Engineering Role Models

Contributed by Debra Kimberling

When I graduated from high school forty years ago, I had no clue as to the career I should pursue. My mom thought I would make a great veterinarian. Because I liked math, I began to study accounting at my local community college. It was there that the spark of a viable career came. My math professor for whom I graded papers suggested I look into engineering. He told me that while the number of women in engineering was low (less than 10% at the time), women were being recruited into STEM fields and he thought that I might make a good engineer. I will be forever grateful to this one professor-mentor who took the time to encourage me. He helped me find a rewarding career that matched my strengths.

I have since had a fulfilling career as a mechanical engineer. Women in non-traditional careers often face challenges that go beyond the technical aspects of their profession. I am extremely fortunate and grateful to have had many mentors in my working career. They helped me navigate the workplace and I greatly benefited from their insights and encouragement. Now I am honored to be able to pass down the lessons I learned and mentor young people navigating their careers. It is a big reason I became a life member of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE).

While mentors are important to help one get started and become successful, role models are in some ways equally important. The research on why so few women in STEM points to roles models, a type of non-recurring mentor, as a means to help inoculate people against negative stereotypes and to help them persist and thrive. When women comprise less than 15% of the engineering, physics and computer science workforce, having visible role models is absolutely crucial. Even as a professional engineer, I am constantly looking for role models to update and reset the cultural norms of how I grew up.

It is extremely difficult to become what you can’t envision. Acknowledgements of the advances made by women in STEM seldom make news. Fortunately, there are many organizations working to improve the visibility of women in engineering (and STEM). Some of my favorites are: 

SWENext is a no-cost program that allows K-12 students, both girls and boys, to become a part of the Society of Women Engineers. Adult advocates can sign up too. Students, and their parents and teachers, are able to read about engineering role models in each monthly newsletter. In addition to offering fun engineering activities, it is a very useful tool to help educators and youth stay informed and help navigate the course towards becoming an engineer. I am quite excited about SWENext and I believe it has great potential for creating and fostering a welcoming environment for young women in engineering.

Throughout the last decade, we’ve been gradually discovering hidden role models that history has somehow overlooked. There were the NASA Hidden Figures, the Top Secret Rosies, the Rocket Girls and even the Ladies Bridge. This is one reason why I strongly support the STEM National Role Model Directory efforts to showcase underrepresented STEM professionals. It includes the FabFems.org directory of women role models. I encourage all of my contacts to participate and share how they became a STEM professional. There is also the Grandma Got STEM directory, where women in STEM, and their friends and families, can share their stories before they are lost in time. An easy access to a diverse set of role models would help students, parents, and teachers see that opportunities are there for everyone.

Sometimes I wonder how my life would have been different if I had been introduced to engineering role models sooner. Then maybe my engineering career would be more by design than by chance, as it was. Today as a retiree, I dedicate a significant part of my time volunteering in the local STEM community. I work to improve the visibility of underrepresented engineering role models. It is my dream that one day the engineering culture, whether at school or in the workplace, will become inclusive and welcoming for all.

Debra Kimberling, fellow of the Society of Women Engineers, is the President of the non-profit San Diego County Engineering Council. She is a member of the Women in STEM San Diego STEM Ecosystem, the SWENext Educator outreach workgroups, and a FabFem Role Model.