Going to school in the heart of Silicon Valley, I am exposed to many women who are breaking into the male-dominated world of engineering. I've heard speakers, such as Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, explain that our society needs more women in the technology and engineering fields. This push seems very natural to me and is one that I fully support.
And then I start thinking about the love of my life, racing, and how it plays into the women-in-engineering dilemma. NASCAR has implemented programs to get more women not only into the driver's seat, but also behind the pit wall (crew members, engineers, officials, etc.).
I'm obviously personally invested in seeing more women drivers in racing, but as a woman getting a Bachelor of Science degree in Stanford's Science, Technology, and Society department, I love seeing women in the engineering side of racing as well.
The racing industry is certainly following the lead of Silicon Valley's Google, Facebook, and IDEO, all of which have female engineers in many positions throughout their respective companies. We see female engineers in NASCAR at General Motors, in Le Mans at Audi, and in Formula 1 at Marussia Virgin Racing, to highlight a few. This is so cool!
Alba Colon, now the NASCAR Sprint Cup Program Manager for General Motors and Chevrolet, began working as an engineer at GM in 1994, fresh out of college in Puerto Rico. I had the pleasure of listening to her speak at one of Lyn St. James' Women in the Winner's Circle events, and she pointed out that she wanted to know everything there was to know about the engineering of racecars, and that motivation propelled her.
Gemma Lawrence is a control systems engineer at Formula 1's Marussia Virgin Racing team. She got an early start in "numbers and engineering" through the support of her parents, working on her dad's racecar and having her mom guide her in fixing her own pedal car. Lawrence has an extensive professional engineering career before joining Marussia, working as a transmission dyno engineer at the Renault F1 team, and an R&D engineer at Honda F1 team.
Leena Gade made history this past June as the first female engineer to win a Le Mans race! She did so with Audi Autosport, after spending four years climbing through the team's engineering ranks. Like Colon and Lawrence, Gade has always been interested in mechanics and engineering. In an interview with Forbes, Gade said, "I've always been interested in engineering. As a kid I would take things apart and put them back together from a mechanical point of view."
I have only worked with one female engineer. Kate Gundlach was the data engineer at John Walko Racing in the Star Mazda series when I tested with the team a few years ago. Up to that point I had only worked with male engineers and was therefore expecting working with Gundlach to be a new experience. It wasn't. The only difference in working with a female engineer, in my experience, was that she had a long ponytail. Gundlach knew her stuff, was purely focused on her job, and we were really fast that day at a track in Pennsylvania.
The common denominator with these women is that they discovered their passion for engineering and ran with it! These women didn't let the various deterring factors of the field of engineering turn them off.
And that's the powerful message here. Once you recognize your passion, grab it by the horns and make it happen. If you need help, ask for it. If you need support, find it from the people around you. There's no reason that women shouldn't do what they love, and what they're good at, because it's currently in a male-dominated field.
Marissa Mayer, engineer at Google, stated in a previous The Huffington Post article that early in their lives women and girls are exposed to narrow, unappealing images of engineers. This is problematic because we live in a society where females are generally expected to be attractive -- therefore, the message that most girls and women get from society doesn't support a technical career path.
So we need to combat that image! Let's present engineering and other technical fields as the very deep, stimulating, difficult, challenging, and rewarding fields that anyone who's interested in should join.
And hey, "nerd" doesn't have to be a negative thing. Instead of focusing on the first half of the Merriam-Webster definition, which defines a nerd as "an unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept person," we should focus on the second half of the definition: someone "devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits."
Devotion to anything is incredibly attractive -- and supremely powerful.