Starting out in a career dominated by men can be daunting. When I began my career, engineering was a particularly male orientated profession. My university, Princeton, had only just started admitting women a few years before, and almost none chose to study mechanical and aerospace engineering.
However, I was fortunate in that my father was a nuclear physicist, and from an early age I was immersed in the wonderful world of math, science, and engineering. To me, gender didn't matter--with four brothers at home, I was used to competing with boys. Why should they have all the fun?
I'm sure that there are people who are skeptical that a woman can do this job as well as a man, but I am blissfully unaware of such people -- or have been gifted with the ability to ignore them completely. As I moved into chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, I enjoyed the support of many people, especially my PhD advisor, Harvey Blanch, and did not fret about the others who were more skeptical.
I also turned the high visibility I had as a rare woman engineer into an advantage in order to obtain an assistant professorship at Caltech, a small but amazing jewel of a research and educational institution. My timing could not have been better: in the 1980s society was finally beginning to recognize that women faculty were needed to attract talented women into STEM fields. I was the 9th woman ever hired on the Caltech (California Institute of Technology) faculty. Now, twenty-eight years later, there are at least 60 (out of approximately 300).
At Caltech, we believe in tackling the most challenging problems in engineering and science, and we have some of the brightest students in the world. Thus as a young engineer at Caltech I was encouraged to have big ambitions, and maybe I was completely naïve about how big mine actually were. But that is how big things happen. It was the beginning of the genetic engineering revolution, when we were just learning how to manipulate DNA, the code of life. I wanted to rewrite the code of life to make molecular machines and organisms that would solve human problems.
I have a fantastic job that I would not trade for any other, and I tell that to women every day. But it is fair to say that the engineering profession still has not come far enough in terms of attracting women. We seem to have plateaued. Obviously, this must change if we are to meet the growing demand for STEM graduates in an age that increasingly relies on technology to solve key problems.
The fastest growing occupations in the coming years will be in industries which rely on STEM skills. In order for us to meet this demand we need to shake off the narrow image of engineers as exclusively male, hard-hatted, and overall-clad. We need to ensure the next generation of women engineers and scientists see the benefits of pursuing such a rewarding career. Not only that, we need to celebrate the many outstanding contributions women in science and engineering make.
Young women shouldn't wait to be invited or encouraged to make a career in engineering, they should just do it! Engineers solve problems, and women are great at that. Sometimes they take a very different route than the men, and they are especially good at hearing what others have to say. In my experience, great engineering is almost always a team activity, and having women on the team makes it perform better.
I am aware of the problems facing young women breaking into the field, and of their fears. But I encourage all women with ambition to come solve the great problems we face: climate change, energy, environment, healthcare--basically how do we provide a better life to 7 billion people without destroying our beautiful planet? We cannot do it without you.