Learn from Her: Women in the Engineering Industry Share Their Journeys and Professional Insight

Two women reviewing plans
on 17 June 2020
  • women in engineering
  • engineering
  • STEM

Of the STEM fields, engineering has the smallest number of female professionals. To change that, we have to show not only women in engineering (a field that comprises of more than just engineers) but also show the how.

How have you thrived when you were challenged? How did you decide where you wanted to fit in? These are only a few interviews, but my hope with this blog is to not only shine a light on my excellent colleagues, but to also show other women how they can follow the path they want, to become who they want, in a field where historically women haven’t been present.

The positive note? Women are in all levels of the engineering industry, and the industry needs more. You also don’t have to fit in to one role in the field – there are so many to choose from! Don’t limit yourself, and jump in.


WOMEN IN ENGINEERING INTERVIEWS


How many years of professional experience do you have?

Around 9 years.


Can you tell me about your professional background?

I started out in the construction management field, always wanting to be able to say, look, here's what I do for a living. Or drive down the street and say Hey, look what I built. I’m a little bit of a tomboy and always liked building things and figuring out how all these different parts and pieces come together and create a product.

So I went to school and got an internship between my junior and senior year building North Carolina’s first toll road. And I was like roads? Seriously? I wouldn't have thought anything of it. I always envisioned myself building homes or commercial properties, but I fell in love with it and have been involved with it ever since.

I went and worked for the contractor as an engineer, scheduling and managing crews, supplies as well as keeping track of cost and creating budgets. Over the years I have dealt with a lot of inspectors, and one inspector encouraged me to try inspecting. He knew it was a slightly different career path then what I was on, but every time I saw him he kept asking me and encouraging me to change sides. He eventually made too good of an argument and wore me down and that's how I came to Summit. I was an inspector first.

The first project I was on for Summit, they had a need for another engineer, and no one wanted to take that position that actually had an engineering degree and a PE. They looked for months. Without any other options they knew while I had not the strongest engineering background, I did have a college degree, management experience and also knew what it takes from a contractor's point of view to complete a project. They offered me the position knowing I had things to learn but also, they could learn a little from me.

I'm grateful for the opportunity, but I also know that I'm behind the curve, and I have taken every opportunity I can to learn as much as I can from the actual engineers that I work with.


What kind of learning opportunities have you engaged with, to develop your skill set? Or is it more just being on the job and just learning as you go?

It's more about being on the job and learning as I go. Whenever there are opportunities that I don't know anything about I try to put myself in the middle of those situations and ask questions. “Can you show me this? Or how does this work?”

And I do the same for the engineers, because they don't necessarily understand the equipment and why the contractor does what he does and what motivates him. I teach them as much as they teach me too.


If there was anything that you could change in your career path that you've taken, what would it be?

For where I am now? I feel like I should have gone through a program that was engineering based, but I don't think I would be nearly as good if I didn't have my background. All my experiences have led me here and if I would have chosen something else, I wouldn't be with Summit today.

But yeah, I wished I could have had a few more engineering classes.


I think it's important to tell people that it's okay to ask questions, you know, that people will answer them and not be mean about it.

Yeah, absolutely, but there is always going to be people that are going to be like that intentionally or unintentionally. I kind of step back, especially with new people to feel them out and see if I trust them to not judge me. I don't want to let people know that I don’t know all the answers right off the bat. I find those people that I can trust so I can be like, “so can you explain that”?


How do you think being a woman in this industry has affected your career?

I think everyone else notices that I'm a female in this industry more so than I do. I more or less view myself as one of the guys. But I do think I get mansplained more than my male colleagues.

It is easy to say people treat you differently because you are a female but is it really due to the fact that I am a female? I think no matter what your demographic it’s all about proving yourself. I had a hard time with this early on in my career because I just didn’t have the experience. The more I learned and grew in this profession the more respect and understanding I got from my colleagues. I do think that I am always trying to prove myself but also think this keeps me on my toes and sharp.


Do you have any more advice for someone who's just getting into this field or is trying to make their career decisions?

I would say don't box yourself in and there's opportunities out there. Take the time. Even if you're busy, if there's something else going on next to you or near you, take that extra time and learn about it because you never know where your career will lead you and what information you will need along the way. And yeah, you might say you're a structural engineer, you want to do this, want to do that, but don't box yourself in and say, you only want to do this one thing for the rest of your life.


What do you really enjoy about your work?

I like that I can go down the road and see what I was involved in creating. I know all the little stories, hardships and triumphs. There’s a lot of stories in 20 miles of road. I like the team effort as well because you can’t do this without a huge team. There’s something new every day. Truly no two days are alike. I love just learning something new and doing something different. Even though I’m a person that likes structure and likes to know what they’re doing every day, 20 minutes after I walk in, my plan is in shambles. You just do what you got to do to survive that day sometimes.


