gender,” she noted.

Be a Positive Influence

One more factor, and perhaps the most important factor mentioned, is the relationship between the engineer and supervisors and coworkers. A positive influence, a good role model and/or a supportive supervisor—especially in the early years of a career—has an immense impact. This is true for any engineer, but it can be the only factor in the success of a female engineer. This is where you, as a fellow professional, can directly have an impact.

Some say we should value the point of view that only women engineers can bring to our profession. I know from experience that this can have a very positive outcome, but I look at this from another direction.

As engineers, we get to design and build some of the most-impressive projects in the world. How can we not develop for our daughters and nieces an environment that provides the opportunities we have to build such projects?

Our challenge is to make sure we never stand in the way and help pave the road for women to enter, excel in and lead our profession.

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About Robert Schickel

Robert Schickel was born in New Jersey and received his BS in Civil Engineering degree in 1971 from Valparaiso University in Indiana. His career started as a bridge design engineer and expanded to include design of various transportation facilities, including highways, bridges, rail lines and stations, and airport runways. Mr. Schickel managed engineering offices ranging from 20 to 140 people. He also served as a consultant to a large utility company. Mr. Schickel currently resides in Indiana and serves as Adjunct Professor for the College of Engineering at Valparaiso University. He enjoys his retired life at his lake house, playing golf, listening to music and spending time with his family, especially his grandchildren.

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