Tune in for a conversation between CEC engineers Amanda, Elina, and Kristen to mark International Women in Engineering Day. From their early childhoods through their education and beyond, these engineers share their personal experiences and give advice to women looking to enter the field.
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Amanda: Hi, everybody. Thanks for joining us today. This is Amanda Black. I am CEC’s Corporate Power Market Group Lead and a Principal in our Air Quality practice, and today, I’m glad to get together and have a conversation in honor of International Women in Engineering Day. The Day was first established back in 2014, and it’s meant to inspire young women to take up engineering careers and celebrate our accomplishments together. It’s something I always like to talk to other women engineers and share our experiences and learn from them and learn from each other. I’m joined today by Kristen in our Pittsburgh office and Elina in our Knoxville office. Kristen and Elina, would you like to say hello?
Kristen: Thanks, Amanda. As Amanda said, I’m Kristen Weis. I’m out of the CEC Pittsburgh office. I’m a civil engineer in the Civil Group there, I’ve been with CEC for five years now. I joined CEC right when I graduated out of school, and I actually did two summer internships with CEC as well before starting full-time.
Amanda: Great. How about you, Elina?
Elina: Hi. Yeah, my name is Elina Geut. And I’m a structural engineer over at the Knoxville office, and I’ve been with CEC for about two years now, and I started with CEC right after I finished school. So, I’m very fresh out of school.
Amanda: Thanks. Well, yeah, like I said, it’s always nice to hear about how other women got into engineering, so I thought I’d offer my story. I’ve been in environmental consulting for about 22 years now. My background is in chemical engineering, and I, right out of school, got into consulting, working primarily in air quality. I was really happy with getting my degree in engineering, and it’s definitely a proud accomplishment of mine. I’ve enjoyed my career, all 22 years, working as a consultant. I find that it gives me such a diversity to work on different projects and to really apply some technical thinking skills for each different project, and I’ve really seen how projects and industries have evolved through the years. And being a part of developing solutions for my clients has been very satisfying,
I really like to encourage younger women to get into engineering because I found that it’s always been very satisfying to know that I can always support myself. I’ve enjoyed a great career, and it just keeps developing and growing. I know, looking out for some younger family members, I’m always the one to encourage my other female mentees and relatives to get into engineering for that stability. I think we can always find it gives you a great background for whatever you want to do and different avenues that you’d like to go into. So, you know, hopefully, through my career I’ve been able to inspire some young women to join engineering, and I’d be glad to hear how, Kristen and Elina, how you got into engineering and what inspired you? How about you, Kristen?
Kristen: So, my introduction to engineering actually came through my dad. He’s an electrical engineer, and he worked straight out of school, joined his company, and had been there for his entire career. And he is the one who really made me want to be an engineer and go to school for engineering. My interest in civil engineering actually came about because I have a pretty big interest in the environment and trying to develop the land in a responsible manner while following all the regulations. And I think that’s one of the things I enjoy most about my job at CEC is I get to do that; I get to responsibly develop our land so that we can grow our society but do it in a way that has the least amount of impact.
So, that was always kind of what I wanted to do with my career, and I went to school for a four-year program for civil engineering, and like I said, I graduated and joined CEC right away, and I’ve been here for five years now.
Amanda: Great! Thanks, Kristen. How about you, Elina?
Elina: Yes. So, I guess I will start from the very roots and very young ages. I was fairly young when I realized that I wanted to leave my mark in the world, and I wanted to help out the society and the planet by solving different problems and just improving everybody’s lives. But I also noticed that I was very interested in design, buildings, bridges, and all kinds of other structures.
When I was a teenager, I thought I really wanted to be an architect until I went further along in my studying career and was a student in high school, and I realized that I have a passion for science as well. So, what better combination between architecture and science than structural engineering. As I was finishing up my bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, I had decided that my passion really does lie with structural engineering, and again, as Kristen and you, Amanda, mentioned, engineers are improving everybody’s lives and making the world a better place on a day-to-day basis, and we are really impacting everybody. This is why I decided to be a structural engineer and funny enough, Kristen, actually, my mom was an electrical engineer, and she also pushed me towards pursuing this STEM degree as well, which I’m very grateful about.
