I graduated college in 2002, during the construction industry recession created by the economic repercussions of 9/11. The semester before I graduated, I drove to interviews in Washington DC and New York City. I prepared a week in advance, researching the companies I’d be interviewing at, practicing my responses to common questions, and making sure my clothing would be flawless and project confidence.
The interviews always seemed to go well, and I used all the proper protocol for follow-up, including thank you notes and emails sent within 24 hours of the interview. “You aren’t the right fit,” I was told after the New York City interview. “We’d like to hire you, but we’re not sure if we’re going to hire anyone in this economic climate,” those in DC told me. I waited in vain for a job offer to appear.
Newly married, and with our first home purchased and my husband already working in a nearby firm, I took matters into my own hands. I wrote letters and enclosed my resume, sending them out to every local engineering firm owner (regardless of if they had an opening or not), and followed up with phone calls and emails to set up a meeting. Most didn’t even respond, and the silence of rejection was deafening. The ones that did respond said “We aren’t looking to hire right now, but we’ll keep you in mind if that changes.”
Weren’t engineers supposed to be in demand? Wasn’t it supposed to be easier that this to find a job?
One of my friends, Natalie, was going to work at a company in Texas where she had interned the previous two summers. She mentioned that they were looking to hire additional engineers, and if I was interested she would send them my resume. I said yes and sent here a copy of my resume to forward on.
A couple weeks later, I had a phone interview. A week after that, I had my first job offer.
“What are we going to do?” I remember saying to my husband, who had been working at his employer in Pennsylvania for about a year. “We just bought our condo, and the one offer I have is thousands of miles away.”
We decided that we would put the condo up for sale, I’d move to Texas, and he would stay at his job in Pennsylvania until the condo was sold and then follow me to Texas and find a job.
Never having set foot in Texas before and not knowing anything about the city of Dallas, I ended up taking up residence in an extended-stay hotel during those first few months while I looked for an apartment. It was right across the street from a What-a-Burger, which became my go-to for a quick meal after work. The smells of red meat and spicy curly fries would drift out into the air and make my mouth water as I walked from the train stop to the hotel.
I was so nervous that first day at work, and quickly realized my error in trying to walk to and from the train stop in a pair of new heels. Yet, I remember waiting for the train that first day, feeling like I’d “made it” and was finally a grown up as I stood in my suit with all the other adults going to important jobs. I also remember arriving at 7:45 and waiting for 45 minutes shivering in the cool January air until the doors to the office were opened because I didn’t realize that the office opened at 8:30 instead of 8:00am.
My first day on the job, I took notice of the funky, industrial, open-office floorplan that was my new home. There was conversation, comradery, and even a lunchtime café at the 1000-person +/- office. I enjoyed being introduced to the other engineers, and thankful that everyone seemed personable and welcoming. There were even a number of “Yankee” engineers from Pennsylvania.
I also quickly noticed that Natalie and I were the only female engineers in the engineering department, but I didn’t think much of it. There were many women in our major (it was about 40/60 the year I graduated), and I’d never seen any behavior during college that made me think women in engineering was unusual.
I found an apartment, about 30 minutes out of town that was pet-friendly for our 2 cats and dog who would also be coming with my husband from Pennsylvania. I have always enjoyed baking and sharing my baking with others, so to say I was excited to have a real kitchen after the first two months in a hotel was an understatement. The aromas of chocolate, sugar, vanilla, and fresh-baked bread often fill my house to this day.
One evening, I baked some fudge brownies. Not wanting to sabotage my newly-found gym habit and devour the entire pan by myself, I brought the brownies to work and placed them in the snack area. It wasn’t at all unusual for other engineers to bring in baked goods, and the only comment would be a thank-you. But when one of the senior engineers in the department tasted one of my brownies, he commented, “This is why we need women in the department.”
My jaw dropped. I swallowed my astonishment, muttered a “thank-you,” and slunk back to my desk.
In hindsight, I’m sure he didn’t mean anything explicitly sexist by this comment. I went on to work with him on many projects (and I would add that he is a great engineer and I learned a lot from him), but his comment stuck.
A few months later, at a lunch-and-learn seminar I was attending, an architectural firm principal was asked a question regarding diversity of the leadership. Specifically, he was asked why there weren’t any female principals. He responded, “We did have one. She chose her family over work… At some point, you will have to choose.”
I was, once again, blindsided. It had never occurred to me that I couldn’t do both. After all, most of the men I worked with had families too.