How many years of professional experience do you have?

I started in September of ‘84. So 35 and a half.


Did you start at NCDOT?

I did.


How did you make the decision to work there first?

It was basically an accident, I guess, a happy accident. When I was taking senior classes, one of the professors there said the best place to start your career is at DOT. So when I graduated…I went down to the division office in Winston-Salem, went in, and talked to the first person I came to. And he told me about the training program. So I filled out an application and started with NCDOT in September of ‘84.


Wow. You just walked in?

Yep. It was a different time to say the least.


When you were in college did you have an idea of where you wanted to end up professionally?

Not really. I actually wanted to join the Marine Corps and become a pilot. And my mother had a fit. I knew I either wanted to fly or be in construction. My dad’s a building contractor as is my brother, but I’m not the design type. My dad's siblings’ children ended up in the engineering profession too. Some of them ended up in aerospace engineering. I think it’s in the blood.


Do you have any advice for someone starting in civil engineering, but not exactly sure what they want to do?

If it’s somebody still in school, some of the folks I have met during my career, they often co-opped while they were in school to try different things. I think that’s a good option. When I was with the Department, high school students would come in and shadow engineering staff, then we would hire them as interns in the summer, or others studying civil engineering. That’s another good way.

I think most have a good feeling about what they think they want to do. Like if you don’t like to get dirty, then probably being outdoors isn’t really a thing for you. But to really get a feel for what construction or really any path you can take in engineering, you should try to get out there with an internship or part time work in the summer.


What do you do on a regular basis right now for your job?

I communicate with technicians that I have on projects, I work with NCDOT and communicate with them, and I work to find additional work and follow up with how our staff is doing. There’s the admin things that you deal with, like time approval. When we’re hiring, I spend time meeting people in person and interviewing. Then there’s marketing calls, meeting with other managers, and other internal meetings.


What do you enjoy about your work?

I like being with the technician staff and being out on projects. Where I retired from, while there, I spent a lot of time in an office listening to people complain or going to meetings and all that. You get removed from the reason that you actually liked what you did – and that was seeing a highway being built, and the interactions you have with the contractor and the inspection staff. The problem solving. Two plus two is always going to be four, but whenever you are building something it’s always collaborative and you have to solve problems on the fly.


So when you're looking for a potential employee, what kind of skills do you look for?

Are you someone who is engaged when I talk to you? They make eye contact. They act like they are interested. Do you have good math skills? Before, whenever I hired people while I worked for the Department, I would always give them a math test. And if they couldn’t pass a fairly entry level math test, I wouldn’t hire.

You want to find someone that has integrity and is reliable. They don’t have to be the smartest person in the world, but if they’re eager and willing to try and have integrity, you can work with that.

They have to be interested in doing this kind of work. It’s not for everybody. Right now, the heat index in Fayetteville is a hundred and those guys and gals are out there working in it.


Can you tell me a little bit about your professional journey while with NCDOT? How did you work your way up?

I started on the training program. My first day I worked in Salisbury in the Resident Engineer’s office, and I stayed there for a period of time and learned about surveying and inspection and then some of the engineering duties. And then I worked in the maintenance department. Wasn't really fond of that. The people that worked there were great, but that just really wasn't my thing.

After nine months I went to Raleigh and lived there for nine months, and went through training in roadway design, structure design, materials and tests, and traffic engineering. I enjoyed structures. Roadway design was not my thing. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to be in the field and when I completed the training program, Division 9 offered me an assistant resident engineer position in the Salisbury Resident Engineer's office. That’s where I worked for several years. And then I became a Resident Engineer in Winston-Salem. I think that was around ’91 when I became the official resident engineer, prior to that I was a temporary resident engineer on I-85 rehabilitation projects in Salisbury.

I was at home one night doing some work that I had brought home when I got a call from someone saying they were the State Highway Administrator. He said he wanted me to go to Fayetteville and be the Division Construction Engineer for Highway Division 6. I thought it was one of my buddies playing a joke on me at first, but I quickly saw it was the administrator. Anyway, everything went upside down from there. I ended up in Fayetteville in November of ‘93, and then I stayed in that division construction engineer job until I retired in 2015.


What motivates you to keep going when things are hard?

I'm not a quitter and I don't like to be defeated.


Do you think being a woman in your profession has affected your career path?

Oh yeah. I mean, people treat you differently. I don’t want to be treated different because I’m female. I want to be treated like everybody else. I think it’s different now. I think everybody should be treated according to what they can do. I'm no better than anybody else, so don’t treat me any different from the guys.