And so, as I mentioned before, I’ve been a very young engineer, only for two years have I worked with CEC, ever since I finished my master’s. It’s been a very pleasant experience, and it’s basically all that I thought about engineering being is solving problems, and CEC offers a wide variety of projects. Not only, you know, just one specific thing like a building but also a majority of other projects, and they get to work with water structures and then plants and so on and so forth. So, I think I made a really great choice, and as, Amanda, you mentioned, I really want to encourage the younger females to pursue their passion if they have one for STEM and for engineering and encourage them that it is a place to be.
Amanda: Thanks, Elina. And I would say my inspiration was very similar to both of yours. I remember back in high school, listening to a presentation on a Career Day of a woman engineer who came in front to talk to us from DuPont. And she was talking about how she engineers the fibers in carpet, and I was thinking, “Wow, that’s something I never even thought of somebody having to do.” And so, it spiked my curiosity in how things are made and how things work and getting my background in chemical engineering, not that I apply all those concepts in my day-to-day job, but it sure gives you a background for having to look at a process and look at things objectively and how different processes work. So, I think just the engineering education background, although we all use it in different ways, really gives you just a solid basis to do so many things with your career.
In college, I didn’t even know that environmental consulting was a career that you could have. My parents weren’t very technical. You both mentioned that you had engineers for parents. My mother was a stay-at-home mom, and my dad repaired X-ray machines at hospitals, and neither one of them had a college education. But they always — parents always want the best for their children, and they put all, me and my siblings, all through college, so we’re all college-educated. And I got to see what my older siblings did for a living and see where I would fit in. My oldest sister studied English, one studied art, and my brother was the engineer. So, that’s kind of really where I found my inspiration, was looking at their careers and their career paths and realizing what different things I could do with engineering. And not that the technical courses were always my favorite. They’re very hard, and sometimes I wish I had an aptitude for history and English, but just looking at what would give me stability to grow in my career, I chose engineering, and I think that was a solid choice.
So, you know, just kind of talking about that, how the dynamics have changed, I know from my generation a lot of women were stay-at-home moms, and now, you see more and more women in the workforce. But even though women are getting more degrees than men, only 15% of women are engineers. So, it’s definitely still a male-dominated field. Can either of you speak to your challenges in deciding and being an engineer, or kind of entering into a male-dominated field?
Elina: Yeah, I guess I could provide a slightly different perspective. So, not being born in America, I actually came to America to study and attend college and get my engineering degree, it’s slightly different. I came from Russia and that’s where I attended high school, and back there, in my class — in a high school class — there are actually quite a few females who were ready to pursue their engineering degree or architecture or any other STEM degree. So, coming into America and just being nearly one of the two females in the 40 people engineering class was, not going to lie, shocking. You know, I was expecting way more girls to be in the classroom, so I guess I just got used to it and came around. But I couldn’t help but wonder why not more — why don’t more girls go into engineering and go into other STEM programs? I guess it is still a little bit of a question for me till this day. And I don’t know if, Kristen, you, or Amanda, can respond to me why it’s the case. It’s just it seems to be a trend.
But as far as any kind of hurdles goes, Amanda, I think I was lucky — I have been lucky along the way to where all of my mentors or classmates or coworkers and supervisors, especially at CEC, they have been very welcoming. There was no differentiation if you were a girl or you were a guy. Their approach was the same for everybody and the same encouragement, and definitely, I felt a little bit more timid in coming into the industry that is primarily male-dominated. But I think I’m also driven by “let’s solve the problem. Oh, there’s an issue. I really want to be the one to solve it,” or, “Hey, it’s a male-dominated field, but I know I can do this. So, let’s do it.” I think that is the primary thing I would have — advice I would have for young engineering ladies is to never be scared by the fact that it’s mostly male-dominated. Because there are definitely a lot of people that will be along the way that will help them out and do whatever they can to help them feel welcome and guide them throughout their career, just like my mentors at CEC have.