At the end of that presentation, I remember sneaking out of the back of the room, running to the restroom, and locking myself in a stall to cry. I remember standing in that stall, hearing the air conditioning kick on, and the toilet flushing in the adjacent stall, while trying to cry as silently as possible so no one else in the restroom would know I was being “emotional.” I worked hard to project my competent, confident persona, and I wasn’t about to derail it by crying in front of my new coworkers.
That evening, my husband talked me out of quitting engineering altogether.
Two years later, I had completed the structural engineering design for a small addition at a local elementary school. As part of our services, we periodically visit our construction sites to observe the work. This was my first-ever site visit as a solo representative of my employer on a project I had designed.
Clad in a hardhat, steel toed boots, and wearing safety glasses and a vest, I arrived at the job trailer to introduce myself to the contractor with whom I had corresponded but not yet met. It was summer in Texas, and we both kicked up a cloud of dust as we walked about towards the construction site. As ambled along, he said (in an apparent attempt to make small talk) “You must be an engineer because your dad or brother own the firm. We don’t see many women engineers here.”
Flabbergasted by his statement and not knowing what else to do, I laughed it off and quickly corrected that assumption.
The following year, my husband and I were able to find jobs in Pennsylvania and moved back to be closer to our families. I passed my engineering licensure exam. I became pregnant with my first child (a girl) and had planned to take a three month unpaid leave with her. We planned meticulously — both at work and at home — in preparation for her arrival.
A month after she was born, my husband was laid off from his job. It was winter 2008, and the Great Recession was starting to hit the construction industry hard. I was now the sole breadwinner for our family, and he was home with the baby while still looking for a job.
Needless to say, I went back to work earlier than anticipated. We had expected to be down one income during my leave and had planned accordingly, but had never expected to lose both incomes! My husband found a job a few months later, and the baby was enrolled in daycare.
Two and a half years later, I took a second maternity leave for the birth of my second daughter. I took three months of (unpaid) leave. Dropping a 3 month old off at daycare was hard, but her big sister seemed to have adjusted OK so I pushed down any mommy guilt and reminded myself how lucky I was to have my family and a career I enjoyed.
With two children in a high-quality daycare center and two working professionals as parents, we fell into a solid routine. As time went on (and all children started sleeping), I gained new-found confidence in my abilities, both at work and at home. I was exercising again and challenging myself physically. At work, I taught myself how to network (I’m an introvert, so this was challenging!) and volunteered for stretch assignments. I was on top of the world, with both my career and personal life in order.
Then everything changed. My husband’s father was diagnosed with a very rare form of incurable stage 4 cancer, less than 2 years after he had retired. And I found out that the “flu” that I couldn’t shake that November was really a third pregnancy.
Neither was expected, and both took a long time to wrap my head around. My husband took his father to Johns Hopkins for experimental treatments and visited his dad every chance he could (they lived almost 4 hours away). Meanwhile, I wondered how we were going to handle a third child on top of everything else.
When I returned to work after leave with the third child, work was much busier than it had been the other two times. Nevertheless, I buckled down and worked as much as I needed to meet deadlines. I made the hours between 5–8pm sacred time I spent with my family, but as soon as the kids were in bed I’d pull out my laptop (a birthday gift from my husband that year so I could spend less time at the office in the evenings) and get back to work.
I was working harder and harder, but I felt like I was spinning in circles. It didn’t matter how hard I worked, there was always more. Keeping my head down and working harder wasn’t working for me anymore.
I was exhausted, yet busy with getting stuff done both at work and home. My husband was gone a lot for either work or to help his dad. I was fearful that if I brought up my workload to my boss — especially so soon after returning from leave — I’d be told I just needed to manage my time better or it would be blamed on the fact I am a working mother. I was the only full-time woman with young kids working there at the time.
So, I started geeking out on productivity guides, sought out mentors, and figured out how I could maximize every hour of the day. I would read everything I could hands on the subject while I was nursing the baby at night, or anytime I had a spare moment.
My husband’s dad passed away when the baby was 6 months old. His plan to relax and enjoy the fruits of his labors during retirement never happened. He did all the “right” things — he worked as a teacher his whole life, lived frugally, had a pension, and retired as soon as he was eligible. None of that matters when you’re gone too soon.
It was now 2016. I had developed a series of routines now that my youngest was one. I continued to geek out on anything related to productivity at work, as well as leadership development topics. I had noticed that things that seemed to work for other engineers didn’t work for me. At first, I assumed it was just due to personality differences, experience, or something I was doing wrong.
