Women of Thayer School
What life's really like in engineering.
By Jennifer Seaton
Amid ongoing national discussions about why there aren’t more women in science and engineering, we asked women of Thayer School to talk about the lives they’ve made in engineering. Spanning the 33 years since Dartmouth went coeducational in 1972, these alumnae, students, and professors recount their studies and careers, why they chose engineering, and why they love doing it. They also talk about the moments when they’ve bumped up against the reality that the world of engineering is still getting used to the presence of women. “Even though it seems like there’s nothing gender-specific in engineering, I’ve never met a woman who didn’t reach an age where she realized things were different for her because she was a woman,” says Elsa Garmire, Thayer School’s Sydney E. Junkins 1887 Professor of Engineering and former dean. In the interviews that follow, 14 women offer their thoughts on education, work, and life’s challenges.
Ursula Gibson ’76
Associate Professor of Engineering
As a student at Dartmouth, I enjoyed the collaborative energy in science and engineering. The material was tough enough that people tended to work together. It was tough but rewarding. I appreciated the sciences, in that if I worked harder I improved. In the humanities there wasn’t a strong link between effort and reward, at least for me.
One of the things I noticed about physics, and science in general, was that if you were able to do the problems then there was a certain de-coupling from your personality, your gender, and your appearance. You were judged on your ability, and I found that very appealing.
There were only a few times in my career when I felt gender was an issue. As an undergrad, there were occasional rude remarks, but those were in the dining hall, not the classroom. In graduate school, I was one of two or three women in a research group in which a faculty member passed around a pornographic magazine from his trip abroad. I flipped through it and passed it on — it wasn’t a big deal. Once I was working in an industrial lab and they had a ’40s calendar girl in a bathing suit as their good luck charm. When I came for the summer, they didn’t want to take her down and they didn’t want to offend me, so they put curtains up over her. At some point I peeked to see what was hidden there, then I got a comparable picture of a guy and put it right next to her, with curtains over it. After I put that up, the guys were willing to talk to me about it. I think they appreciated that I could take a lighthearted view of the situation.
If there’s something slightly uncomfortable in a new situation, you can often move past it by using humor. Then, once you get to know the people better, you can try to shape their attitudes. Most people who make insensitive remarks do it thoughtlessly. If somebody goofs once and you get bent out of shape, they are likely to react strongly as well. If you can either make a joke to help them see your point of view, or if you have a quiet conversation with them later, it may be a better way to improve the environment.
Susan Ashlock ’00, Th’00
Software Design Engineer, Microsoft
One of the things I liked best about Dartmouth was how well-rounded people were. It’s interesting how important it is at work in general to be able to be empathetic and help other people. I think because of the community at Dartmouth, students learn the importance of developing relationships, which is an important trait to carry forward in the working world and life in general.
In what I do now, working on the next version of the Microsoft flight simulator, there’s a huge amount of existing code. Maybe I want to do X, and the ability to do almost X is in there, so I have to go talk to people. It can be overwhelming and it can be very interactive.
I never really thought too much about gender issues during school. I was a leader of the Society of Women Engineers while I was at Dartmouth. But gender didn’t concern me until I started working and realized that, for example, there are 20 software engineers on my team and I am the only woman. While you’re in school, there are people who are trying to encourage you to pursue a career in sciences or engineering; once you graduate you take on that role of encouraging other women. I’ve talked to several groups — a middle school group for girls, a summer program for high school girls in technology, a round table, and kids in general. Also, being involved with pilots made me realize how few pilots in the United States are women — I think it’s about 5 percent. Now that I’ve gotten to experience those numbers, it’s a little more disconcerting to me. I’m trying to think of other ways I can contribute. It’s especially important to get young girls comfortable with science and technology. It’s really hard to jump into those things in college and feel comfortable.
Sometimes in communication or interpersonal matters, women do things differently than men. It would be nice to have women in senior positions, to have role models to emulate. But there are none.
