Early in my career people often asked me why I chose engineering. There weren’t many women working as engineers in the 1970’s. There weren’t many women engineering majors in college. Why did I pick such a male dominated field in which to study? The answer is pretty simple: No one ever told me I couldn’t.
My father worked as a draftsman for both petroleum and aerospace companies, but he never talked to me much about his job. I knew he drew things, but I never knew what the ‘things’ were. His encounters with women engineers were nonexistent and so he had no inclination to inspire me with thoughts of entering that world. He believed in separation of ‘men’s work’ and ‘women’s work’, that is until it came to mowing the lawn, and then he became an equal opportunity parent.
My housewife/homemaker mother dreamed of her first born becoming just like her. After I told Mom of my plan to study engineering, she informed me of the advantages of being an engineering secretary. “They make really good money, you know.” I responded without a second thought, “Why be the secretary when you can be the engineer?”
In the 1960’s and 1970’s, opportunities for women’s sports were very few and far between. I played junior high basketball once. I took piano lessons and dabbled in cheerleading. Girl Scouts provided opportunities to learn about different household tasks, but not too much about the “man’s world”.
State law required chemistry and biology to graduate high school. Although it was offered, I wasn’t encouraged to take physics in high school. I did well at typing, shorthand and bookkeeping, as did most of the girls in my school. I excelled in high school math, often completing algebra assignments during class time while the teacher helped the others who didn’t understand it as fast.
I found a non-technical outlet through high school plays. Memorizing lines challenged me. I played an old lady in the senior play. As I toddled out onto the stage, doing my best imitation of the worst old lady ever seen on television, the audience loved it and laughed at the character. I was a star! Drama, that’s what I’ll do. I’ll be a drama major.
My high school drama teacher tore my acting dream in two. She was a harsh, older woman with huge bucked teeth. “Drama?” she replied in disgust, horror and surprise, nostrils flaring, teeth bared, when I answered her question regarding my planned major. Not exactly the support I was looking for.
Discouraged from pursuing acting, I decided to head to the University of Oklahoma declaring a math major. It seemed like a perfect fit. I loved working with numbers. Or so I thought.
Over the course of freshman year, I discovered math majors were really into math. I mean theories, postulates, hypotheses, things you couldn’t see, feel or hear, but what you supposed and imagined lived out in the netherworld. I had no idea where this type of math was going. I realized in the middle of my freshman year that just because a person likes math doesn’t necessarily equate to loving and embracing it as a math major. In fact, it can divide thought processes and multiply stress. (See what I did there? A little math humor. No?)
I plodded on into second semester math. Matrix math did me in. I had no idea what it was or why it was important. If you want more information on matrix math, Google it, because I don’t have a clue. I finally tried to answer the question: what I was doing as a math major? My advisor was useless. Stupid man. It was time to move on.
By the end of my freshman year, I enrolled as an engineering major beginning that next fall. I had no idea what surprises lay ahead of me, but I didn’t care because I knew it wasn’t theory. Engineering is something you can see and feel and that felt great.