Then, I started noticing that it wasn’t just me, and thought back to some of my earlier experiences. For example, if there were two women sitting in a meeting, they would both be constantly interrupted when they spoke. I was once told that I was “good at documentation” (because surely that’s what every engineer wants to be good at). I’ve been told I was “pushy” or that I needed to “cooperate” with a difficult client, yet when my male colleagues demonstrated the exact same behavior appeared to be rewarded.
So, I started doing more research to crack the code. What was I specifically doing that was getting pushback? What could I do to achieve the results I wanted at work? I tried a lot of things that didn’t work, and some that did. Some of these things were specific to being a woman in a male-dominated field — particularly communication — and others about how to find and focus on tasks related to business outcomes, since those are most tied to promotions and success at work.
I also learned that “busy” didn’t equal productive, and started developing better habits. I uncovered mounds of data that indicated I wasn’t alone in my experiences, particularly which the typical career development advice that works for men often backfired for women, especially in male-dominated fields. I learned and tested what could be done instead, and put that information to use at work.
Those efforts paid off, and I earned a promotion that year.
That fall, I was attending an evening awards event for architectural and engineering design projects. At the event, I literally bumped into a stranger as I worked my way towards the drink station in the packed venue and found myself in work-related conversation with him. After a few minutes of small talk and discussion of the projects which were up for awards, we exchanged business cards. He looked at mine and said:
“I wouldn’t have thought you are an engineer.”
What is that supposed to mean? I thought to myself, as I relayed the story to my coworkers. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard something similar, and certainly not the first time someone had been surprised when I told them what I did.
I also attended two industry conferences that year. One was technical, and one was an engineering leadership conference. During each conference, I found myself in a group of women having this discussion: “So what is it really like to be a female engineer?”
Many of the women talked about developing a thick skin, learning to brush off sexist comments, and trying to act like “one of the guys.” Very often I was the only one in the group with one young child — let alone more than one. Very often I was greeted with surprise when my children came up, and I was asked to explain how it was possible to have multiple small children while working as an engineer.
During the leadership conference, there was a session that forced you to take a look at your strengths and your long-term career goals. That was the very first time anyone in my career had ever asked me what I wanted to do long-term.
I had been so busy getting things done and maximizing productivity at work that I hadn’t stopped to contemplate any options besides putting one foot in front of the other and climbing the next rung in the career ladder. I also realized that, while my anonymous feedback survey indicated I was very good at my job, I wasn’t really using or developing several of my strengths, including writing, mentoring, and strategic planning.
It was now January 2017, and my oldest daughter had started working on her second grade hard-back book project. One day we talked about how I had always enjoyed writing as a kid and intended to write a book one day. “Mommy,” she said. “Why don’t you write it now? I can do mine and you can do yours. We’ll write our books together.” I remember laughing it off, saying I’d be happy to help her with hers, but I didn’t have time for my own.
A week later, I received an email about an online self-publishing book class where you could write and publish your book in 90 days or less if you followed the steps. This seemed more than a coincidence.
And so began the beginning of a journey that would change my life.
Work never got less busy, nor did life at home become less chaotic. But when you are determined, you make things happen. I wrote before and after work, and occasionally over my lunch break. My husband picked up much of the housework and child-chauffeuring so I could write. I documented all the things I had learned and studied throughout my career, writing my book not just for the women my three girls will become (should they choose to become engineers), but in memory of my grandfather, the only other engineer in the family until he passed away 3 months before the book was published.
Everything I had learned I poured into that book.
It took me about 9 months (with a 3 month break during the extra-busy construction-season summer months), and She Engineers was born. We had 1000 downloads in the first week of publication, and I now had a passive income stream and received several unsolicited requests to speak to young professionals and women in engineering.
Almost immediately following book publication, I realized that it wasn’t possible to continue down my current path. Despite using all the tools in my arsenal, there were simply not enough hours of the day to work, market/sell/speak/respond to readers about the book, and be present for my family.
My corporate career was safe, stable, and (mostly) enjoyable. I was good at it. It paid the bills.
Yet, when the alarm went off in the morning, I was jumping out of bed to see if anyone had reached out to me about the book, or working on my next speech. I couldn’t wait to help other female engineers with their own journeys, and share the things I had learned the hard way so they didn’t have to.
So, six months ago, and with the savings we’d built over the years and the full support of my family and the mentors I have surrounded myself with, I decided to take the full-time plunge into entrepreneurship.
I wasn’t going to wait until I retired to follow my dreams.
I have control over both my income and when and where I work. I don’t suffer from mommy guilt since I work while the kids are in school and after they go to bed.
Equally important, I have a plan to impact 100,000 female engineers through my business.
Will you come with me on this new journey?