I had some issues when I was younger. One of the first conferences that I went to, some of the old guys, they thought they could talk anyway to me. Basically sexual harassment. And I just walked away. Some of the people that I had gone to the conference wanted to make a fight out of it. I didn't want that. I removed myself from the situation.

Someone told the head of construction about it, and I got called to Raleigh to find out what happened. I told him. And I don’t think I would do it any different today just because I’m not one to holler discrimination. Some people are stupid, and just because they do something stupid doesn't mean that I have to as well.

At a later time, years later, I told those men what I thought of them. Maybe I’m more tolerant of things. I grew up with all boys and at some point, you know what you’re dealing with. You deal with that, go through, and you move on.

But you know working in Salisbury, and working in other divisions, none of those people treated me different than anybody else. They treated me like a professional. They didn’t cut me any slack because I was a woman and they didn’t have any outrageous expectations because I was a woman. I was treated fairly. When I went to Division Six, it was a little bit...I won't say it different, but they hadn't had a whole lot of exposure to women engineers. After a period of time, they figured out that I knew what I was doing. Everything's fine. For the most part, once people figure out that they don't have to handle you with kid gloves, I think folks relax and treat you like anybody else.

I think also times are different now. I think it's a little bit easier. When I was getting into this type of business, there were very few women here. When I was at NC State, there was less than a dozen in civil engineering. Might've been fewer than that. There just weren't that many women. Now there's a lot more women in the engineering profession and there's a lot more in construction, I think. So they don't look at you like you're from another planet. Like, “what the heck are you doing out here?”

They have all these women's organizations now as well, and I don’t know if I would have been a part of it before. But I think those are very worthwhile now.

My parents also always told me I could be anything I wanted to be. I was fortunate in that respect. My dad taught me how to do all the things that I would need to do whenever I left home to be able to care for myself. I think that having a good foundation like that, you can do pretty much anything you set your mind to. I realize I'm blessed that I had really good parents that were encouraging for me to do what I've done. It's a big thing.


What kind of advice would you give to a young civil engineer who wants to grow professionally?

Be willing to try new things. You might have in your mind that you want to be X, but as it may turn out, you may want to be Y.

Being in the Department's training program, being exposed to so many different areas of transportation and seeing a project through to completion, I think that was good for me. I think showing a new hire what land development is about, what vertical construction is about, what transportation is about, is helpful. And obviously if you want to, go for a Department of Transportation, they gave me a good career and life. If they're not good at anything else, they're good at developing good engineers because of the varied departments that are out there and all the different things that one can see at the Department.


How many years of experience do you have?

I have been with Summit for 1 year. Before Summit, I worked as a Lab Technician at CATLIN Engineers and Scientists for 2 years while I attended UNCW for my Master’s Degree in the Geosciences.


What are your usual job responsibilities, or what does your day look like?

My job is mostly field work—I usually work with a drill crew, collecting samples for a geological investigation of an area for a client. Each project starts in the office with background research of the area’s geology and identifying where we will drill. We create a boring plan with locations and proposed drill depths which we present to the client alongside a proposal detailing the work involved and a budget of what the work will cost. After approval, we will walk the field area to identify utilities and any potential hazards that we may encounter while drilling. We then drill the area and collect samples of the underlying sediment and make a field identification of what has been collected. After drilling, we compile all the information we’ve gathered and create a report of the findings. During this whole process, I am responsible for the planning aspect (not including budget), field collection and coordination, and compiling data for the final report. My days look different depending on what part we are doing of a project. Currently, my day goes: drive to field site, drill and collect samples, drive home.


What is your professional / academic history? (where you worked before, what led you to this job now)

Academic History:

  • 2013-2017 North Carolina State University : B.S Geology
  • 2017-2019 University of North Carolina at Wilmington : M.S. Geosciences

My work at CATLIN led me to this job at Summit. Before working in CATLIN I was under the impression that geology jobs were all mapping based, which is completely false. CATLIN showed me the practical application of geology and when I was ready to move back to the Raleigh area, I found Summit.


What defining moments helped shape your career decisions?

Honestly, I haven’t had any major career decisions outside applying for and pursing Summit. This is my first job outside of anything connected to school.


Do you think being a woman has affected your professional experience? In what way?

Yes, being a woman has affected my professional experience. I am the only woman in my department. I only see another woman if I go to another office space. This field (geology) is a male dominated field and Summit is no different than the rest of the field.


What advice do you have for women who are just starting in their E/C careers?