Margaret Fanning Th’79
It was hard for me to go into engineering, even though my father was an engineer. If you don’t see any women in science, it’s difficult to think of yourself doing that sort of thing. I was intimidated by engineering because I didn’t think I could do it. But once I was at Thayer School as a master’s candidate, I found that it was not only possible, but a lot of fun as well.
At Thayer School I worked hard and played hard. I studied until 11 p.m., then played hockey, closed down Five Olde Nugget, then headed back to school to finish homework. Sometimes I slept in my office. There were three women at Thayer when I was there, and I never felt singled out, or even particularly different from anyone else. But I did notice that when I saw one of the other two women in the hall, they stood out — I really noticed them. I guess I stood out too, but I was never made to feel that way.
Some women went through that time without having much sense of the feminist movement, but I was definitely aware. Society teaches us a lot of things without our knowing it; when you are raised in a certain manner, you can’t help but absorb the stereotypes. I don’t think you can totally get rid of internalized stereotypes. The best you can do is not act on them and not reinforce them — that way they lose their power.
Margaret Worden Th’87
Vice President of Product Development, GlycoFi
Lebanon, New Hampshire
As an undergraduate I went to Swarthmore, where there was a very small engineering program and about half the students were women. When I went to Dartmouth, it was a little bit of a surprise to see how under-represented women were. I think there were three women out of the more than 90 students in the Thayer program. It was a little shocking.
Going into Thayer, I knew there just weren’t very many female engineers to begin with. The numbers didn’t bother me so much as the culture of the gender mix; it often felt more like a fraternity than an academic institution. There were Friday beers and many who had been undergrads at Dartmouth still went to fraternities. And I was gay on top of that.
What I liked best about Thayer School were the project elements. I worked with John Collier on cell culture research. The hands-on projects where I tackled a problem and tried to come up with a real solution were the inspiring part of the experience.
I’ve had some difficulties being a woman in this field. When I first started working in the early 1980s, it wasn’t uncommon for the men in the machine shop to hang up posters from the tool companies that had scantily dressed women posing provocatively with the tools. There weren’t any workplace laws on harassment. The most embarrassing thing that happened to me was actually receiving one of these things in the mail — addressed to my first initial and not my first name. I complained to my male coworkers and the tool catalog company, sarcastically suggesting there should at least be a male version of the calendar. Unfortunately, they did have a male version, which they sent me. I ended up hanging that in the machine shop, and after that, all the calendars came down.
On the less humorous side, most of the other comments have been around pregnancy. I was even asked in an interview once if I planned to stay or if I was just going to get married and leave to have babies.
I just never let it get in my way. Times have changed quite a bit, but I still am often one of the few women in the room — I still notice it. You have to sit there and wonder why there aren’t more of us. When I meet with other companies, I notice that there are so few women in senior management.
I delayed having kids for a very long time. I had my first child at 38. By that time I had pretty much established myself in a career. Now I have two boys, ages 4 and 8 months. My partner and I live in Hanover, and she works at Dartmouth. We wanted to be close to our parents and be in the area where we felt we really wanted to raise kids.
Once you have children, you can’t do what you did before unless you have a full-time nanny. I had to cut back on the number of hours I was in the office. I used to work all kinds of weird hours. I think it’s more of a personal struggle than a corporate one. You just have the feeling you don’t get as much done as you used to. You have to depend more on other people because you can’t be there all the time.
A lot of things in life are completely random. You have to go with what excites you because you spend a lot of time doing it. Don’t settle for something that doesn’t thrill you.
Sydney E. Junkins 1887 Professor of Engineering
Only two women in my Radcliffe class majored in physics compared to 50 Harvard men. The world was very different for women then. There was a belief that men knew it all. They had all the power, so we women really looked up to them, and some of us wanted to be like them. Women who chose to go into fields where there weren’t other women didn’t really look to other women for help. We thought women weren’t as smart as men. We didn’t have a built-in support network. It was a very lonely time.
