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Women of color in engineering: progress, but still a long way to go

An engineering career can be a challenging road for women of color. But the road less traveled can provide unique vistas

“Women have management and emotional IQ we can use to our advantage. Being a person of color gives you cultural capital. Embrace that difference and use it to help your career.” – Nive Majumdar, Life Technologies

In 1976, Shirley Malcom, Paula Hall and Janet Brown conducted a landmark study for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). In their report, “The Double Bind: The Price of Being a Minority Woman in Science,” they focused national attention on the challenges that women of color faced in science careers, as well as in the years leading up to their careers. Dr Malcom, now head of the directorate for education and human resources programs at the AAAS (www.aaas.org), observes that the double bind is no less problematic today.

“The numbers are not good for women of color in engineering and IT. We were making good progress for a while, but then the numbers started going south again. And the biggest problem with low numbers is the low numbers. A critical mass is necessary for any kind of profound change.”

Malcom cites the propensity of statistics to vacillate only marginally over time. According to National Science Foundation (NSF) data, underrepresented minority women show a participatory rate in these fields of 3.1 percent in 2008. In 2002, the rate was 3.7 percent. Through her work at AAAS, Malcom seeks to reverse that trend.

“Many people credit mentors. And most successful women have several mentors along the way. Mentors are important, but I think the role of community may be more important. Building community that can support study through mentoring is the way to go,” says Malcom.

Pam Jones is a lead software engineer at the Linthicum, MD site of Northrop Grumman (Falls Church, VA). She’s also chair of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ (IEEE) Women in Engineering (WIE), the largest international professional organization dedicated to promoting women engineers and scientists. “I sanctioned a survey of WIE members to find out how women engineers felt about the issues they faced,” she reports.

The results were surprising, she says. One of the women’s requests was for programs that would help them stay in the field long-term. “It was one of the top ten initiatives they wanted IEEE WIE to pursue,” Jones says. “There was quite a high percentage, particularly among minority women, who left the profession after putting so much time and energy into their education and advancement.” Jones adds, “One non-surprise was that women wanted increased visibility for women and minorities in engineering.”

Jones sees “filling the pipeline” with qualified minority candidates as a critical next step. She believes role models, mentors, and education make a big difference. And efforts are mounting. WIE recently published an e-book, I Change the World. I am an Engineer, profiling exceptional women engineers. Jones also points to the work of fellow WIE member Dr Karen Panetta and her organization NerdGirls (www.nerdgirls.org), a nonprofit dedicated to “breaking the stigmas and stereotypes of women in engineering.”

Women of color have demonstrated tremendous grit and resolve, pursuing engineering careers despite complex obstacles. Sadly, the number of women of color in engineering has not increased as greatly as many hoped. But the ten women featured here demonstrate tremendous leadership, innovation and key contributions to the field.

Urvashi Rau researches algorithms for radio telescopes at NRAO
As an assistant scientist in computational sciences at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO, Charlottesville, VA), Urvashi Rau researches image-reconstruction algorithms for broadband radio telescopes. She’s also part of the scientific software team that is developing the Common Astronomy Software Applications data analysis package for radio telescope users at NRAO and around the world.

In 2002, Rau earned undergraduate degrees in physics and computer science from the Birla Institute of Technology and Science (Pilani, India). She went on to earn a 2004 MS in computer science from the University of California-San Diego, and a PhD in physics in 2010 from New Mexico Tech (Socorro, NM). She did two internships at the National Centre for Radio Astrophysics (Pune, India), an internship at Texas Instruments (Bangalore, India), and another at NRAO in Socorro. Rau joined the NRAO scientific staff after she finished her PhD.

Mentors and confidence: keys to success
Rau emphasizes the importance of internships and mentors. She also believes the technical nature of science and engineering makes a difference for women.

“I was fortunate to have mentors who encouraged me to pursue my interests. No one said anything should be different because I’m a woman,” Rau says. “And this is a technical field, where it is relatively easy to evaluate a person’s performance. If you are confident about what you do, you’ll be okay.”

