Visit Mentors' Round Table to read our interviews of women in the fields of science and health. These are women of varying levels of experience and backgrounds, brought to the table to answer your questions about everything from work-life balance to financial management. Read on, be inspired, and leave them (and us!) a comment!
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Engineering is a field that many women shy away from because it is heavily math and science based and has a reputation for being difficult to study. However, a clever woman can do very well with an engineering degree. Below we feature an interview with a female, Orthodox, electrical engineer working in industry.
What is your career?
Engineering management. My educational background is in Mechanical Engineering, now I am working in Electrical Engineering (Utility Industry).
Where are you in your career?
Practicing 4 years with a bachelors and masters in engineering.
How did you choose your career?
I like science, specifically physics, and math. I knew the medical field was not for me. Engineering is all about taking science concepts and making them applicable in the real world. I like its challenge and the way it keeps you asking questions and gaining more knowledge. For a while I wanted to design roller coasters, but the best firms for that are in Switzerland. Although, after I got my degree in engineering I was offered a job at Disney World (I had applied there as a lark) but did decline it.
Were there any obstacles you had to face in your training or later career?
Coming from an Orthodox [Jewish] school I had relatively little background in science or math. I did take all the courses I could in high school, but had to learn a lot in college. Luckily, having an aptitude for it helped. Majoring in Engineering as a whole is very difficult for the average American because we do not usually come in to college with the work ethic needed to do well in the classes. Studying and practice are essential in this major, more so than other programs. That is why approximately 50% of freshman change their field of study from engineering to something else.
Also, this is not the career for someone who will only want to work part-time or take off long periods of time. It is much easier to find a job right out of college than to wait a few years. And to get a good job, most places expect you to have done some sort of relevant internship during the summer. I had been on a fellowship during my senior year/1st year graduate school teaching science technology in public school that seemed to be looked at favorably during interviews.
Have there been any problems in your work life or training that have arisen because of your religion?
In training –the usual issues that come up when going to a secular college, having to tell professors you need to take off days and reschedule tests around yomim tovim (Jewish holidays). For the most part, the professors were very reasonable. As for being a frum (religious/orthodox) female, Engineering tends to be a very male dominated profession. It was not unusual for me to be the only female in a class, regardless of my religion. The one thing that I did notice is if I was not in class for whatever reason it would be noted more so than if a male had not been there. I had no problem being the only female in a study group or on a project team; I was always treated very respectfully by the others.
In my work life- I work in a field where emergencies can crop up at any time and I need to be available. Before I took my current job I made a point of telling my manager that because I am frum (religious/orthodox) I need to leave earlier on some Fridays. I try not to take advantage of this, and I make up the time by coming in earlier than my usual start time Mon-Fri. As for yomim tovim, I am given the option to do overtime for comparable hours so that is what I usually use. If not, then I have to take off the days as vacation days. I do offer, however, to work on the days that my coworkers would usually want off, Jan 1, Dec 25 etc. When I work in the field I wear jeans with a denim skirt on top. If people ask me questions about it I have no problem answering, though it usually isn’t even mentioned. Most of the time I am in an office environment, and a lot of the people I work with do not even notice that I wear skirts because of religious issues, they just think I like to wear skirts.
How do you handle ethical questions that arise?
For the most part they do not come up that often. If there is an issue, such as having a situation where they want me to work on shabbos, I tell them no, but that I will work up to whatever hour I am able to and then come in immediately after shabbos is over. Sometimes people I work with will ask me questions regarding my religious views or acts but this is usually fueled by curiosity and asked with respect and I try to answer them in the appropriate manner.
What do you like best about your career? What do you like least?
Best- the ability to keep learning and gain additional knowledge. Being involved with high profile projects and knowing I had a hand in getting them off the ground.
Least- I chose to work for a large corporation, but sometimes the bureaucracy can really bog you down. There is also a salary cap, so do not go into engineering to become a millionaire unless you want to work very hard and start your own firm. That being said, amongst fortune 500 companies, many of the CEOs have engineering degrees.
Are you married? No
How do you balance family and work life? The same as everyone else, I imagine. I chose to have a steadier 9-5 job so that I could have a life outside of work. Yes, there have been times where I had to work a 12 hour shift but most of the time I don’t have to do that. I also have a job where I do not have to bring home work from the office, so once I am out of work I can leave it all behind.
What does your family think about your career?
They are proud of me and are happy that I found a career and field of study I enjoy. My parents really encouraged me to do whatever it was that I wanted as a career. I knew in high school that I was expected to go to college and find a field in which I could support myself, but there was no pressure in any way as to what direction that may take. It is not my family, but usually acquaintances who think I am “weird”, for lack of a better term, because I did not choose to go into more popular careers like speech/ot/pt/special ed.
How do/did you handle the financial stress of training?
There is not a training period per se in engineering other than getting at a minimum a bachelor’s degree. I was lucky enough to get a scholastic scholarship in undergrad to help pay for my tuition and then was on fellowship for the first part of my masters degree. The second half my company paid for, as I had already started working for them and they have a tuition reimbursement program. I also chose to go to a private school for my studies, however there are state and local schools with engineering programs in which tuition is much less and in some cases, free.
Are things turning out the way you planned or are they different? Is your career different than what you expected when you chose it?
I do not think anything turns out exactly the way you planned it to. I went into college knowing I wanted to be an “engineer” but not knowing what type I wanted to be. I chose mechanical engineering because it was the broadest of the fields. As for my job right now it seemed like the best of the choices I had when I wanted to enter the professional world. For the most part it has been very good to me. I started out at the low rung professionally but know I will have a chance to grow and develop. I also knew going into this career that I did not want to have my own business or work for a mom-and-pop shop but rather to work for a large corporation. Engineering is a broad enough filed that there is that option.
Do you have any advice for students aspiring to be where you are?
If this is the career you want do not let anyone talk you out of it. In the end, it is your life and only you can decide what you want to do with it. Be prepared to study very hard and have a good work ethic. This is not the type of educational path that you can just fake your way out of, or get the test answers from someone who took the class the semester before. Remember that schooling is important to understanding the concepts you will need in your career, but is usually theoretical and is not always relevant directly to real-world applications. If you are unsure if this is what you want to do, try to find someone in this field and talk to them, or even spend a couple of days following them around at work. That way, either you will be interested in pursuing it further or you will know it is definitely not the job for you. A couple of times a year I do have people calling me up and asking about engineering as a career. I try to be as honest and even-handed as I can and say what it is and isn’t.
Also, don’t be afraid to be smart.
If you could do this over again would you? Is there anything you would change?
Yes, but I might go to a better school for my education.
Do you have any role models you look up to?
Yes, both in regular life and at work. There are those I admire because of how they act and what they have achieved. I also have other frum people at work that I can go to (though not in my department) if I have particular issues I feel they might have encountered before and whom I respect.