As we continue to focus on women in the AEC industry throughout the month of March, we are shining a spotlight on what it’s like to be a woman in the engineering field. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, women make up only 26% of engineers and architects in the country. We sat down with three of our remarkable female engineers, VP of Engineering Alexie Kindrick, Process Engineering Manager Teresa Ross, and Process Engineer Rachel Zeiss, to discuss their experiences and opinions on working in an industry that is dominated by male employees.
How did you get started and who inspired you?
When discussing what got Alexie, Teresa, and Rachel interested in the engineering industry, it all comes down to one word: mentors.
Alexie was originally a pre-med biology major, but says she “hated it” because she’s better at problem solving than memorization. She switched majors to chemistry and then realized employment options would be limited in that field. Like so many college students, she got to that point and didn’t know where to go because her plans weren’t meshing with who she was as a person. Finally, a professor suggested that she might be a good engineer based on her personality and interests. Alexie thought engineering sounded as good as anything else, and it turned out to be her passion.
Teresa was pointed towards engineering from a young age. Her father worked in operations at an oil refinery, his boss was a young chemical engineer, and his best friend was a chemistry professor. They all recommended that she give chemical engineering a try. Teresa was eager to do so because she loves being challenged and found that engineering was the only class that really tested her limits. Her second boss out of school was a young female engineer who had attended the same college and really helped direct her on a path into the industry. Having someone early in her career who trusted her and allowed her to try things and make decisions was something that made her want to stay in engineering.
Rachel grew up surrounded by strong mentors who happened to be engineers. One of them would always give her a math problem to solve, sparking an interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). She says that family friends would ask what she wanted to do when she graduated and were always supportive when she mentioned engineering. The fact that the engineering industry serves so many other industries and provides so much variety was appealing to her. Now, she finds inspiration in that her immediate supervisor and executive supervisor are both women, which is still a rare thing in the industry.
What’s good, what’s bad, and what surprises you?
All three women had a wealth of positive stories and experiences to share about their time in the engineering industry. They’ve had exciting new job opportunities, inspiring mentors, and supervisors of both genders who proved to be supportive.
But not all of the things they love best about engineering have any relationship to being female or male. Instead, most of their favorite things center on the work itself. Teresa didn’t hesitate to say her favorite thing about being an engineer is “problem solving.” Digging into a problem, finding the root cause, developing an approach, and resolving the issues are the greatest things about the job. Adding to this, Rachel said her favorite thing is “seeing the innovation.” Engineers have a unique insight into new and innovative processes that the average person doesn’t get. Areas like renewable energy are advancing at an extreme pace and being an engineer gives you a front row seat to what’s happening.
While the majority of their experiences have been positive, Alexie, Teresa, and Rachel agreed that there are still challenges facing women in the industry. Occasionally being a strong, confident female engineer means you get some negative comments, such as being labeled as “aggressive,” while male colleagues are praised for being “assertive.” There can also be an unfair focus on physical appearance that draws attention to gender differences. However, all three engineers agreed that they are seeing a definite shift towards more informed, careful, and sensitive workplaces.
Another change that they are happy to see taking place is an increase in women and girls entering STEM fields. Alexie remembers being the only woman in her graduate school program in 2009, and Teresa recalls going to work for a company in 1992 as their first female engineer and being thought of as “kind of an experiment.” Now, in 2020, they are in positions to see more women working towards becoming engineers than ever before.
What does the future hold?
As the vice president overseeing all of Ross Group’s engineering department, Alexie sees herself continuing to grow and advance in the company. She’s excited about opportunities to streamline and modernize processes, but also a little anxious about being the only female member of the executive team.
Teresa is a process engineering manager and Rachel is a process engineer on her team. Their team has a variety of responsibilities, including process modeling and optimization, equipment sizing, PSV studies, design work, and client interactions. Teresa sees her future role as one that continues to add value to and evolve with the company, while grooming new engineers. As one of the department’s younger engineers, Rachel sees the near future as an opportunity to learn about more and different processes and continue to expand her knowledge base.
Any advice for other girls and women who want to join us?
Alexie, Teresa, and Rachel had some meaningful advice for women and girls looking to join the engineering industry, starting with not putting any limits on yourself, knowing that you can do it all and work in any area you choose. You will find many people who are happy to help and share their knowledge along the way. Rachel said to remember that “Engineering isn’t something magical or unattainable.” Just like with any other career, if you study and work hard, you will succeed.