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The Rise of Women in Engineering

They defy stereotypes and generalizations. They can’t be reduced to one-dimensional descriptions. But they do have one thing in common: the women who have risen to the top of the engineering profession are making their mark in a field historically dominated by men. And the University of Miami College of Engineering has been both a launching and a landing pad for many such talented women.

For Derin Ural, who joined the College as associate dean for student affairs and professor in practice in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering this past August, the early impetus to study engineering came from a close role model: her father. “My father was a professor of engineering and we were exposed to a lot of interesting people doing remarkable things, which opened my eyes to the importance of engineering,” says Ural.

UM Board of Trustee member Ana VeigaMilton (BSEE ’87, JD ’93) can undoubtedly relate. Her father worked as an electrical engineer – first in Cuba, and then Spain and the Canary Islands – before being allowed into the U.S. “When we came over here, when I was a baby, my father got a job right away. His engineering got him that job,” she says. “I grew up with that feeling that if you are an engineer, you can find work wherever you are.”

But not all prominent female engineers got inspiration from their fathers. Geisha Williams (BSIE ’83), CEO of the Pacific Gas & Electric Company and a UM Board of Trustees member, first developed her love and aptitude for math by working as a cashier every day in her parents’ grocery store. Later, a high school math teacher who knew she’d “make a great engineer” encouraged her to study engineering in college. “There weren’t a lot of women in engineering at the time, and that actually intrigued me,” Williams says. “I liked the idea of showing women could compete in male-dominated fields. When my teacher took me and some other girls to visit colleges, I decided to go for it. It’s the best decision I ever made.”

For Victoria Coverstone, chair of the College’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, her role models were slightly more removed. “I grew up watching Star Trek and I had the biggest crush on Captain Kirk,” she says. “I wondered, ‘How can I meet this guy? I will need to become an astronaut and fly across the universe.’ Many astronauts were pilots, so eventually I went into aerospace engineering.”

The Career Journey

Coverstone’s journey may not have required as many miles, but it certainly required breaking boundaries on her part. The College’s first female department chair secured her first teaching position as an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1992. She was the first and only female faculty member in the engineering department, and many of the men were totally against her presence. Some men were supportive. She describes it as “very polarizing: they either didn’t want me there or thought it was great that I was there.” But that only motivated her, she says. She spent more than 20 years at that university, became a fellow in the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and earned a NASA Summer Faculty Fellowship at the Marshall Space Flight Center. Despite those qualifications, she says, “it was clear that if I ever wanted to be a department chair, it wasn’t going to happen at Illinois.” Since joining the CoE in August, she adds, “UM has been really wonderful.”

Ural’s career experience was rather different from Coverstone’s. Though she never had a female engineering professor during her college studies or when completing her masters and PhD in civil engineering and operations research at Princeton University, she also never felt she was different from her male colleagues. Before joining the CoE, she was division head of the geotechnical engineering program, and University provost at the Istanbul Technical University (ITU) and the civil engineering department chair at MEF University in Istanbul. After a 7.6 magnitude earthquake in Turkey in 1999, Ural led a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant and established the Center of Excellence for Disaster Management at Istanbul Technical University, and was director of it for six years.

Pacific Gas & Electric’s Williams never felt discrimination while studying at the CoE. “I had great professors at the U,” she says. “They didn’t care that I was a woman. All they cared about was that I demonstrated mastery in the coursework.” Although Williams recognizes that engineering can be a challenging area of study, she was never uncomfortable in a male-dominated environment. While she doesn’t consider herself a pioneer with regard to women ascending in engineering, she does understand the significance of being the first Latina to lead a Fortune 500 company. “I think it’s more important to ask how to make sure that I’m not the last,” she points out.

The only time VeigaMilton recalls being singled out as a women engineer was when she was working with a team of all men at BellSouth. “I was completely a minority being a woman, but it didn’t bother me,” she says. “Everything is always the perspective you have, and my attitude was, ‘I’m not going to be scared off!’” One day, her boss was leading a meeting, and, knowing there was one woman in the room, he joked, “I guess I’m going to have to moderate how I talk.” Apparently, he was prone to colorful language. “I said, no, don’t mind me,’” VeigaMilton says. But he took a more professional tone in every meeting after that – whether or not she was there. “I think I inspired a higher level of behavior,” she says.

Needed: Encouragement, Mentoring and Fun

While these women have been trailblazers, they all feel women need more encouragement to pursue engineering careers. VeigaMilton believes this includes educating men. “We can’t only be focused on working with our fellow women,” she says. “We need to teach men to see women as equal – the women already get it!” In that regard, VeigaMilton focuses on teaching her sons to respect women’s capacity to succeed in engineering and science, academically and professionally – there’s nothing boys can do that girls can’t do.

There’s consensus that girls should be encouraged at the K-12 level to build more and engage more in science (even to watch more science fiction movies). VeigaMilton says girls and women need to know that if they can solve problems, they can become engineers. Ural, who believes mentoring is key to encouraging more women to pursue engineering, volunteers in her daughter’s elementary school, talking to the girls about what she does and making it clear that they can do it, too.

For girls (and boys) of all ages, it also helps to make science and engineering hands-on and fun. “If you find problems that you are interested in, you’ll want to spend time thinking about them,” Coverstone says. “Engineering is identifying the problem and fixing it with the resources you have available. We get scared off by the way the math is made scary in middle school or high school. Progress has been made but there’s still a way to go.”

Like Ural, Williams sees mentoring as mission-critical. When she first started out in the energy industry, there weren’t people like her running any companies, certainly not women, Latinas or, in her words, “immigrants from Cuba whose parents were refugees, and who scraped together a working-class living running a neighborhood grocery store.” For her to see her potential, it took a mentor asking, “Why not you?” “Young women need mentors in their lives who help them see where the best opportunities are,” she says. “They need mentors who remind them to take the tough jobs. As more women occupy leadership roles in engineering and related fields, more women will be inspired to pursue this career path.”

It’s imperative that they do. Science, technology, engineering and math careers are full of potential to make a meaningful difference for the future. And, even in non-tech companies, more managers than ever are coming from engineering backgrounds.

With two new women in key leadership positions at the College of Engineering and two women engineers as new members of the Board of Trustees, the University of Miami is certainly standing on the side of progress.

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