Rau mentors summer students at NRAO. She also gives alumni lectures at her undergrad college in India, hoping to introduce young people to research and engineering as a career option. “Students have said that it’s encouraging to see a woman talking about a technical career.”

DIA engineer and intelligence officer Jamie Guy: mentors and motivation
Jamie E. Guy is an intelligence officer and general engineer for the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA, Washington, DC), where she assesses the structural response of facilities to the effects of weapons systems. She also conducts research on physical vulnerability and writes technical assessments.

Guy received a bachelors degree in 1997 in civil engineering from the Catholic University of America (Washington, DC). She earned her MS in strategic intelligence in 2012 from the National Intelligence University (Washington, DC).

Many differences, but not in treatment
Guy noticed something distinctive about her field from the start. “I was one of only two women at my first job after college. I was also the youngest person. And I was the only African American in the office. But despite being a double minority, I never felt I was treated differently.”

Guy credits mentors who took her “under their wings” and encouraged her to build strong networks and take advantage of career opportunities. With that guidance and lots of motivation, she advanced quickly.

Now Guy uses her experience to help others. She represented DIA at the National Society of Black Engineers in 2006, and participates actively at her children’s schools, introducing younger students to engineering.

Guy is passionate about her work. But she’s equally passionate about the company she keeps. “There are lots of avenues for professional development at DIA for people who want to learn and grow. Although I love what I do, the best thing about my job is the people I work with. We’re a good team.”

Industrial engineer Sheryl Clark oversees Coca-Cola plants and warehouses
Sheryl Clark is director of manufacturing at the Coca-Cola Company (Atlanta, GA). She’s responsible for eight manufacturing site operations in the company’s east region. She makes certain these plants and warehouses stay on target in areas like quality, safety, cost and delivery. And she has led several high-profile region-level projects.

Clark earned a BS in industrial engineering in 1993 from the Georgia Institute of Technology (Atlanta, GA). “Georgia Tech was great preparation for an engineering career. But when I first started out, it was a shock to be one of the few women, and fewer women of color.” Taking advantage of Georgia Tech’s co-op program, Clark spent five quarters working at Lockheed Aeronautical Systems in Marietta, GA (now part of Lockheed Martin), learning about “true industrial engineering work.”

Co-op and mentoring smooth the path to success
“My co-op experience helped me land a great job with Procter & Gamble (Cincinnati, OH) right out of school. I had a fantastic manager who became my mentor. Her guidance helped me overcome many obstacles,” she remembers.

Clark rose through the ranks at Procter & Gamble for the next six years, eventually becoming a logistics manager. She joined the Home Depot in Cobb County, GA in 2000. Four years later, a friend showed her an ad for a job at Coca-Cola. She’s been with the company ever since.

Clark knows that mentors and networking played important roles in her career, but she believes informal mentors are as important as formal mentoring programs.

“I have several people within the organization I spend time with and provide guidance to,” she says. “For the last three years I haven’t been as involved in mentoring younger women as I have in the past, though. I’ve got a blended family with three kids, so it’s hard to strike a balance between work and career. But I have a lot of passion for reaching back.”

Valarie Mackey leads IT for HR at Coca-Cola
Valarie Mackey is also a woman in technology at the Coca-Cola Company. Mackey is the IT global solutions leader for human resources, overseeing all IT solutions for HR at the company. In addition, she’s responsible for the career development of her staff, a job she takes very seriously.

In 1998 Mackey graduated from North Carolina A&T State University (Greensboro, NC) with a BS in industrial engineering. After completing three co-op assignments and two internships, Mackey felt well prepared for the professional world. “The co-op jobs and internships were one significant reason I had options when I graduated. I had lots of really good offers straight out of college.”

Mackey worked as a consultant for a number of years, but eventually decided it was “time to come off the road. I found my way to Coke through my informal professional network. I liked the culture. I liked the people. So I began as a program manager in HR.”

