Bad Idea. You'll Flunk Out

A top-tier engineer tells of the slights she endured to conquer the summit

  • WHEN I WAS IN HIGH SCHOOL IN KENTUCKY IN 1974, I WAS into the arts. I was a dancer, in the drama club, on the debate team. I was an artist. I had no chemistry, no physics and no calculus at all. But one day at a mandatory high school lecture, a civil-engineering professor from the University of Kentucky arrived to speak, showing all these renderings of buildings. I was fascinated with the fact that I might actually be able to draw and get paid for it. And according to him, I could improve the quality of life for people and be a problem solver. Well, I became so excited, I went home and told my mother, a teacher, that I wanted to be a civil engineer. My mother had a motto that I have followed to this day: "If you really want to do something, you put your mind to it. Don't let anyone ever tell you that it can't be done." So when I told her, she said, "Great."

    Then reality hit when I went back to my guidance counselor the next day and I told him that instead of being a lawyer or an interior decorator, I now wanted to be an engineer. He looked at me and said, "Bad idea. You have not scored on your aptitude test to be an engineer. You're not inclined to be an engineer. You're not made up to be an engineer." Then I went to my math teacher, and she said the same thing, "Bad idea. You'll flunk out."

    I went to my grandmother, and her reaction was, "Isn't that a man's job?" And that's what really solidified it. I had two people tell me I wasn't intelligent enough, which I couldn't understand because I was a straight-A student, and now I had someone else tell me that it was a man's job. So I was bound and determined to prove everyone wrong. And I did. In 1978, I graduated from Purdue University in three years with a B+ average and a degree in civil engineering.

    But not without a few discouraging incidents along the way. Purdue was very supportive of women in engineering and had a relatively large number of women. When I was there, there were about 50 women out of some 500 civil-engineering students. While I had many professors who really went out of their way to make sure we were treated no differently, I still had a couple of unfortunate incidents. My first year I nearly flunked out of physics and thought, "Oh, I really don't belong here." In my second year, I was taking a steel-design class with only one other woman in the class. And the professor, at the beginning of the course, looked at us and said, "Neither one of you should be here because women should not be in engineering." I thought, "I haven't even taken a test for you yet, so how do you possibly know how I'm going to perform?"

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