THE BLOG
09/02/2014 03:54 pm ET Updated Nov 02, 2014

What Women in Engineering Are Saying in the South

What does a discussion among women engineers sound like in U.S. Southeast? The South is not a region identified as a hub of STEM careers for women, but the massive influx of international manufacturers and their vendors has rapidly changed the landscape. This discussion was recently held in the office of the Interim Dean at the College of Engineering and Computer Sciences/ University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. The dialogue highlighted issues of career choices, work-life balance, and STEM education. The participants are currently working in the SE Tennessee and North Georgia region, but their conversation should resonate widely.

THE PARTICIPANTS

  • Dr. Neslihan Alp: Interim Dean - UTC College of Engineering and Computer Sciences. She has a an industrial engineering degree and a degree in Engineering Management. Dr. Alp is a pioneer in the field of online learning and is currently engaged in revamping the college's educational structure.
  • LuLu Copeland: Manager, Extended Technical Education & Training, Engineering Technology Division at Chattanooga State Technical Community College. She coordinates training with the college and the Wacker Institute. Wacker Polysilicon is a German chemical manufacturing company that is opening a Tennessee plant. LuLu has a masters degree in Engineering Management and was the convener of this meeting.
  • Jill Schauer and Shane Wood: Accellent Inc., a chemical engineering facility with a workforce of 5,000 employees. Jill is Director of Operations of the Georgia plant dealing with clients such as Johnson & Johnson and Meditronics. She has a degree in chemical engineering and Lean Six-Sigma certification. Shane is the Engineering Manager with dual degrees in engineering and liberal arts/communications who is also working on a Masters degree in Bio-medical Engineering.
  • Kim Stone: Production Superintendent, Specialty Catalysts at W. R. Grace & Co., a Materials Facility of catalysts to oil companies world wide. Kim has a degree in chemical engineering and Six Sigma certification. She worked for Dow Chemical in Texas before relocating to Georgia.

Several panelists had previous jobs with major companies such as Dow Chemical and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Jobs brought some of the panelists to the Southeast from around the country. Others are native to the region. All are STEM pioneers in the Southern environment.

WORK-LIFE MANAGEMENT
The first issue raised in the conversation was regional transportation and its relationship to work-life balance. They pointed out that workers in the South drive long distances for technical jobs with international companies, often 60 miles each way. Yet, public transportation is minimal, with virtually no commuter trains and no high-speed rail. Given the lack of infrastructure and transportation, there is a tremendous burden on women with families. The group agreed that the changing economy and diverse workforce requires commuter trains, preferably high-speed trains, across the region: Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee.

The solitariness of the engineering path for women was explored at length. Also discussed was the importance of maintaining connections with women colleagues from around the country. There was awareness that women engineers who are working in the region want more opportunity to communicate and network locally. Reaching out and having regular meetings was a priority. Somehow that networking needs to be done more consistently, despite frustrating time issues.

Several local women engineers who were not present, recently shared their perspectives on the challenge of time and work-life balance. Here is one of the responses to being pictured with the caption, "Engineer by day, supermom by night."

"I am a mom all the time. The phrase "Engineer by day, supermom by night" gives the impression that there is such a thing as a 'part-time mom' or motherhood is something you squeeze in after work or just do on the side for fun. I don't like the idea of a separation of the two.  Being and engineer is my career that supports my top priorities, being my family and my faith.  I think engineering problem-solving has made me a better mom/wife.  I can set schedules, accomplish many tasks in a day, fix broken toys, and design and build playgrounds, "house beds," doll houses, race car tracks or whatever else my creative kiddos can dream up (just a few examples)."

Agreeing with this approach, the dialogue participants shared a vision where the multiple roles of women are seen as assets to companies, not obstacles. "The workforce is growing and women engineers wear so many hats. They are excellent jugglers. The culture is recognizing what we women are capable of doing and embrace female engineers. We need to be more visible and do this together." Implementing such changes, particularly in the culture of STEM higher education, is a major goal for Dr Alp.

ENGINEERS BY CHANCE
The degrees held by the participants are impressive. They include degrees in Chemical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Industrial Engineering, and Engineering Management. One of the group is pursuing an advanced degree in Biomedical Engineering, emerging as a growing field in the region. Others have achieved Six Sigma certifications. Several take advantage of training offered onsite or online. Ongoing learning was a common thread of the conversation.

Despite their dedication and impressive degrees, their personal pursuit of engineering careers were often haphazard and circuitous. Several went into engineering with very little idea of what the field actually entailed. Advice of high school counselors was often sketchy, with the counselors having limited understanding themselves. In one case, the area of engineering was determined by engineering parents who felt that women would encounter more discrimination in certain fields such as mechanical engineering.

Commenting on the discussion, Lulu Copland noted that "Seemingly everyone wandered into the engineering career. Engineering, even for these women in leadership, has been by accident. Until that changes, the percentage of women of women in STEM fields can't rise to the level we'd like to see."

Arguing for a major change in perception of women engineers, the dialogue participants share a vision where the multiple roles of women are seen as assets to companies, not obstacles. "The workforce is growing and women engineers wear so many hats. They are excellent jugglers. The culture is recognizing what we women are capable of doing and embrace female engineers. We need to be more visible and do this together." Implementing such changes, particularly in the culture of STEM higher education, is a major goal for Dr Neslihan Alp.

HIGH-PERFORMING RISK TAKERS
Dr. Alp is an example of the kind of high-performing women that go into STEM careers. Born in Istanbul, she attended French schools and spoke French before she spoke English. She arrived in the United States in 1994 in her 20s to get her doctorate. Her family back in Turkey was concerned about how Nesli would be treated, especially given her distinctive, strong accent.

She had never seen a computer before but worked day and night to excel. Nesli pioneered the use of online learning programs. Impressing the faculty, she was invited to stay for her post-doctoral work. Upon becoming an assistant professor at UTC in 1999, one of the youngest on the faculty, she discovered that she was pregnant. She never missed a day of work with the first or the second child. Achieving tenure, she became a Department head, and then, Assistant Dean. Today, Dr. Alp is the first international and the first woman to be made Interim Dean at the college.

WORDS OF ADVICE
Dr. Alp has these words of encouragement for American students that reflect her journey, "They are fortunate to be in the U.S. and can go to college. Without an education, you can't do anything. In Turkey, they kill each other to get a college degree. Don't let a road block shape your future."

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