Women in Engineering Blog: A Road Less Traveled

| December 13, 2018

A Road Less Traveled…

I was not expecting to be an engineer. There were no engineers in my family and frankly, I wasn’t even sure what an engineer’s job responsibilities included. The only visual that came to mind was a mad scientist inventor with gears and wrenches strewn about. I grew up believing that you had to have special wiring in your brain that could decipher technical details and these brains were only found in men. I had no reason to think otherwise. All the famous scientists and inventors that I learned about in school were all male… Einstein, Darwin, Ben Franklin, Tesla, etc. and my parents and grandparents reinforced this stereotype to me over and over.

I come from a creative family of artists and it was assumed that I would do something in the arts like interior decoration, floristry or fine art. I had an early interest in Architecture but that was caboshed quickly as my parents reminded me that I would have to take a multitude of difficult math and science classes, it would be very expensive, and that I would be working mostly with men. Oh, the irony!

I recall a Christmas when I was about 6 years old and my 3 older brothers all got matching chemistry sets as gifts. I eagerly looked under the tree for my chemistry set, but it was not there. Out of frustration I took a pair of small tweezers out of one of the sets and decided to perform my own experiment to show my parents that I was smart enough to have one also. I put the prongs of the pair of tweezers into an electrical socket and poof! Needless-to-say, I had my first lesson in electrical engineering and my father was not happy about my experiment or losing an electrical outlet! That experiment showcased a curiosity in me that still exists today as a problem-solver and lover of puzzles.

Fast forward 20 years… After achieving my bachelor’s degree in Interior Design at the University of Wisconsin, I relocated to Massachusetts to search for a job. Within a month, the twin towers fell and the economy stood still. I had an incredibly hard time finding a position. As a result, I ended up bouncing around from one miscellaneous design job to the next.  None of which I was passionate about. One day, a friend called who I had met when we were co-designers at a closet system company. She asked me if I was interested in being an AutoCAD drafter at her MEP company. My first question was “What is MEP?”.

Fitzemeyer & Tocci staff with the scholarship winner.

It has been over 10 years since I received that phone call. Never did I think that I would be an engineer and yet here I am, feeling so challenged and contented to solve puzzles every day. While my co-workers are still mostly male, my firm has a strong 20% of smart and creative female engineers. This is an impressive number, considering that the industry average is 13%*. Fitzemeyer & Tocci values diversity and equality and creates an extremely healthy culture.  We participate in the Women@Wentworth organization which focuses on women in engineering for the students at Wentworth College. Our Edward Fitzemeyer Scholarship went to one of the impressive female students through Women@Wentworth.  We have a Women in Engineer inclusion group which meets twice a year to learn, have fun, and communicate about being female in the engineering world. I feel that firms like mine are changing the tides of women in the workplace.

While we have made so many incredible advances, women’s challenges still endure outside of the safety of our inclusive firms. I still get the occasional wink on a jobsite or a look of confusion when I show up at a facilities coordination meeting like I may somehow be lost. Thankfully, these occurrences are becoming less and less frequent with more awareness being made to the issues and I’m grateful to work at a firm that truly supports and fosters a diverse and safe workplace. With the changing times and the growth of women in traditionally “male” fields, we are starting to become the norm, rather than the exception.

As I think about all the women I have worked with in the engineering field, many have had similar stories about challenging cultural and gender bias to achieve their passion in engineering. One previous colleague received her master’s degree in architecture but came to a road block when she graduated, and architecture firms were not hiring. As a result, she accepted a job with an engineering firm and is now a plumbing engineer like me. Another was raised in a very rigid, traditional family who wanted her to pursue being a wife and a mother in place of a career. Instead, she went to school for electrical engineering and now is a very successful engineer (and wife and mother) at one of the top hospitals in Boston. These stories are becoming more frequent and the newer generations of women that I see coming into the workforce, thankfully, don’t have the same level of biases that I grew up experiencing.  As an industry, through recruitment programs and awareness, we are moving closer to an equally diverse workplace of men and women and a time when more girls will find a chemistry set addressed to them under the tree.

 

“Be fearless. Have the courage to take risks. Go where there are no guarantees. Get out of your comfort zone even if it means being uncomfortable. The road less traveled is sometimes fraught with barricades bumps and uncharted terrain. But it is on that road where your character is truly tested and have the courage to accept that you’re not perfect, nothing is, and no one is — and that’s OK.”   Katie Couric

 

Reference to 13% of engineering is female http://news.mit.edu/2016/why-do-women-leave-engineering-0615

Shannon Larkin
About

As Plumbing Engineer, Shannon coordinates entire systems from concept through construction, conducting site visits, systems evaluations, cost estimates and specifications. She has provided these services for a multitude of project types with multiple clients. As the Plumbing Engineer, Shannon ensures the project’s plumbing and fire protection designs are fully code compliant and up-to-date with industry standards.

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