What does an engineer look like?
The images that comes to mind may be of a man in a hardhat and reflective gear poring over a set of blueprints or sitting at a computer desk reviewing designs. While these images are valid, there is too often something missing in the way we envision engineers that has become a concern for future generations: a lack of female representation. The lack of gender diversity within the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) has been an issue for educators, companies, and prospective engineers for years. Statistics collected by the Society of Women Engineers indicate that only 13% of engineers in the U.S. workforce are female.
Engineers have a leading role in the advancement of our society through technology, and we believe that female engineers should have greater representation within the industry. To celebrate the impact that female engineers have on our world, we reached out to Environmental Engineer Nicole Tolley and Municipal Civil Engineer Willa Motley to share their stories and their advice for future female engineers.
Nicole Tolley, PE
Q. How long have you been in the engineering field? I have been in the field for 17 years. I started at Horrocks right out of school, and I’ve been here ever since. Q. What sparked your interest in engineering? When I was 12 or 13 years old, I spent a summer trailing my uncle, who is a geotechnical engineer, on his job sites. He really loved his job, and listening to him talk about his career really sparked my interest at first. Q. What is your favorite part about engineering? One of my favorite parts about my job is that it is challenging — and I enjoy a challenge. The work is always evolving, it’s always changing, and every day is different. It's also fun to see the things that I work on come to life. That’s the cool thing about being a civil engineer, is that I can be driving down the roadway or over a bridge and say, "I played a little part in that.” Q. What is it like to be a woman in the engineering field? At the moment, it is a field that is predominantly male, and while I wouldn’t say that it is a challenge in and of itself, I do wish that there were more women in the field to have that support or mentoring. I think it’s important that we do create more opportunities for women in this field, because it provides support for other women who are already in the industry. Horrocks really is a great place to work as a woman. I’m really proud to work for a firm that recognizes the value and perspective that women bring and wants to support women and advance their careers. Q. Why do you think it is important to encourage young girls to consider STEM careers? I think that’s where it all starts. I think talking with girls when they’re young is important, to try to make them think a little differently about what their career opportunities might be. I think back to my high school math teacher and others who encouraged me to take calculus and taught me that challenge and struggle and failure was important, because I could learn from that. They taught me to enjoy the challenge of learning these hard concepts and made me feel more confident in myself. Q. What advice do you have for young women interested in engineering? Be brave. Try something hard or new or different. Ask questions, take risks, and don’t be afraid to challenge yourself. Even if it means you fail, there will be so many more opportunities that will open up to you.
Willa Motley, PE
Municipal Civil Engineer
Q. How long have you been in the engineering field? I’ve been with Horrocks for 15 years, but I first started working in construction engineering in 1997, so around 23 years overall. Q. What sparked your interest in engineering? In high school, I was good at math, I enjoyed building things, and I just wasn’t afraid to do a lot of the stuff that the boys were doing in school like drafting and shop. I had a lot of encouragement from the high school counselors and family members to consider engineering. They told me, "You need to go to college and be an engineer!” Without that, there’s no way I would have done it. Q. What is it like to be a woman in the engineering field? When you’re the only girl, sometimes it can feel like you’re singled out. In my first class for construction engineering, I was the only girl out of 200 guys. I remember walking into the classroom and thinking, "Are you kidding me? Where are the girls?” I thought something was wrong with me. And there is a sort of different atmosphere that I’ve found with the field being male-dominated. Sometimes people ask me what I do for Horrocks and they’re surprised, but I don’t take any of that negatively. Being an engineer is an amazing career for anyone. Q. What are some of the biggest misconceptions people have about your job? There is some misconception that to be an engineer you have to get out and get your hands dirty every day, but no, that isn’t true. However, there is some of that, and I do believe there is a huge benefit to the hands-on approach. It helps us to learn and grow and become better engineers. It's still possible to be feminine and to hold onto your identity. You don't have to be a man to get your hands dirty. Q. What advice do you have for young women interested in engineering? Don’t be afraid to do what you like. If you enjoy math or building things or other engineering concepts, consider making it a career. It’s a great field — It’s very challenging, and it’s never boring. People need to do what they like, and if that’s what you’re good at, then go for it. You won’t fail.
Celebrating the Impact of Female Engineers
From highways and bridges to computers and mobile phones, engineers leave their fingerprints on nearly every aspect of our modern world. As part of an industry that has such a direct impact on our lives, the female perspective and presence of women is more important than ever — not only for the women already in the field, but as strong role models for future generations of female engineers.