NSPE Members Paved the Way for Today’s Women Engineers
Engineering has long struggled to bring more women into the field. But a boom occurred in the 1970s and early 80s, as federal affirmative action requirements and a decline in the number of men entering engineering increased female representation. In 1970, the percentage of women earning undergraduate degrees in the field was just 1%. By 1985, it had jumped to almost 15%.
Since then, however, progress has slowed. The percentage of women earning undergraduate degrees has largely plateaued over the last two decades, with recent figures at 21%. Gender challenges are embedded at a structural level, explains a paper in the journal Engineering Studies.
“What Late-Career and Retired Women Engineers Tell Us: Gender Challenges in Historical Context” reported the results of interviews with 251 female engineers. PE reached out to NSPE members, who weren’t part of the study, to get their perspectives as well.
Karen Pedersen, P.E., F.NSPE, embarked on higher education after her children were in school, first earning an associate’s and then an electrical engineering degree. Her physics professor suggested the discipline based on her math skills. The professional engineer, who graduated from Iowa State University in 1975, says her experience at school was a mixed bag. That included simply being ignored. “They didn’t know what to do with [female engineers] at that time,” she says.
SHE WAS INSTALLING FOR IOWA POWER AND LIGHT’S FIRST LOAD RESEARCH STUDY IN THE EARLY 1980s.
Pedersen encountered more problems in the workplace. Everyone was “toeing the line,” she says, trying to hire women to meet the requirements—but she ran into some “serious discrimination.” Her boss was a mentor, but coworkers in other departments gave various rationalizations for their uneasiness. People at the time thought “all women in engineering were sleeping with someone to get ahead,” she says.
As “Gender Challenges” notes, inviting women into the workplace was not the same as making it welcoming to them. Pedersen, who now has decades of experience in the power industry, puts it this way: “You change the law…but the die-hard men and women that are into this role thing, it just puts them underground. They’re going to think what they think.”
Ruth Schiedermayer, P.E., also went back to school as a nontraditional student, after working in industry. She felt pretty comfortable at Milwaukee’s Marquette University, from which she graduated in 1981. But in the workplace, she encountered teasing and tricks. (A co-worker once asked her for a left-handed crescent wrench—which doesn’t exist.) Her previous role working in a cheese factory gave her a tough skin, though. “I didn’t take the bait as much as some women might’ve,” she says, calling the teasing pretty innocuous. “I just learned to live with it.”
Angelika Forndran, P.E., graduated in 1973 from New York City’s Cooper Union. She encountered only a few other women in all her classes there, but she found community through the school’s Society of Women Engineers chapter. It took the whole four years she attended Cooper Union to garner the necessary 10 female students to charter the chapter.
CREDIT: HANDY & HARMAN ANNUAL REPORT, 1981
Forndran pursued civil engineering and water pollution control, wanting to help address clean water issues. As only the second female engineer hired by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, she knew she needed a PE license as soon as she could get it. “Walking to meetings or going to a job site, I gave them my card. ‘I’m a PE. Start talking to me like an engineer.’”
Forndran also earned a master’s in environmental engineering from Manhattan College. But she initially encountered reluctance to put her in the field. She had to make the men aware that “women are just as physically capable, and won’t get squeamish looking at sewage.” Once she got into the treatment plants, she explains, the operators were respectful. “They could see I was willing to take data, get my hands dirty, and I didn’t lord over them.”
Lack of respect and recognition was a common theme in “Gender Challenges.” Schiedermayer felt this from a supervisor who seemed to think she wasn’t working hard enough. She started keeping a spreadsheet of her hours, a practice she continued the rest of her career. She never showed it to her manager, believing she couldn’t persuade him. But she kept records of her time, including weeks she worked 70 or even 80 hours, to prove to herself that she was working as hard as she could.
BOTTOM: FORNDRAN AT A WASTEWATER PUMP STATION REHABILITATION IN ALLENTOWN, PENNSYLVANIA, IN NOVEMBER 2019. SHE IS CURRENTLY DIRECTOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL ENGINEERING FOR CIVIL ENGINEERING FIRM COWAN ASSOCIATES INC.
Slower advancement was another challenge pointed to in the paper and echoed by NSPE members. According to Forndran, she couldn’t rely on coworkers or supervisors for professional development. She was active in professional societies and paid her own fees for courses such as “Women as Managers in Science and Engineering.”
As Karen Pedersen explains, men didn’t see her as threatening in the early years in her career and even helped her along. But she encountered bias at the management level. In one phone interview, an interviewer blatantly told her it wouldn’t work for her to supervise men as a woman.
The “Gender Challenges” authors noted, “Getting women into engineering was not enough to ensure women’s success in engineering, and largely unchanged workplace cultures thwarted women’s mobility and sometimes led to women exiting engineering altogether.”
Even today, about 37% of women who earn engineering degrees exit the field. Forndran says she finds it “shocking” and discouraging that, after 50 years, people are still talking about challenges women face in engineering. She points to the “glass ceiling,” or women sometimes turning to other fields due to issues with promotion or fair pay.
“Gender Challenges” survey participants pointed out that although overt discrimination has dropped, more subtle biases persist.
Pedersen does see some hope with these issues, saying “I think we’ll grow out of it.” She believes the answers lie in more support for not only women but also other underrepresented groups such as minorities. (The study’s respondents were largely white/Caucasian due to the small numbers of women of color who graduated from engineering programs in the 1970s.)
The former IEEE-USA president suggests that young women who still face discrimination should be persistent and choose their battles. “It’s about enjoying your career,” she says, “not if other people like you or not.”
Forndran points to improvement over her career, noting that 21% is a “whole lot better” than the 2% that were graduating at the time she was in school. The PE emphasizes that in her early working years, she had to use the men’s room in the wastewater treatment plant. The work conditions are now so much better, she says, with facilities set up for women. Field work is no longer unusual for female engineers, and contractors and operators expect to work with them. “Hopefully, it was our generation that helped [pave] the way,” she says.
Schiedermayer’s advice for young female engineers: “Try to learn as much as you can about things you are good at and enjoy.” The PE, who has worked as a control systems engineer in factory automation, felt pretty good over the course of her career about being a woman “in a man’s field.” But occasionally she’d be reminded that she was female. She tried not to let it bother her, however, because she found the work so interesting. “I think that’s why I stuck it out,” she explains, “because I liked what I was doing a great deal. That’s the key: find something you like doing and do it as well as you can.”
Participants in the “Gender Challenges” research also promoted individual solutions. However, the paper’s authors took a broader view. “Although individual-level solutions might help some women to succeed,” they noted, “they will not help all women to do so—not because the women do not try or are incapable, but because the interactional and structural challenges are too great.”