The boys all took shop in high school but girls weren’t allowed to. I was behind on that kind of knowledge. Exams assumed knowledge based on that kind of past experience. Today there’s an effort to ask questions that test knowledge independent of cultural background, but that wasn’t the case then. Ultimately the only three women in the program did all the problems together and formed a study group. We did okay and supported each other. Maybe there was an effort to discourage women because they figured we would drop out anyway.
The way universities are set up puts women at a disadvantage. The tenure program comes around just as you’re in your childbearing years. I have two girls. I could do it because I was a post-doc for nine years at Caltech, where my husband was. By the time I started my own career, I already had 30 or 40 papers and was bringing in all my own funding. I was appointed full professor with tenure at USC, where I was the first female engineer on the faculty. By the time I left 20 years later, I was still the only woman in my department.
My advice to young women who want to go into engineering is to marry a truck driver — someone who can get a job anywhere. Marry someone who doesn’t have their own ego bound up in their career if you’re going to.
It also helps to network with women. Even though it seems like there’s nothing gender-specific in engineering, I’ve never met a woman who didn’t reach an age where she realized things were different for her because she was a woman. When I grew up, women were not taught to respect each other. I had to learn to respect other women. Now at conferences, women seek each other out. The way to be happy in what you do is to talk to other people in the same situation.
Nini Donovan Th’99 ’00
IT Project Manager, PricewaterhouseCoopers
I majored in math as an undergrad at Swarthmore, and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do afterward. Professor Daubenspeck from Dartmouth was visiting Swarthmore my senior year and I heard about him and the engineering program. I talked to him at Swarthmore, and he invited me to go see Thayer and some of the projects that were going on. It was just what I was looking for. I enrolled in the B.E. program and then I did the M.E.M.
I loved living in Hanover. I’m very outdoorsy so it was a good place for me. I met my husband, Patrick Donovan Th’00, in Professor Kennedy’s mechanical engineering class. Professor Kennedy still keeps reminding us that he was the matchmaker. For the class you have a project where you build a bridge, and we were partners for that project. The bridge did really well!
I participated in the Society of Women Engineers and went to schools in the area and promoted science by doing magic shows. When I was at Swarthmore majoring in math, being a woman was a bit of a concern because the department was sort of dominated by men. I didn’t feel that at all at Thayer. I did better in my classes because I felt comfortable. It was an environment that encouraged creativity. The important thing was getting the job done. A lot of other engineering schools have bigger programs, but I think what Thayer does is really develop the creative aspect of people and teach them how to attack problems from different angles. Going through the B.E. project and working with a company shows you how to get the job done. That’s something you notice a lot in the working world — people who know how to develop something and get the work done.
After school I worked for a software company, and I was laid off right after I finished their training program. After that I got hooked up with PricewaterhouseCoopers in Boston. Finding a position has a lot to do with luck and getting out there and making the right connections and finding ways to get opportunities. It takes more than being excellent at what you do, especially if you work for big corporations. There’s a lot of politics involved. Connecting with alumni helps.
Sally Annis ’97, Th’98 ’01
Senior Systems Engineer, BAE Systems
Nashua, New Hampshire
I’m working for BAE Systems on anti-missile technology to protect aircraft from heat-seeking missiles. The nature of this industry is that the projects are big and you have to work with large groups of people to get something accomplished. The people who are more purely technical-based struggle a little bit more. I would tell students not to focus too narrowly on one thing. If your education and experience are very narrowly focused, you’re kind of stuck. I’m a big believer in a lot of breadth.
Being a woman is almost a non-issue at my company, but it’s fairly obvious at other companies we work with that they’re not used to a woman being around. Our senior management is about half women, but we work with another large defense contractor that has almost no women. Some of my co-workers who have lots of experience with these types of companies said that the “old boy” culture is the norm for this industry. Since one particular old boy company is not performing as well as expected, I find it humorous that my company’s female manager and customer liaison have to go and visit to get these guys to do some work. I am not sure how these guys feel to be working for a couple of women.
