An unfortunate happenstance as I look back on my career is enormous the lack of female mentors. Even now, in the company I work, females in experienced positions are not aggressive in sharing their knowledge with newer female STEMs. Fortunately, I’ve been privileged to have numerous men who stepped up to put me on the straight path and, at the same time, provide encouragement and lessons to develop my technical abilities and common sense skills.
I mentioned my first mentor, Dr. Tom Love, who was my engineering advisor at OU, in a previous post. His paternal guidance as I worked through the curriculum to my degree was invaluable. He was very easy for me to talk to. He never talked down to me and was a great professor too. The other professors weren’t bad, and they were great instructors, but Dr. Love was more approachable and listened intently to my numerous questions, giving me straight answers.
He taught heat transfer courses and when I had completed the required first course, he encouraged me to take a more advanced one. Dr. Love instructed it, of course. When graduation neared, he asked me about staying on for a graduate program. Four and a half years of saving and pinching pennies took its toll on me. I was ready for a real job with a real paycheck. The monthly stipend offered to a graduate assistant paled to what I had been offered. I was excited to start a new life but he wasn’t thrilled with my decision to move to St. Louis. He thought it was a ‘dirty’ town.
Downtown St. Louis underwent a renaissance of sorts before I moved there. Certain neighborhoods could be considered dirty but actually they were just old. Maybe it was the thrill of living in a huge city, or the numbers of newly graduated engineers that I immediately bonded with, but I fell in love with my new hometown and my new friends. It wasn’t Odessa, Texas, and I wasn’t going to be a roughneck. I was good this time.
When I began my career at Monsanto, my co-workers ranged in age from a few years older to me to well into their sixties. These men, still getting used to the idea of women engineers, provided guidance and information to me as I learned how the Central Engineering Department processes and my design engineer job worked. I became the work ‘sister’ and work ‘daughter’ to these men.
We became a tight-knit group, and I enjoyed meeting their spouses and hearing their weekend warrior stories every Monday. We often had lunch together. St. Louis provided a smorgasbord of various local restaurants close to our office.
These men were self-assured and had none of the insecurities of working with a female on an even playing field. It was always about the work. We were each held accountable for our work. As a first level engineer, my tasks were completed with a lot of oversight. No surprise there, I was learning and I wanted to learn all I could.
There were a group of older men who specialized in things like coatings, special metallurgy, linings, piping, electrical and instrumentation. These sages were the go-to guys for someone like me who in the midst of designing a tank had no clue of the experience involved in identifying these items on my spec sheet. Coatings, for example, involve the science of paint. Depending on the geographic location, internal temperature, thickness and material of the vessel, and location in the plant itself, the type and thickness of coating were almost tailor-made.
This depth of knowledge over what I had previously assumed to be almost household uses for these things fascinated me. Again these experts always took the time to listen to my never-ending questions. Patient and willing to share their expertise with a young female engineer, admittedly wet behind the ears.
My decision to transfer to a construction site was driven by the preliminary design for this plant that I was exposed to. In addition to the trip to New Orleans, I began to work specifications for some of the equipment. I wanted to see this project through and watching it rise from a cornfield in North Carolina was just the thing.
My co-workers provided nothing but encouragement for this transfer. I had never been to the East coast before and at times I thought this might be a little too much adventure. A going-away party later, I loaded up my few belongings and headed out in search of my next mentor.