23 Feb Mentors inspire female engineers to dream big
Marian McClellan arrived in Kansas City a few years ago with 30 years of experience as a chemical engineer at large corporations and a sense of obligation to aspiring girls and young women in the field. Although she knew the gender gap had narrowed over the course of her career, she sensed momentum was slowing.
“I’m sometimes dismayed we haven’t seen more progress when it comes to women in engineering,” Marian said, “but we’re blessed with lots of data that tells us where the issues are. And that data tells us that mentoring is the best way to move the needle.”
Now she’s at work on an initiative to make it easier for mentors in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields to connect with those who need them while also offering support, coaching and fellowship. Called Mentor Makers, the initiative by KC STEM Alliance is in its pilot year.
Tiffany Wheeler, P.E., a civil engineer for KCP&L, said mentors can “make it or break it” for aspiring engineers. She credits a mentor from her childhood church with sparking her initial interest in the field.
“I was able to see her success as a chemical engineer who got a great job at a pharmaceutical company,” Tiffany said. “It sounded amazing and I wasn’t even aware it was an option. I ended up enrolling in engineering at Tulane University.”
Likewise, mentors helped Angela Oguna Oruoch, P.E., an electrical engineer with Black & Veatch, shape her education and career choices. When she arrived from Kenya to study engineering at the University of Kansas, her first mentor was a professor who hired her to work on his research team.
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Questions
There she learned the value of asking lots of questions and discovering all she could from the experiences of her coworkers, who included both graduate and undergrad students with a mix of industry and academic backgrounds.
“It really helped me see the value of industry experience, which influenced my decision to go into industry rather than straight into graduate school,” Angela said. “It also encouraged me to dig deeper and be courageous about seeking help from mentors.”
While still a student she attended a National Society of Black Engineers event where she met a Kansas City-based engineer working in her area of interest.
“When I found out he worked in the power industry, I said: ‘You’re my mentor now, OK?’” Angela remembers. “And he said ‘Yes.’ When I followed up afterward by email he offered to help me get connected in Kansas City.”
Angela took an internship and later a full-time position at Overland Park-based Black & Veatch, which offers employee resource groups and a formal mentoring program.
“Even with programs readily at hand, you must take the initiative to seek out what you need,” Angela said, noting that mentors can be valuable mid-career as well as early on.
“I recently was at a point of transition so I sought out an experienced female engineer who had tried pretty much every combination of work and home life,” she said. “Her youngest child is in his 20s now and I benefited from what she had learned. That helped me find a sweet spot where I can balance my career with the needs of my young son. Knowing her experiences helped me go forward confidently to propose a plan that would work for me.”
Role Models Matter
Marian, who also actively sought out mentors during her career, said she didn’t fully understand the inherent benefits of having positive role models early on until she started her professional life. As she got to know other young female engineers, she realized she was immune to some of the negative messages many of her peers had internalized.
That’s because Marian’s mother, Dorothy McClellan, is an award-winning civil engineer who founded her own company and passed down a pragmatic, problem-solving approach to the challenges of being a female in a male-dominated profession.
“My mother acknowledged stress but emphasized that being stressed is an indication that you’re doing something important,” Marian said. “I did sometimes receive some backlash in my career, but I always thought it was about them, and not about me. I never doubted a woman’s place in engineering; it was something I’d seen my entire life.”
Like Marian, Tiffany Wheeler believes strongly in the “You can only be what you can see” adage. She got into engineering thanks to her church friend and thanks to college peers and mentors, she stayed the course even when Hurricane Katrina upended her plans. After the hurricane ravaged New Orleans, Tulane cut all but two of its engineering programs, which ultimately led Tiffany to transfer and finish her degree at the University of Missouri. Today she concentrates on giving back by volunteering for STEM camps, robotics competitions and by speaking to engineering classes about her career.
“It’s so important for students to see someone who looks like them achieving their goals,” Tiffany said. “I also mentored freshmen and sophomores at the College of Engineering. I know that having the support of the mentors in my life was really critical for me.”
Angela also has supported Project Lead The Way engineering students through a Black & Veatch program with Ruskin High School.
“When you can turn around and teach someone else something your mentor taught you, it really reinforces who you are as a person,” Angela said. “We are building a workforce together and each person is adding another link to the chain. The best mentor relationships are a two-way street where we’re learning from each other.”
This enthusiasm for mentoring is encouraging to Marian: “This is our golden moment. We have a critical mass of women wanting to help women and men who are supportive. The engineering community in Kansas City is close knit and we’re poised to make a real difference.”