Amanda: Yes, and I have had similar experiences. I’ve never felt like I was treated differently for being a woman, so I don’t know exactly why STEM applies more commonly to men than women, but that’s definitely how it is. And I guess the only intimidating part is kind of coming in somewhere and being in one of only a couple of women. And I think that’s why we have so many women groups. CEC has a CECW group. I know I’m involved in Women in Energy Group and different women in engineering groups, and I always find those groups for feeling to just have conversations like these to discuss you know our experiences in engineering.
But as far as, you know, I don’t feel like I was ever denied an opportunity because I was a woman or had any inequity. And that way I would say the biggest disadvantage is just kind of that feeling of discomfort sometimes when you’re the only woman in a room. And more so than schooling, I found it even going on now but definitely more intimidating earlier in my career, going to different plants and being the only woman other than the secretary there. Sometimes being seen a little bit differently can be intimidating, but I think that is something that you just learn as you get more experience to have the confidence. Elina, just like you said, to know I can solve a problem, and I can solve it just as well as anybody there and having that confidence and not letting it intimidate you. Kristen, do you have any perspective on how you felt in your classes or your current role at CEC?
Kristen: Yeah. So, thinking back to my college courses, I went to Villanova, and I think we were at 33 percent women in the civil engineering program which is a pretty good number I thought. And I never felt really outnumbered at all getting into engineering and feeling — I guess I never felt very intimidated by the fact that it was male-dominated. It was almost kind of, as Elina said, like you kind of come in with a little bit of a chip on your shoulder. You want to change that, and you want to solve that problem and make it so it’s not a male-dominated industry anymore. So, I always kind of took it as a challenge and I tried not to let it intimidate me and discourage me from doing it or getting involved in any organizations.
There are some phenomenal women’s organizations in our industry and some that I was even involved in college like Society of Women Engineers, which does a great job of women empowerment, and especially STEM outreach for K-12, which I think is really, really important to do in order to inspire the next generation of female engineers.
But also, I think you both have said too that, especially at CEC, I have never felt like I’m treated any differently because I’m a woman and they — my co-workers, my managers — they have always been incredibly open and welcoming, and that kind of makes it a little bit easier and makes it feel like it’s not — you’re not a minority in that aspect.
Elina: And, Amanda, just to add to that: As you mentioned before, the groups that we have, Employee Resource Groups like CECWomen, that was very helpful for me coming into engineering and knowing that the company actually does provide these resources and does unite the women in the industry, not only engineers but just women in the consulting industry, and we can have this open conversation on, “Hey, what have your hurdles been? How did you deal with them?” or just giving honest advice in terms of how the work goes and so on and so forth. So, I think that is a very important platform, and it is very important for also young engineers coming on board and graduating now or even going to decide what degree they’re going to pursue to know that there are resources like that in different companies or, as Kristen mentioned, different societies, different organizations that you’re not — you don’t feel like you’re a minority. There are a lot of us out there to whom you can communicate with and ask for advice.
Amanda: Yes, it’s definitely important to be involved in those organizations, not only for mentoring, but just to keep your professional development going and keeping your engineering skills sharp too because it’s definitely an evolving industry depending on what kind of field you’re studying and you’re pursuing. There’s always room for professional development. And those organizations can not only help with mentoring but help you continue developing your career.
So, I guess we’ve all brought up themes of how do we get more women involved in STEM fields? Again, I said earlier that I don’t know why there are more men than women in STEM. I’ve never felt more or less encouraged, but, for some reason, those numbers are still quite lopsided in most cases. I think some of the things that we’ve already talked about our ways to encourage more women to get involved in STEM fields. Certainly, our professional organizations provide a mechanism to do outreach as Elina said. I think that’s always important to go back to K-12 and even in my own experience, talking about I was inspired by somebody from DuPont who came and spoke to at our school. Definitely, I think that’s one mechanism to get more women involved in STEM fields. But any other advice that you may have on getting more involvement in women in STEM?