My advice would be to attack everything head on. When you’re hesitant, it becomes easier for people to lose trust in your abilities and voice. Listen and learn from those around you but when it is your time to speak, speak trusting in your own ability and knowledge.


What do you enjoy most about your job?

I enjoy the discovery part of my job. I enjoy how each project is unique with its own history and difficulties to overcome. I enjoy finding out what is underneath our feet and what that means to the construction of roads and bridges. I enjoy being outside and having the feeling that the work I do is important in allowing for safe construction.


How has being a woman in this field shaped your perspective?

Being a woman in this field...it’s hard. There were days I’d come home and cry because of how they make you feel. But that’s when you have to get tough. And now I am. I worked hard. Now these men respect me. They know who I am.

Men will say ‘why you working in a men’s world’ and that’s tough. If you want to make it you have to get out there, but I'm a go-getter. My work is challenging. But if you build a roadway, or a bridge, or a building (and I’ve done all of those) when you go back in three years and you see it built you think ‘I had a part in that.’


How did you decide to go into the construction industry?

I don’t know how I fell into it. I was originally a bartender. But then I moved over to the asphalt plant, and I ran the asphalt making. Then, I moved to another company and was put in charge of the labs. I just enjoyed learning everything about it, about types of asphalt and dirt. I love dirt. When I started in construction, I knew there was more to it and I wanted to pursue more, so I just jumped into it.


What advice do you have for someone starting in this industry?

If you want to do well, you have to jump in. You have to ask questions and observe. That’s how you get better and build a solid reputation. I love it. I learn something new every day, which might not happen if you’re sitting at a desk. I couldn’t do that. I have to be outside.

But there’s more challenges too. You have to be able to work with the public – to handle them when they are not kind to you. You still have to respect them. You have to please them. We also have a dangerous job. It’s the third most dangerous job in the country, working in construction, so you have to be aware. You have to look out for each other and work together to stay safe.

If you really want to do this, it is hard work. Between the math, the paperwork, handling the public, and building a reputation, you have to be tough. You have to do good. You can’t just sit in your truck all day-- you have to get out and work. Now, I have built a strong reputation not just with NCDOT but with Towns too. They know who I am and what I’m about.


What is an average day like for you?

I get to the work site and then get with the contractor to find out what is happening that day. It’s very document heavy. You get your quantities, make sure they’re doing everything right, make reports on everything, check for erosion and other aspects – you have to be very detailed and you have to constantly be in contact with everyone. You can’t miss anything because that can really hurt the project long term. I’m very observant. I don’t miss anything—and they know it. You have to be spot on and work with people on what they need. If they need me to test or to work with homeowners I do. Everyday is different.

Working with homeowners especially. When you’re working on someone’s land they will come out to you and ask “why are these stakes here? What is happening?” and that’s when I have to explain what is going on. I have to get out the plans and explain to the homeowners what they mean. You work with everyone. The job is simpler when you are out, not near anyone.

I do a little bit of everything. But everyone needs the opportunity to get out into the field, find out what Summit is really about and what we do. You have to be passionate about this work, and want to do it, because it’s hard.


How many years of professional experience do you have?

I’ve been working since 1997.


What do you enjoy most about your work?

The best thing about this work is seeing the job being done. Seeing that accomplishment, and making everything better for the people that live here. When I was working on Old Chapel Hill Road in Durham and putting in a sidewalk, it was great to see the people come out and use the sidewalk as we were finishing it. People actually came out, were talking to each other, just because of a sidewalk. Seeing people enjoying what we’ve built, really developing and improving their towns, is my favorite thing.




Female employee working on engineering plans for transportation design


While no one person’s experience can represent everyone’s, I hope women in the industry have found some kindred spirits in this blog. A lot of these experiences could be relatable to anyone--not just engineers and not just women. The beauty of having different voices at the decisions table is that you find perspectives and helpful insight that you would never have thought of yourself.

International Women in Engineering Day is a catalyst, but support of real change means more than just one day’s work. That’s why, after reading through these interviews, I hope you go out and find more perspectives from women in the industry. Even just learning how people experience your industry differently can reveal ways to make everyone feel like they belong.

Engineering is about building communities, creating solutions for necessary changes, and leaving a lasting impact. Those opportunities should be available to anyone with a passion for doing good work.

MEET THE AUTHOR

Lauren Stearley Headshot

Lauren Stearley
Lauren Stearley is our Marketing Coordinator. She writes the content needed to get Summit’s name out there. Born at 9:09 in February, Lauren has always lived in North Carolina, except for a brief stint in England. When she is not marketing Summit’s many different services, Lauren enjoys gardening, taking naps in her hammock and reading historical fiction.

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