Rachel Rothbaum ’00
Mechanical Engineer/Toy Designer, Creativity Inc.
Menlo Park, California
When I was in 7th grade an engineer came to our math class to talk to us about engineering, especially to the girls. I remember thinking, there’s no way I will ever be an engineer. I came to Dartmouth interested in pre-med. Then one of my physics professors suggested I take an engineering class. My favorite class was ENGS 21. It was the first engineering class I took. It was really cool to work with three other people. In most classes at Dartmouth you work on your own. I made one of my best friends from that team. The main thing I liked about engineering was the teamwork aspect, and I really, really enjoyed problem-solving. I even enjoyed problem sets because I liked reading the question and then trying to figure out the solution. I’d get a little obsessed. After a few hours you get sick of it, but at first I was always pulled in.
One of the things we were always told was that we’re not really being trained to be technical engineers. The thing they do teach us is to know a little bit about everything. That way you can manage. You know what you don’t know and you can go ask for help. For me it’s really exciting because I know a little bit about what everyone does at work. I like having my hands in a bit of everything. It lets me constantly learn about things. I feel Dartmouth made me more curious about a lot of things. We’re almost trained not to be specialists.
Having more women mentors in the program would be helpful. I’d love to see more women professors. Students could also benefit from the regular presence of women with real industry experience.
Now I’m a toy designer. I constantly think of new ideas and look at what’s out there. I do a lot of prototyping and a bit of electrical engineering. My job has that problem-solving approach that’s very much what we learned at Dartmouth. I’m the only woman on my floor at work, but I feel like everyone’s really open to what I have to say.
My company recently sent me to a summer workshop at Stanford where there were about 12 men and I was the only woman. I have to do a lot of letting go and not just think, “I’m the only one, I’m the only one.” Over time I’ve gained a lot more confidence in myself. I think that some women, because they’re surrounded by guys, feel like they need to act like guys or act super-girly. I don’t admire that. I feel: just be yourself. Eventually it gets better and you learn how to handle yourself. One of the great things women have going for them is that they’re not as proud sometimes as guys, and that’s a huge advantage when you get out into the workplace. I think women are better at knowing how to ask for help.
Dartmouth is always talking about how they are teaching us to know about everything. When you first graduate it’s very frightening because you don’t feel like you know anything. It’s really hard for two or three years, then suddenly you’re like, “Wow, I did learn something.” I’d tell current students not to be so scared when they first get out. We recent graduates have more going for us than we first realize.
Laura Iwan ’93, Th’94
Senior Systems Engineer, Ballard Power Systems Inc.
I did not originally intend to be an engineer. I didn’t even go to Thayer until the second or third term of my freshman year. But particle physics classes didn’t really speak to me, so I thought maybe engineering would be for me. The engineering school had just been renovated and everything seemed sparkly shiny new. I had never done anything like the ENGS 21 class where there was so much working together and brainstorming. I found it exciting to meet and work with the other people.
My best memories are from my B.E. project. I worked with a group to convert a pickup truck from gas to electric power. I remember the moment we actually finally got it to run after two terms of getting it together. I was late to a music rehearsal, but I thought, “I’m not going to leave now.” So for the truck’s maiden voyage, one of the other crew members and I drove in the truck to take me to my rehearsal. I also remember a professor who interspersed his lectures with fatherly advice like always eat breakfast and make sure you marry someone who’s your best friend.
There were always at least one or two other women in the smaller classes and five or six other women in the bigger classes. In my ENGS 21 class, we had three women and two men in my project group. I never felt that it was anything unusual that I was a woman. It just was never really an issue. I just felt like one of the students.
I went to Princeton to get my master’s in mechanical engineering, then went to work for Ballard Power Systems, a fuel cell company in Vancouver, Canada. I worked on a stationary power plant, then on a submarine. After that I worked on fuel cell transit buses and was involved in all stages of the project, from conceptual design to commissioning. Forty of the buses are now in use.
