Sunday Extra: Don't sugarcoat engineering as career choice for young women

Sunday Extra: Don't sugarcoat engineering as career choice for young women

By Shannon Lybarger

In a recent New York Times op-ed, a female professor of the University of California - Berkeley argued that women will be attracted to engineering if they believe the work benefits society. Lina Nilsson, who has a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, also states that to increase the number of women in engineering, we need to reframe the goals of engineering research and curriculums to be more relevant to societal needs.

As a female at a Midwest civil engineering company, I find this idea couldn't be further from the truth. I knew I wanted to be an engineer from the time I was a young girl helping my dad provide electricity to a 100-year-old barn that housed my 4-H cattle. At his side, I learned about power, lighting and circuitry and discovered I liked solving practical problems. As a high school student, I told my guidance counselor that I wanted to become an engineer. Her response was "girls don't do that," but the counselor's proclamation didn't stop me from pursuing my career goals.

One week after high school graduation, I joined a firm as a field technician/engineering intern. I later returned to the same company in 2005, but this time with a four-year degree and in the electrical engineering department. I joined my current firm in 2010.

On a day-to-day basis, I serve as project designer and prepare working drawings, handle construction administration, and coordinate efforts with clients, contractors, and other consultants. My experience includes multi-story student housing, private schools, retail/commercial buildings, senior housing, site/roadway layouts, and several LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) certified projects.

That's not to say I don't care about helping society. Over the past few years, I was the LEED administrator and only electrical designer for the 14-story high-rise at 519 E Green, recently described as the busiest intersection in Urbana-Champaign. This building features many sustainable elements including a vegetative roof system and use of recycled materials.

In addition, I'm a co-leader of a 4-H club with more than 50 children ranging in ages from 5 to 18. I encourage my members to pursue their interests because you never know where they will lead. Our emphasis is on solving problems and discovery. The solutions may very well address societal needs, but that's not our emphasis.

So what do engineering firms need to do? First, they need to cultivate and nurture girls and young women who have the skills to succeed in an engineering field. Tactics could range from mentoring to summer programs to "office hours" and more. It's critical to promote math and science for both boys and girls in 6th-8th grade. Schools need to continue offering the "fun" hands-on projects that are prevalent in elementary school. 4-H promotes these activities and other school programs should do the same.

Once a woman graduates, she is more likely to stay in the engineering field than her male counterpart, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. I take that to mean women who are in engineering like to work in engineering. I know I do.

Don't belittle women by thinking we can only work in jobs that fill our hearts and souls. Because then you would be overlooking the real reason why we work in engineering — to show off our brains.

Shannon Lybarger, LEED AP BD +C, is an electrical engineering designer at MSA Professional Services.