Forging a Path for Women in Engineering

Posted: 12/20/2018

With a record number of women recently elected to Congress and in pursuit of governorships, some have called 2018 the “Year of the Woman.” As Civiltech celebrates our 30 year anniversary, we are proud to say that we have been hiring, promoting, and advancing women engineers since our inception. Civiltech’s Mary L. Young, P.E., PTOE took some time from her busy schedule as Director of Traffic, Environmental and Design Studies to answer questions about her own personal journey and the Civiltech firm culture.

How did you decide to become an engineer?
I didn’t specifically have my sights set on engineering at first, but I knew I wanted to pursue a career path that involved math and science. I was fortunate to have a guidance counselor in high school that recognized my interests and strengths and encouraged me to investigate engineering.

 Did you study Civil Engineering in college?
Not at first. I was originally interested in pursuing a degree in Aerospace Engineering. However, I found I didn’t enjoy many of the classes that were specific to that path. I had the opportunity to participate in a summer co-op with the Illinois Department of Transportation and found the field of transportation engineering interested me. I enjoyed that it offered the opportunity to see concepts and designs actually get built. That experience, combined with identifying the types of engineering classes that I enjoyed, led me to a degree in Civil Engineering. I was fortunate to get a job with Civiltech right after graduating from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and have been here ever since.

What was the percentage of women in engineering when you were in college, and do you think it is different today?
I would guess that when I was in school, the college of engineering had between 5% to 10% women. I’m sure this varied depending on specific disciplines. It might even have been less as I was often the only woman in my classes. I knew a few other women in the Civil Engineering department, but we didn’t often end up in class together. Today the percentages are obviously greater. I don’t know specifics, but recent statistics indicate that most engineering programs have approximately 20% women.

What do you think is contributing to the trend of more women in engineering?
I think that as a society, we are doing a better job of engaging girls in technical fields. I went to an all girl’s high school, and now I am committed to returning every year to participate in their career day. I’ve observed high school girls being more interested in math and science, but I know there is still a fear factor and stigma. I think that educators need to go beyond just the math and science and provide real world examples of how math and science can be applied to cool project outcomes. Also, I think showing girls exciting, interesting, and rewarding career paths within technical fields is beneficial.

Do you think women bring unique outlooks or approaches to the industry?
I believe that women are excellent communicators and, in engineering, effective collaboration is essential. Also, I think women are approachable which is important in public outreach efforts.

Did you ever feel like you have been treated differently or unfairly due to being a woman in a field that has been predominately male?
In college, I occasionally encountered professors who felt women had no business being in engineering and would be pretty tough on me and the other female students.But while uncomfortable at the time, I think this helped me build resilience.

In my professional life, thanks to discovering Civiltech right out of college, I don’t feel I have ever been treated differently than my male coworkers. I can’t speak for other firms, but I do believe that Civiltech is unique. When I started my career in 1991, we already had four women engineers on staff. That ratio was more in line with the statistics of engineering schools today. I feel like we were ahead of the trend.

In what ways does Civiltech promote women in engineering?
I felt early on that Civiltech valued me as an engineer and as an asset to the company. Then when I had a child, Civiltech was an extended family and helped me negotiate the difficult balance of being both a professional woman and a young mother. I was the first staff member to work remotely, a trend that is now more common. I felt the company always supported the challenges of being a mom while also promoting career growth.

I believe that for the young women engineers on our staff and myself, Civiltech is special because we have always been willing to explore and invest in ways to encourage career growth throughout life’s transitions. We believe in the importance of work-life balance.

How many women does Civiltech have on staff today?
This is an exciting time at Civiltech as nearly 25% of our staff are women. We have a large number of women engineers working across our departments and in both our Itasca and Chicago offices. All of our women engineers bring unique skills, perspectives, and outlooks. Civiltech is not only a cutting edge firm made up of talented engineers, but a family that celebrates every aspect of our staff’s lives.