Supports and challenges
Mackey says Coca-Cola provides an exemplary environment for women, including a network of diversity councils and business resource groups. Mackey serves as program and events chairperson for the Global Business and Technology Services Group, part of the Coca-Cola women’s business resource group. She is Coca-Cola’s advocate for Girls Get IT, a program of Georgia’s Women in Technology (WIT) organization. She’s also a graduate of WIT’s executive readiness program.

Mackey remembers the double bind from the beginning of her career. “Being a woman of color was a double barrier. But that only made me work harder,” she explains. “For example, there was a network of guys who would get together and play golf after work. It was an informal buddy network that I was not a part of. I wanted to be part of those informal business conversations, so I learned to play golf.”

Mackey acknowledges that mentors, a supportive family and networking were key, but there was another element. “Careers demand time and energy. It’s very important to love what you do, because things can get tough. A passion for what you do will get you through the tough times.”

Nereida Corona directs R&D, quality and innovation strategy at Kraft
Nereida Corona is the associate director for research, development, quality and innovation (RDQI) strategy at Kraft Foods Group, Inc (Northfield, IL). She develops the RDQI functional strategy in support of the corporation’s goals. She is also working on a process improvement project that reevaluates Kraft’s innovation process from strategy through each stage of development.

“I’ve had the opportunity to prove myself in various roles with increasing responsibility across different parts of the business, and I’ve grown from these experiences,” she says.

Born in Michoacán, Mexico, Corona split her early years between Mexico and the U.S., returning to the States for high school. She attended Illinois Institute of Technology (Chicago, IL), and joined Kraft as a summer intern in 1994. She earned her BS in chemical engineering in 1995, then returned to Kraft as an associate engineer. In 2004 she graduated from the University of Chicago with an MBA in organizational behavior, marketing and finance.

Great achievements and a strategy for success
Corona has worked overseas for Kraft, and handled signature Kraft brands, and has received numerous leadership and achievement awards. She’s actively involved with the Kraft Foods Latino Council (KFLC), where she serves as an advisor and group mentor for KFLC’s mentoring program.

“I try not to pay attention to the differences anymore. At first, I always took note of how many other women were in the room. And I had to build credibility and overcome perceptions that I might not be as qualified as the men. Fortunately, I knew I was qualified and was confident in my abilities.

“Women today must be strategic. Develop new skills that are in demand. Study the culture and pay attention to what is rewarded. Keep an open mind and learn from everyone.”

Kraft diversity and community involvement vice president James E. Norman underscores Corona’s belief in the value of diversity. “We want to be North America’s best food and beverage company. Our talented women bring unique perspectives and experiences to the table, which enable us to create innovative products diverse consumers will enjoy.”

Marla L. Wright: project manager at Bechtel
Project manager Marla Wright handles virtually every project task, from engineering oversight to resource management. Wright has been with engineering and construction firm Bechtel (San Francisco, CA) for twenty years, and credits the company with providing an environment where her skills and talent are rewarded.

“Engineering in general does not have the greatest representation of people of color or women. But Bechtel has always demonstrated a commitment to a culture of diversity and inclusion. I’ve had great support from peers and management, and I’ve never noticed any difference in how I’ve been treated.”

Wright received a 1993 BS in mechanical engineering from Northwestern University (Evanston, IL). She was the only African American woman ME in her class. She praises Northwestern for preparing her well for the professional world, citing the university’s “excellent” minority engineering program. She took advantage of internship opportunities and had several offers at graduation. But she knew where she wanted to work.

“An upperclass student in chemical engineering had interned at Bechtel. An HR person asked her if she knew anyone from Northwestern who might be interested in interning. So I interviewed and absolutely loved it.” She continues, “I also read an article published by Riley Bechtel about his vision for the company in ten years. I had never seen anything like that from any other company.”

