Celebrating Our Aspiring Engineers

February 20 marks the beginning of Engineer’s Week, and while we love to talk about our people and the industry, we also couldn’t help but notice that, this year, Engineer’s Week also corresponds to another important STEM day, Girl’s Day.

What is Girl Day? On February 24, 2022, we’re asked to focus our efforts on inspiring the young women in our lives to embrace STEM. As we all know, engineering has historically male-dominated industry. As we head into the future, a balance is being found, but we have a long way to go.

To get to a more balanced landscape, we think it’s important to inspire the girls in our community to take STEM and engineering seriously at a young age. We thought we’d ask one of our interns as well as a veteran engineer how they perceive the industry, what their journey into engineering looked like, and how they do their part as strong role models to the aspiring young women in their lives.

Women Engineers Are Changing the Landscape of the Industry

“The biggest change,” says Maegan Mansfield, Civil Engineer/Project Manager, “is our place in the industry as a whole.”

Maegan has seen broad changes to engineering in her tenure, most of which she thinks are good.

“When I first started as a civil engineer, the overall acceptance of a female engineer was defined differently.”

If it walks like an engineer, and talks like an engineer, that doesn’t always mean it’s treated like one. The sad truth is, when Maegan began her career, even though she could walk the walk and talk the talk, she still found it difficult at times to navigate.

“I’ve been fortunate to have great supervisors and mentors who strive to give me the same opportunities as my male colleagues, but not everyone had that when I started. That means I’ve been behind a drill rig, I’ve climbed bridges, and I’ve even crawled into a manhole on the first day of a job! While I’ve been fortunate to fight for opportunities and space in my field, I see the terms changing.”

We asked Maegan what she meant by that.

“The workplace is learning that men and women shouldn’t be defined as men and women. Equal opportunity means doing the hard work and taking the time to identify individual strengths. We’re entering a new, talent-driven era of engineering.”

STEM is Helping Young Women Discover Engineering Sooner

Nikki Gregory, Designer II, one of our interns, was more fortunate; her high school was vocation-focused, with a robust STEM program.

“In my high school we were required to take classes under specific career pathways. Looking through my options at the time, the thing that spoke most to me was engineering. I’ve always had a knack for science and math, so I knew I would go into something in STEM. Once I saw what engineers did and how they shape the world, I knew what I wanted to do with all of that math and science.”

Believe it or not, high school students are taking engineering classes today. Nikki speaks fondly of the engineering classes her high school offered and how it set her on a clear path into college, and finally culminated with a career at our firm.

“I began taking engineering classes in high school and completed the Project Lead the Way program. My favorite class in high school Civil Engineering and Architecture where I fell in love with civil engineering and its concepts.

My high school trajectory took me to Murray State where civil engineering became my focus; I was instantly hooked after my first civil class. I’ve wanted to work for BFW/Marcum since. I was drawn to the firm because of their impact on the community, specifically what that they have done in my home area of Western Kentucky.

I wanted to be able to put what I’ve learned back into my area and surrounding areas and BFW/Marcum has given me that opportunity with two internships and I’m looking forward to what I can learn from them and do after I graduate and become a civil designer for them.”

It’s crazy to think how much has changed. The opportunities for all, not just young women, have expanded profoundly.

The Future of Female Engineering is About Balance

We asked both Maegan and Nikki to try and describe the challenges in our industry that they think are unique to women. They both hit on a common denominator; balance.

For Maegan, balance is about work and life. “The pandemic has made this even more obvious, but I feel that a healthy work/life balance is harder as that balance tends to be measured differently for men compared to women.. However, I’m drawing inspiration from one of my female mentors to help change that. I lead by her example.

She was the only female manager I’ve had and she was a constant champion of a healthy work/life balance. She had no choice; she was a working mom and had a family to prioritize. The most valuable thing she taught me, though, was to find my balance between career and family. To make it all fit the way I want it to, and to not care what anyone thinks about it. I’m thankful that she gave me the agency and wherewithal to do that, and I intend to pass that down to anyone that looks up to me.”

Maegan also emphasizes that women in engineering tend to put a lot on their plate in order to be seen. While it’s getting better, she still sees the phenomenon from time to time.

“As women professionals, we tend to place a heavier burden on ourselves. I’m guilty of putting too much pressure on myself in my career. As a woman, I think I can say that I feel females thrive on communication, feedback, and interpersonal relationships, which can be hard to cultivate in an industry as objective as engineering.

Yet, I’m all about breaking down those boundaries. You can have work and family. There is a symbiotic relationship between mother and engineer; I’ve found it, and I want to share that balance with younger people in the industry. Go ahead; leave early to get to your child’s soccer game. Family and work can coexist in this industry, and I think they’re both better off when they do.”

Being Led by Example; The Importance of Role Models

Nikki has found inspiration in the women engineers like Maegan. The kind of people that pave their own way, carving a trail that lets the younger generations walk that much more easily. For her, balance is about equality.

“It’s easy for women in our industry to feel that they don’t belong or that they’re sidekicks. It’s no secret that this was and still is a male-dominated field. The industry could do better by supporting women and encouraging them to join the engineering field because they are an important asset.

For myself, I have overcome these feelings by looking up to other women in engineering that have prospered and never stopped showing what they can do, like Maegan, which I aspire to be like as my journey continues.”

Here’s to Inspiration; Now & Into the Future

Finally, we asked Maegan and Nikki to share some words of inspiration to the young women interested in STEM and engineering.

“If I was giving advice to a young girl interested in STEM, I would tell them to stay strong and determined.” Answers Nikki, “There were a lot of times I doubted myself and if I was able to do it. But in those times, I reminded myself that I truly loved this field and that I can do anything I wanted as long as I worked hard and pushed through all the tough times.”

“I always leave them with one word; effort.” Says Maegan. “To be frank, when I was 18 in high school, engineering school scared me. However, God graced me with this sense of urgency, and I knew I had to try. The turning point for me was when I started at the University of Kentucky and I failed my first Chemistry 107 test. I called my mom crying and said I needed to come home. Thankfully, 150 of my favorite classmates failed it with me and I learned the beauty of the curve. Also, strength in numbers, even when you’re not succeeding!

My graduating class at our small high school was less than 150 students. To say I was in a little bit of shock when I failed that test is probably an understatement. From that test forward, I made it my mission to make an A in that class. After every lecture, I would rewrite the class notes, and at the end of every week I would rewrite them all again. I developed a habit of rewriting my notes seven times before every exam, and on the final, I scored a 113. I know I wasn’t the smartest in the room; and that’s not my role. However, seeing the success of that effort taught me I can control how much I know, and it doesn’t really matter where you are starting from, you can get anywhere as we all have the ability to learn.”

That’s just it; effort. Yet, we want the engineering industry to honor that effort and to acknowledge it when it’s made. Women shouldn’t have to work harder to be acknowledged. When they do, that extra mile and 110% should be celebrated, not expected. We’re glad to have mentors like Maegan on our team, and we’re happy to see younger engineers like Nikki; the product of a younger generation that places a value on education. We couldn’t be happier.

Check out our latest Podcast where we discuss STEM education, internships, and mentors with Nikki Gregory.

February 24 is Girl Day. We ask that you take a moment to consider your impact as a mentor, and to do your part, even if it’s small, in inspiring a young female in STEM.