Kristen: Yeah, I think, like you said, the K-12 outreach is really pretty important. I think talking to these future women engineers early and getting them involved in just science in general from a young age and kind of sparking that kind of desire that Elina and I talked about earlier to problem solve and really enjoy the science and the technical part of engineering. We also — all of us talked about someone from our childhood that inspired us to want to become an engineer, and whether that was a parent or someone that we saw a presentation for, I think just being available as like a mentor to young engineers or just young girls in general, giving them something to look up to and really encouraging them to follow their dreams is just the most important part, making them see they can do it, and they should not be discouraged.
Elina: Yeah, and I agree on that. As, Amanda, you, and Kristen mentioned, it does come from an early age to where we do need to speak to the high school kids – high school girls to where they are free to choose whatever major they would like to choose. And if they feel passion for STEM, they should feel like they can pursue it, regardless of the fact that currently there are not as many women in STEM as there are men. It doesn’t really matter. So, we need to make them feel comfortable to enter a field where they’re more boys right now but maybe in the future there will be more girls, or it will just have nearly the same amount. I think that reaching out to K-12 or during the college times is a very important time frame where we can recruit more women in engineering and STEM.
Amanda: Yeah, and I think a lot of it too could be accomplished with even some one-on-one mentoring. We’ve talked about doing presentations and professional organizations, but sometimes when I’m talking to younger women and they’re a little bit discouraged about engineering or STEM fields, it’s because they had trouble with one subject, and I try to encourage them. Just because you don’t like physics doesn’t mean you can’t do engineering. I didn’t like physics either. I don’t think anybody likes physics. But you can get around physics and still have — just get through it, get your grade, and maybe you excel at calculus or chemistry or whatever that subject might be for you.
But a big thing too is to give them real-world examples of what your career would actually look like because I don’t know if that gets done enough from educators all the time, but I was going back and giving real-world experience that you’re not going to be sitting here and doing calculus problems all day. What you’re going to be doing is maybe you could go out to a power plant and assess their emissions. You know, what does that mean? And I think that’s a way of getting women, and not just women but everyone, more excited about engineering fields, just giving them some real-world examples of you’re not going to be doing physics. You’re going to be doing this on a day-to-day basis, and it’s exciting and it changes every day. And you get to go out and meet a lot of great people and just learn so many different things. So, I think just being out there and doing things more like this and talking about what you actually do day-to-day is a good way to get the next generation encouraged to pursue engineering.
Elina: Yeah, I completely agree. And also, I would like to mention a few examples. I know several females in engineering that didn’t initially pursue it. Some of them got degrees in other professions. But then they realized later on that they’ve crossed paths with engineers and then they were exposed to their, Amanda, as you mentioned, day-to-day life of an engineer and then realized, “Wow, this is amazing. This is something I would like to do,” and they changed their majors and now they’re very successful engineers. So, yes, I completely agree and ask for that. They need to see what we do, not just in the classrooms but actually in the real world because this was a completely different experience for me, coming out of college and actually starting to do structural engineering and communicating and working with other disciplines and other engineers, contractors, and so on and so forth. It was completely different. It was not just crunching the numbers, but it was the exciting part of, as we all love, solving problems, making the world a better place, or coming up with efficient and sustainable solutions. So, and I think this is, as you mentioned, Amanda, this is definitely something that we need to show the upcoming generation or just everybody else. That’s what engineering is about.
Amanda: Yeah. Definitely be our own cheerleaders.