The importance of getting and giving help
Wright, too, sees informal mentors as valuable. She participates in Bechtel’s formal mentoring program, but leaves her door open to “young people who want to talk about anything.” She also recommends seeking external guidance.

“The Society of Women Engineers and the National Society of Black Engineers were great sources of mentors and networking for me,” she says. “They also provide great opportunity to hone certain skills. For example, I’m a bit of a wallflower. It takes a little effort to get me from the wall to the middle of the room. But they have workshops to help you find your comfort zone.”

Claire Morse manages Bechtel’s global diversity and employee relations. “Diversity and inclusion represent a way of doing business that allows the unique ideas, experiences, cultures, and backgrounds of all employees to come together to achieve excellence, continually innovate, and compete in a global marketplace,” she says. “Bechtel is committed to providing our employees a supportive and caring environment where they can learn, grow and thrive across the globe. We value different talents and perspectives and leverage these differences for success.”

Symantec architect Grace Chen: women should showcase their achievements
Grace Chen is an architect for Symantec’s FileStore product, a network-attached storage appliance software platform, and manages its engineering and development. Chen has remote teams in India and China, supporting Symantec customers and partners. She’s been helping Symantec progress for the last fourteen years.

“I grew up in China, where science and engineering are held in high regard. But as an Asian woman, I was raised to be humble and to not speak up or brag. As a result, I tend to keep my head down and the let the results speak for themselves,” she says. “But all women should proudly present their achievements. I have learned to become more assertive when interacting with my male colleagues.”

At Tshinghua University (Beijing, China), Chen earned a BS in precision instruments, an interdisciplinary major combining electrical engineering, computer science, and mechanical engineering. In 1997 she earned an MS in computer science from the Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, MD). While at Hopkins, she completed an internship in its Applied Physics Laboratory. “For the first time I had real work experience, and I was mentored by senior engineers in a research lab.”

The same year, Chen joined Veritas (now part of Symantec), working in the Veritas cluster server group. She became engineering manager and architect, then took the reins of the FileStore group as technical director in 2009.

Academics and networking provide advantages
A firm supporter of mentoring and networking, Chen believes her academic work also gave her an advantage. “Studying for an engineering and science degree helped me get essential analytical skills and develop critical thinking.”

Chen participates in the Symantec Women’s Action Network (SWAN). She attributes her growth, in part, to SWAN’s promotion of diversity and inclusion, helping her “find her strengths and weaknesses as a woman of color.” Chen finds programs like these very powerful.

“I volunteer in local communities and schools. I mentor young girls who have an interest in math and science. It is very satisfying to see girls share my passion in science, and to see them flourish in their own high-tech careers.”

Life Technologies’ Nive Majumdar uses broad expertise to create next-gen products
Nivedita “Nive” Majumdar is an algorithm development engineer in the Norwalk, CT location of Life Technologies (Carlsbad, CA). She works on proprietary data analysis software products that meet both customer and company needs. She uses her expertise in algorithms, modeling, signal/ image processing, machine learning and data visualization, as well as Matlab and Java programming.

“I contribute to the final software that goes to the customer. I also have an interest in visualization, so I lead some internal processes to define what kind of user interfaces work best with customers,” she says.

In 2000, Majumdar earned her BS in computer science and technology from Bengal Engineering and Science University (Shibpur, India). She earned her MS in mathematical sciences in 2002 from the University of Memphis (TN). Her 2007 PhD in computational sciences and informatics is from George Mason University (Fairfax, VA). But Majumdar says her outlook has been as important as her education.

“Advanced degrees from top schools definitely helped me move forward. And I have been fortunate to work with very good colleagues and great managers who mentored me. But I never felt marginalized for being a woman or a person of color,” she says. “As women we have a lot of management and emotional IQ we can use to our advantage in the professional world,” she says. “Being a person of color gives you cultural capital. Women must embrace that difference and use it to help their careers.”

Great contributions and a blind eye to differences
Majumdar began at Life Technologies after answering a post on a technical jobs website. “I was very impressed with the people,” she remembers.

