When an experienced engineer looks to further her career, she looks to friends and mentors, said Christine Valle, director of the Women in Engineering program for the Georgia Institute of Technology.
“Engineering as a whole is a conservative field,” she said. “We have to be conservative. We have to be careful or the bridge (we build) will fall and kill 10 people. So change is very hard for the traditional firms.”
In other words, it’s a culture that sticks to what – and who — it knows, she said.
For the young women who make up 30% of Georgia Tech’s College of Engineering graduates (the highest it’s ever been, Valle said) the path to employment often starts with a sorority sister, an alum, or professional society member.
“For me, the ‘good old boys club’ actually came through in a big way,” Kim Swenson said of the network of Georgia Tech alumni in the engineering profession.
One of Swenson’s undergraduate summer internships was for a Georgia Tech grad working at AT&T. “He gave me a foot in the door and he backed me 100 percent until he left the company,” she said.
Swenson is now the associate director of Systems Integration at AT&T and part of that ‘good old boys club’: She earned a master’s degree of electrical and computer engineering from Georgia Tech in 2002.
Finding a job in a traditional engineering field can be especially tough for women. “Nationally, half of women with engineering degrees do not end up working in the engineering workforce,” Valle said. “The engineering workforce is still about 10 percent female.”
Electrical engineering and computer engineering are disciplines with the worst female representation, she said. In contrast, the environmental engineering graduate rate is 67% women and biomedical engineering is 40%.
“Biotechnology (is) much more nimble and much more willing to accommodate women,” Valle said. In the biotech field at least 60 percent of the workforce is women, she said, by nature making a climate hospitable to women’s needs.
Regardless of discipline, when these engineer students apply for jobs they rely on well-connected alumni networks to get their foot in the door: Not recruiters or the company representatives they meet at job fairs.
The students Valle currently works with throw LinkedIn into that mix and often connect to their teachers in order to access a more personal network of alumni, she said.
Industrial engineer Amey Harvey Dougherty got her first job with Premier, Inc. thanks in part to one of her sorority’s alums. “I sent my resume to Premier with no luck in getting an interview,” she said. Then she reached out blindly to a fellow sorority sister who graduated years before.
“In my case, a ‘good old girl’,” made all the difference, Dougherty said. “Even though she couldn’t give any true reference – we had never met – she was willing to get me in the door for that first interview.”
The nation’s older engineering-focused universities have well-developed and very broad networks of alumni, Valle said. Graduates from newer schools and programs don’t have that luxury and rely on networking within professional societies, she said.
Professional societies, like SWE (Society of Women Engineers) are also a boon to mid-career engineers, Valle said.
When Tamara Lindell Garbett wanted to shift gears from her electromechanical engineering career to the biotech industry, she found more luck with professional societies like Athena and AWIS (Association for Women in Science) than with her sorority alumni chapter, school alumni chapter, or the local retired military group.
Her husband’s move to San Diego, California, made taking a voluntary layoff package from Procter & Gamble the right choice and the perfect opportunity for change. Garbett’s involvement in Athena’s event committee helped her land with Innercool Therapies, where a warehouse manager was also a member of the women executive organization.
“I stayed pretty active with AWIS and Athena,” she said, even becoming an Associate Member Board Member of Athena. “Then I had kids and it got more difficult to balance networking opportunities on top of work and family commitments.”
Work-life balance is crucial and consequential for women engineers furthering their careers, Valle said. “The percentage of women on boards of (engineering) companies or in C-level jobs is abysmally low,” she said, and due to many factors, ranging from a real glass ceiling in some engineering disciplines to focusing more on families or other obligations being incompatible with leading a company.
Swenson, a mother of three young children, said she also does not have the time or energy to consciously seek out women’s groups or engineering groups. These days, “(networking) is usually a product of the projects and programs I support,” she said.
The product of these women’s work experience networks in turn becomes their own personal “good old boys” club.
“In the consulting world there is a tendency for people to shift jobs and companies every few years,” Dougherty said. “At this point I have male and female connections spread throughout the healthcare consulting industry,” she said. “In addition I have an ever-growing contact list on my phone with emails of people who I’ve made connections with while working in healthcare organizations across the US.”
Even when she’s looking for potential candidates for hire, she relies on her contacts. She uses LinkedIn and Facebook to stay in touch when job openings pop up at Premier.
As varied as the engineering field is, it’s important to remember that women engineers are likewise not monolithic, Valle said.
“It’s a real range,” she said, “in terms of how women communicate with the gatekeepers.”
But mostly, Valle said, these women are relying on the networks that alumni and professional societies provide.
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