Kristen: Yeah, I definitely agree with both of you on that. I always like to say, in my experience, I didn’t go to school for engineering to really nail down the technical classroom problems, like test questions, that kind of thing. I went to school to be an engineer to learn how to solve real-life problems, which is what both of you guys have talked about. And sometimes, depending on the type of engineering you’re doing or what you’re interested in, you are — your day-to-day is really into the technical weeds, and you’re in a lab or you’re doing research or something like that. But especially for what we do, it’s so much more than just black and white — here’s a calculation, you do it, and that’s the end of your day. There’s so much more to it, and I think that makes it really fun. I think that’s what makes our jobs fun is it’s different every day. You’re not just sitting in front of a computer doing math problems. It’s something it’s different every day, and it keeps you on your toes, and I really enjoy that about it.
Elina: Yeah, I completely agree. It takes creativity to be an engineer, to be honest.
Kristen: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Elina: Right. There is no right answer anymore once you’re out of school. It’s not like we’re in the back of the book cover and say, “OK, this is the number.” No longer the case, which makes it even more exciting; little bit terrifying, not going to lie, but definitely exciting and rewarding in the end.
Kristen: Yeah, I think you get a bit of that shock when you graduate and you start your real-life job, and you’re like, “Wow, this is nothing like college. This is nothing like anything I did in college,” but college is what prepared you to be able to adapt to that and to really be able to problem-solve and have a more real-world, realistic view of how things work.
Amanda: We’ve talked a lot about inspiring young women getting into STEM fields, and I’ve always loved to give advice and mentor people. I guess one thing that we should think about is giving young women entering the field advice about one thing that we wish we would have known when we had started out.
I think one thing for me is when I started studying chemical engineering, it’s a very rigorous curriculum, and you get through all of that coursework, which is not the easiest thing to do. I always say I started off my four-year studies with 120 kids, and I finished with 23 in our program, so it was a huge dropout rate. So, it’s not easy, but I encourage people to stay with it because once I did finish, I had such a good starting point for my career, and it’s really given me the knowledge that I’ve needed to adapt to different roles I’ve taken on. But starting off my career, I guess I wish I would have known more about the different things I could do with chemical engineering. I think I mentioned earlier that I didn’t even know environmental consulting was a thing. So, I was basically just kind of blindly applying to different jobs out of school, and I ended up at an environmental consultant and all good things happen for a reason, I think because that’s where I ended up staying in my career.
But just graduating and not really knowing what all I could do with that degree, I think if I had more real-world experience with people with a similar degree as mine, giving me guidance on the different things that I could do with it, it would have Inspired me more and help me develop my career path. All in all, I think it worked out well for me, I ended up where I wanted to be and where I was happy, but I think that advice at the beginning, or as I was graduating college, would have been really helpful. Is there anything that, Kristen or Elina, you’d like to share of things you think would be helpful starting out as an engineer?
Elina: Yeah, I guess I can share my advice for what it’s worth. So, I’m a little different than you, Amanda. When I was getting my master’s, I already knew that I had passion for design and building and concrete, steel, timber, and all kinds of structures. I already knew I wanted to be a structural engineer, but I do deal with design on a day-to-day basis and technical stuff as well. So, what I wish I knew when I was starting out is that there are definitely people that will help you out along the way. You’re not the only one, and if you make a mistake in your calculation early on in your career, somebody else is going to check that and correct that, and there’s a whole process going on to where you’re not going to cause a structure to collapse. Because this was my primary fear and concern entering structural engineering, in general, is that what if I screw something up, and then that was the fear that I did quickly overcome coming to CEC and seeing how all this quality assurance process works. And that there are definitely multiple people checking my work and making sure there are no mistakes, and the products we’re providing are quality products, and they re-ensure that they’re safe. So, I think that was something that I wish I knew when I entered the industries that, you know, no worries. Somebody’s always got my back, and somebody’s always going to have an answer for me or, if not an answer, then we’re going to walk through it, and we’re going to come to a solution as a team rather than a one-person thing or one-person design.
