There is nothing specific that makes men or women particularly suited to be an engineer; you need to be good at and enjoy solving problems and be willing not only to listen to the ideas of those around you but also brave enough to contribute your own ideas. For the engineering we do, it helps to have a desire to develop structural solutions to help improve construction across America.
While more women are earning engineering degrees now than ever before, we still make up a small percentage of the profession. A number of reasons are often floated for the lack of women engineers, such as a misperception about what it takes to be successful in the career or not having female engineering role models. Our goal is to encourage more girls to consider engineering as a career.
We are two female engineers working for the American Wood Council (AWC), the trade association that represents the North American wood products industry in the codes and standards arena for building design and construction. Michelle is a structural engineer with an established, 20-year career, and Lori passed the P.E. exam just over a year ago. Michelle oversees AWC’s education program that reaches audiences around the world and, as the first female president of the Structural Engineers Association of Southern California, she is creating a networking group to support growth opportunities for women in structural engineering. As a project engineer, Lori makes a difference every day by helping designers understand wood structural design standards and codes, helping them design safer, more structurally sound buildings using a sustainable building material.
Networking among our peers is important, but encouraging young girls to think about engineering as a profession is imperative. Practicing engineers need to inform girls that engineering is so much more than just liking or being good at math. For example, following are some other areas important to the profession:
Creativity — This isn’t an attribute that’s typically on a short-list when describing engineering, but engineers are problem solvers and the best solutions come from ingenuity. It’s rare for there to be just one solution to a problem, and there may be more than one way to get to that solution. Sometimes you have to be creative — thinking outside of the box! It may be as simple as using an existing tool in a new way or creating something from scratch to solve a complex problem.
For example, in our focus area — construction — some engineers may view the building code as a set of limitations; however, we view it as an opportunity. Creative engineers see the building code as a guide, and by applying creative thinking, come up with innovative solutions based on sound structural engineering that are explainable and acceptable to building officials.
Communication — Engineers use a wide skill set to solve unique problems based on almost every subject studied in school. Math and science are, of course, a big part of engineering, but the communication skills learned in English and other writing-oriented courses is invaluable to be a successful engineer. Also important is the ability to communicate verbally with others. While many engineers are very “technically savvy,” the ability to communicate well and listen to others is equally important in the collaborative process, along with being able to share one’s findings, analyses, and conclusions in written form.
Teamwork — Some of the most challenging yet rewarding experiences in an engineering career come from working on a team. Diversity of experience and backgrounds on an engineering team allows problems to be approached from different angles, which can help lead to innovative solutions. In short: Don’t be afraid of being different or standing out with a unique viewpoint.
Persistence — Engineering isn’t always easy and even engineers get discouraged at one time or another. More times than we can count, we’ve all wanted to throw our arms in the air and go do something easier. You will come up against obstacles — both internal and external. You may come across people who don’t think you belong on a construction site or on a project team, simply because they’re not used to seeing women in that context. The important part isn’t that you succeed on the first try, it’s that you learn from your past experiences and keep trying when you don’t succeed. Your attitude when facing adversity can be your greatest strength, or greatest hurdle.
Confidence — Being a successful engineer will force you to not be a wallflower. You’ll need to engage with others and not be afraid to ask questions! Even engineers who have more than 40 years of experience still ask questions and learn new things every day. The industry is constantly changing, and the only way to keep up on things is to be inquisitive. Be willing to jump in and help and you’ll likely find a mentor for life who will continue assisting as you navigate your career. Volunteering and getting involved with a professional organization will not only enlarge your network and allow you to meet likeminded peers and mentors, but help you gain confidence in a professional environment outside of work. See yourself as the amazing engineer that you are.
Those who are ultimately successful in their engineering career are passionate about what they’re doing. Curious problem-solvers are likely to find great satisfaction in the field.
So, to our fellow practicing engineers, do not let young girls you encounter be intimidated from entering the engineering profession — assist them, mentor them, and guide them. Both men and women can step up and be mentors — they have been for us in our careers. Consider doing a classroom visit or allowing students to job shadow in your company to expose more girls to engineering.
MICHELLE KAM-BIRON, P.E., S.E., S.E.C.B., is a California-licensed structural engineer and director of education for the American Wood Council (AWC). She is also the first female president of the Structural Engineers Association of Southern California. LORI KOCH, P.E., a licensed engineer in Virginia, is a project engineer at AWC. She has a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Penn State University, a master’s degree from Clemson University in civil engineering, and a second master’s degree in forestry from Virginia Tech.