She hasn’t wasted a moment since joining the company. Majumdar jointly earned a patent for “systems and methods for the analysis of protein melt curve data.” But she is most proud of her recent publication on data visualization, the Matlab Graphics and Data Visualization Cookbook.

But even as an engineer who is a woman of color, Majumdar does not tap the usual resources for support. “I’ve always shied away from opportunities specifically designed to help women. I’ve embraced the fact I’m different and used that to my advantage. I’ve never felt that I’m disadvantaged.”

Linde’s Racheal Olayoriju finds success in chemical engineering
Racheal Olayoriju is a plant engineer in refining and natural gas processing for Linde Process Plants (Tulsa, OK). She creates front-end engineering designs, detailed plant designs, and everything in between. But her career choice was not always popular with the people closest to her.

“When I announced I wanted to do engineering, my dad was not happy. He wanted me to become an ophthalmologist or a dentist. So I convinced him I would go into biomedical technology and then it was okay. But I went on to study chemical engineering instead.”

Olayoriju received her BS in chemical engineering in 2000 from the Ladoke Akintola University of Technology (Ogbomoso, Nigeria). In her third year of school, Olayoriju interned with Baker Hughes, an oilfield services company, and discovered that she was intrigued by the oil and gas industry.

After relocating with her family to the U.S. in 2008, she entered North Carolina State University (Raleigh, NC) as a part-time MS student in chemical engineering. In 2010 she earned a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt at Villanova University (Villanova, PA). A headhunter’s call brought her to Linde in 2011, so she transferred to Oklahoma University to continue her MS.

“As a woman of color you will always find obstacles. In 2004, I went to drilling platforms in the middle of the ocean and there were no accommodations for women. But I grew up among boys, so I wasn’t intimidated. Fortunately, Linde is a great place to work. Diversity is one of the company’s core values, and the number of women of color increases every year,” she says.

Working harder for recognition
Olayoriju advocates work: hard work. “In the back of my mind I think I need to work twice as hard to gain recognition. Women of color must always work harder.”

Olayoriju is passionate about her career, but she is equally grateful for her “very understanding” family, including a husband who quit his job to relocate with her. “He now has a very good job himself,” she adds with a smile.

Beverley DeCaires: service provider technologies for Comcast
As a director for regional network engineering in the enterprise and northeast division for Comcast Corporation (Philadelphia, PA), Beverley DeCaires leads two engineering teams. She designs, builds and provides operational support to Comcast’s northeast division. She joined the company twelve years ago and advanced from engineer into management.

DeCaires also creates and manages the budget of a network infrastructure build-out for one of the largest networks in the world, and oversees the planning, execution and deployment of other Comcast national projects.

Recently she assumed leadership for the enterprise engineering team that will plan, create and execute new technical solutions for the enterprise infrastructure of key corporate sites as well as divisional locations.

DeCaires began her career in 1994 after getting a BS in business administration from the City University of New York (New York, NY). She got a post-baccalaureate certificate in Internet analysis and design from Columbia University (New York, NY) in 2000.

“Comcast had an opening for an IP engineer to build out their first high-speed data network, Xfinity High-Speed Internet Service,” she recalls. “I was thrilled when Comcast recognized the synergy between my prior experience and what they were getting ready to do.”

In 2010 she added an MS in management of information systems from the Florida Institute of Technology (Melbourne, FL). She also received a masters certificate in project management from Villanova University (Villanova, PA) in 2012.

The benefits of support
DeCaires praises Comcast for its very supportive environment. “Comcast continues to provide many opportunities for me to expand. A supportive leadership chain has been one of the most important elements in advancing my career.”

DeCaires also cites Comcast’s sponsorship of her enrollment in leadership programs both at Comcast and through Women in Cable Telecommunications, and for providing exemplary mentors.

“Women must understand that technology is a field they can succeed in,” she says. “Do not let anyone deter you.”

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