Amanda: Yeah, that’s such a good point. I know, especially being younger, it’s hard to have the confidence to ask a question. You’re a little bit scared, and, “Is this something I should know?” or, “I don’t want to bother this person.” So, it’s always great advice to – that’s something that I encourage folks that work for me now. Please, it’s an open-door policy. Come in and ask a question. Don’t spin your wheels. We can work through it together. So, that’s excellent advice to just always be — never be afraid to ask for help. How about you, Kristen? Any advice for those young engineers starting out?
Kristen: Yeah, I think the biggest piece of advice I’d have for women just beginning in the industry is just to be authentic. Be true to yourself. Don’t let the fact that this is a male-dominated industry intimidate you and make you feel like you need to become somebody that you’re not to fit in because what makes you special and what makes you good at what you do is the fact that you are a woman, and that you know how to do things, you know how to get things done. So, don’t feel like you need to change to fit the industry. The whole purpose is to change the industry to fit us. So, I think that’s just the biggest thing I’d want people to know.
Amanda: Yeah, that’s another excellent piece of advice. I know mentoring women now that’s a big issue for a lot of younger women is, “How do I talk to men?” or, “How do I take a male client to dinner or ask them if they want to get together for lunch? Is that a little bit awkward?” And like you just said, Kristen, just be yourself, not trying to — if you don’t like sports, don’t talk about sports. There are other things to talk about. Talk about your family or whatever interests you, but always be true to yourself. And I think that confidence comes with experience as well, and those things don’t seem as awkward anymore as you develop in your career. But kind of pushing yourself out of that comfort zone a little bit but never changing who you are and trying to be someone you think someone else wants you to be. Just be yourself and talk to what you know and what your passions are.
Elina: Amanda, speaking of advice and giving young women the advice once they start their career, well, being already in the industry and being a young engineer and being very green with little experience, what about advice for the ladies that are already in the industry and would like to further their career and enter leadership roles and go that route? I know you’re very far in your career, and you’re very high up too, so I’m sure you can speak on that.
Amanda: Yeah, and again, that’s something I love to give advice about, and I will say I worked really hard. I think it’s about hard work and keeping your skill set sharp. You can never let that technical knowledge go completely. So, now that I’m developing in my career in consulting in particular, there’s an aspect of it that’s business development, for sure, so we can keep work coming in and to keep us all busy and service our clients is very important. So, a lot of my job is getting out and meeting clients and taking meetings, but I also have to be mindful that my clients are hiring me because I know my subject area, so that subject area is constantly changing. There are new regulations, there’s development and technologies and different software I have to keep up with and the calculations and technical ways of doing things, even industries as industries progress.
Here in Pennsylvania about 10 years ago, we had a boom in oil and gas. Before that, I haven’t really known much about oil and gas. It was really up to me to develop my technical skill set to understand that industry and how to serve those clients and develop that business. I think with that hard work, your leadership will recognize that, and that’s when you get rewarded. Nobody is handed anything on a silver platter. You have to keep at it. You have to keep working. A lot of it’s on your own time even. Just keep reading, staying aware of current events, what’s going on with the industries that you’re supporting, and just it’s really you get out of your career what you put into it. And that’s my biggest advice is just keep working and develop your career. Get involved in those professional organizations. I’ve met great people through those organizations, and that’s how I came here to CEC about four years ago, was meeting different people at CEC and kind of having my name known in the field that I do. It comes to a point where you’re almost interviewing the company instead of the company interviewing you if you establish yourself as a technical expert in your field.
Elina: Excellent. Yeah. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I think that is very useful for somebody like myself and Kristen who are at the beginning of our careers and we are already familiar with all the technical aspects of the job. And now we’re getting exposed more to leadership and business development and so on and so forth.
Amanda: Yeah. Well, it’s been great talking to you both today. I think this will be a good launching point to inspire all of us to get out there and start inspiring that next generation of engineers and will continue spreading the word and encouraging the next generation to take on engineering and all of our good stories and experiences that have come from that. So, thank you all for listening today. It’s been fun, and please reach out to us if you’d like to join the conversation.
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