Experiences of women in engineering in the workplace

Women make up 16.37 percent of students in the College of Engineering at Iowa State. Iowa State has student clubs and organizations to bring attention to women in science careers, like the program for Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE).

Jill Even

Iowa State female engineers tell their narratives to shed light on the experiences of women in engineering from the classroom to the workplace.

Women make up 16.37 percent of students in the College of Engineering at Iowa State. There are numerous clubs, student organizations and programs on campus to support women in science, such as the program for Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE).

The program manager and director for the program for Women in Science and Engineering, Lora Leigh Chrystal, has worked in the program for 20 years. The most common hurdle she said she sees women in engineering face is isolation.

“Isolation is a really important thing we need to work on,” Chrystal said. “Helping [women] understand how to find that community again because in certain professions, there are still those places that women are especially underrepresented. The dream is to work myself out of a job.”

Yamille Perez, Iowa State civil and sales engineering alumna, has found herself working as a program assistant for the program for WiSE since October 2019.

After her graduation in 2011, she spent eight years working for Caterpillar Inc. in sales engineering, where she said she had to prove her knowledge and capability to her male peers.

“Being in the sales engineering field is very different, but at the same time, I had to talk to customers about the products that I represented,” Perez said. “Some thought as a female, there’s no way that I could know those things. In a way, I had to prove to my peers that were men that I did know what I was talking about, that I did know the product, that I could have a conversation about the product, the application and the business with facts and figures — not just emotions. They always thought that women would get emotional.”

Kenna Short, senior in mechanical engineering, said it doesn’t seem like mechanical engineering has the largest female enrollment, but it is something she likes in the classroom, as she said she believes women get more specialized attention from professors.

“I like being a woman in engineering because we get noticed more and there are a lot of opportunities I think because right now, there is a big focus on increasing the number of girls in engineering,” Short said.

Short attends the student organization Women in Mechanical Engineering’s meetings every month, where professors and other women in mechanical engineering meet so students and faculty can talk with each other about their profession.

In the aerospace engineering major, associate professor A-Ram (Bella) Kim said she experienced isolation while studying for her bachelor’s degree at the University of Kansas. While her advisers were helpful, her male classmates tended not to include her in their group projects.

“[My undergraduate adviser] said it is probably because they are intimidated; they never worked with Asian girls for the entirety of their life,” Kim said. “So I asked to work for free as an undergraduate research assistant. When I went to the lab, I knew how to use some of the equipment, and [my group] asked me for help. Eventually, they needed me.”

Now when Kim teaches, she said she often notices insecurities in her female pupils.

“When I interview female students, sometimes they are kind of not sure that it’s okay to do engineering work,” Kim said. “I want them to be more confident in what they decide.”