I met my husband at work and now have a one-year-old son. Maternity leave in Canada is one year, so I am going back to work three days a week. I’m trying to figure out how I want to do it. Luckily, Ballard is fairly flexible.
I wish while I was at Thayer that I had the perspective to know it’s not always worth the stress and the missed sleep to complete every last step of a problem set. Ten-plus years later, I don’t remember most of the details of the classes I took. Just leave things and try to get the bulk of knowledge from it.
Julia Ott ’05, Th ’05
I completed my B.E. in June and am now working on my M.E.M. As the third child in my family to become a Thayer engineer I had quite a bit of prior contact with the school. I knew engineering would be a demanding major, but that was part of the allure for me since I thrive on challenges.
One of my favorite things about Thayer is the sense of community the school cultivates. Everyone knows everyone, the professors’ doors are always open, and collaboration is part of the culture.
The group work does pose relational and communications challenges which can be magnified when you’re the only woman on a team or in a class. You have to be willing to speak up, and sometimes you have to stand your ground and fight to make your point heard. You also have to realize that sometimes men and women speak different languages, and you may occasionally need to translate.
As a female engineer you get used to spending all of your time around guys, but it’s definitely a different experience than you might have in more balanced majors. A group of us were working on problem sets in the Great Hall one day, and another girl and I somehow got on the topic of underwear. The guys at the table started to complain, “We don’t want to hear about that.” She shot back, “I don’t want to hear it — do you know what I have to put up with most of the time?” That’s pretty reflective of everyday life for a female engineer — good-natured banter with some underlying truth.
I think women in general are more willing to ask for help, and that’s definitely an advantage. You occasionally run up against the “oh, a girl can’t do that” attitude, but that’s just another chance to prove that yes, in fact we can. It can create more pressure to perform because you don’t want to prove the naysayers right by turning in the worst performance in the class, but that’s not a bad goal to have anyway.
I do think that social attitudes outside of the academic environment regarding women in “non-traditional” professions will be longer in catching up. When people find out I’m a Dartmouth engineer, it’s the “engineer” part that surprises them.
Dinsie Williams ’97, Th’97 ’99
Systems Engineer, G.E. Medical Systems
I had a good time at Thayer. I liked it because of the size. I got to know the professors really well. And I was glad that we had the opportunity to join groups such as the Dartmouth Society of Engineers, the Society of Women Engineers, and the Society of Black Engineers. Participating in organizations like these helps when you are looking for a job. The things that differentiate you are work experience and leadership.
For me being a woman wasn’t such a big deal. I came from a family of educators. My father was a professor in math; my mom was a high school principal, and she taught French. I participated in the Women in Science Project and got one of my internships through it, and I worked in the physics department. At Thayer I remember sitting in one of the biggest engineering classes and there were five women. It didn’t bother me too much, but I thought we should have more women. I just thought it was odd. I had more issues being an international student than being a woman — I’m from Sierra Leone in West Africa. I was in the African Caribbean Students Organization and the International Students Association.
I work on CAT scan development for GE in design and evaluation. Being a woman, I think I’m lucky that I stayed technical. In jobs where a lot of personalities are involved, male-to-male bonding makes a bigger difference. In my department there are probably three women out of 50 people. I’ve been given a lot of responsibility. Science and math and engineering are not gender-specific. If you have the talent, you can use it.
Patricia Sheehan Th ’86
Partner, Cesari and McKenna, LLP
In 1977 while working towards my math major at Mount Holyoke, I spent my junior year at Thayer School. I noticed how few women were in my classes at Thayer School, and at Dartmouth as a whole. Many undergraduates and alumni were actually debating the desirability of women attending Dartmouth.
After graduating from college and then law school, I practiced general corporate law for about two years. I was unhappy working as a lawyer and, since I enjoyed engineering in college, I decided to go back to Thayer School to get the B.E. with the intention of changing careers. By the time I returned as a graduate student in 1984 the number of women in classes at Thayer School had risen, as had the number of women at Dartmouth.
During my B.E. year, I decided to combine law with engineering. I now practice patent law and use my engineering every day, preparing patent applications and prosecuting the applications through the United States and foreign patent offices. To do my work, I have to understand how each invention operates and what it adds to the field of engineering.
I’ve been with the same law firm for 20 years. I am the first and only female partner; when I started at the firm I was the first and only female associate. Now three of the firm’s 19 attorneys are women.
I have learned through the years that you have to pick your battles, and that you do not accept situations that are unfair to you. While you want to fit in, you are not one of the guys, and there are times when you have to make that very clear.
The one thing that has helped me enjoy what I’m doing is having a strong relationship with a mentor. Beginning a career can be very intimidating. It is hard to start your career on the lowest rung of the firm ladder. I think women more than men tend to internalize a sense of failure or discouragement when experiencing steep learning curves. So, it is particularly important for a woman to have somebody who can guide her through that time and help her maintain — and increase — her sense of self and her confidence in an environment that is often still predominantly male.
Eleanor Alexander ’04, Th’05 ’06
Engineering is challenging. I came in with no AP credit, and I struggled in math and physics. I really love the hands-on part of engineering, though, the process of design and construction where you can wrap your head around a project to create a solution. The projects kept me motivated. I have always wanted to build things that can be used to help people.
I chose to stay at Thayer for graduate school because I know the professors and because it fits so well with the four-year undergrad program. For grad students, it’s a tight-knit community. You spend a lot of time on research projects and problem sets and become very close to your classmates.
I got pretty good at counting the other girls in my classes. I notice it when I sit down, but I like to think it doesn’t matter. Often I was the only girl in the group, or the machine shop, or the project room, but I wasn’t treated differently — nor should I have been. Today’s society doesn’t put the same emphasis on gender that my parents’ generation struggled with. I had every opportunity my male classmates had, and that’s the way it should be. We are all engineers.
This past summer I worked at GE Healthcare in Texas and used the same skills I learned in Thayer’s design and project classes. I would like to go into operations or project management, to work where engineering, business, and leadership all come together. I hope to work with people and technology — I’m passionate about both.
Heather Wakeley ’00, Th’01, ’02
Princeton, New Jersey
I started in an integrated math and physical science program my freshman year. It was designed to take care of a lot of engineering prerequisites. We had a couple of labs that we did at Thayer, but it was mainly based in math and physics. What I liked most about the program, and what I also found at Thayer, was the emphasis on teamwork and supportiveness. I really enjoyed being able to work with other people in the labs and on the homework. I found that the supportive environment was a big factor in my success in engineering.
It was definitely the practicality of engineering that attracted me to the major. You see the direct effect of the projects you’re working on. ENGS 21 is a really good introduction. The fact that we were solving real-world problems gave me more satisfaction and helped me to understand the problems and solutions better because I could relate to them.
At my job, it takes new employees more than a year to learn the work. The most helpful thing that I took from Thayer was the problem-solving approach. Problem-solving and analytical thinking are the two main things that I learned at Thayer — it’s more the processes than the actual class material that I am able to use at my job. I also appreciate that the education was so interdisciplinary.
There were more women in my environmental engineering classes than in my other engineering classes. A lot of women gravitate toward environmental engineering. Those classes were about 50-50. Even in other classes, though, I never felt looked down upon or felt that I wasn’t included because I was a woman.
I’m in Princeton because I trained with the national rowing team for a few years. My boss allowed me to work around my training hours. We don’t have a lot of women in the upper levels at work. But there are a lot of women at my level, and I hope we’ll all move up. I think the reason why we don’t have a lot of women at the upper levels is because of women leaving to have families rather than because of a glass ceiling.
I’m going to go back to school to do a Ph.D. in environmental engineering design at Carnegie Mellon. I hope to teach at the university level after I’m done.
Categories: Featurescomments powered by Disqus