From Curious Little Girl to Household Breadwinner

Stephanie in a portrait with her two kids.

Stephanie says that single parents are rare in her field. Photo by CaraLynn Birts Photography

March 09, 2015

Stephanie became an engineer, in part, because she broke a toaster. “I remember being a kid and just wondering how things worked, like the toaster. I remember being fascinated by the toaster and trying to figure out how it knew when to pop up the toast. So I got in trouble for tearing the toaster apart to see how it worked.”

Luckily, Stephanie’s mom supported her curiosity and encouraged her to develop her interest in science and engineering. Throughout middle and high school Stephanie took part in opportunities like Science Olympiad and various Michigan university summer engineering programs.

Now, as an African American woman in the technology field, Stephanie volunteers at similar programs to show students the opportunities available to them in engineering and computing. She illustrates possible careers with things they use every day, like toasters and cell phones.

“When I’m speaking to students, I try to meet them where they are and get them to see that there is more to life than what you can see for yourself. Sometimes you just need one person who looks like you so you know that it’s an option for you as well,” Stephanie says.

Engineering brought Stephanie work she enjoys and a stable foundation for her family. But as her story and the AAUW research report Solving the Equation: The Variables for Women’s Success in Engineering and Computing illustrate, women who pursue the benefits of engineering and computing jobs still often face gender bias and tough environments.

A lonely road

Solving the Equation
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In college Stephanie and the other eight female electrical engineering majors supported each other through the difficult program. Together they dealt with professors who weren’t used to having women in the program, were flirtatious, or didn’t like to choose women to participate in class. The nine women still keep in touch today.

It was different in the workplace.

“It’s still a very male-dominated industry,” says Stephanie. “Very often I’m the only woman in the room. Very early on in my career, I was highly intimidated by men. I would rarely say something in a meeting, even if I knew it was a valid contribution.”

Stephanie says she has grown and adjusted to the challenges, but it can still be an isolating environment. Today she is the only African American woman on her 60-person team. Only one of the five leads on the project is a woman. And while she isn’t as intimated any more, she still has to deal with bias from others.

“As a woman in a technology field I find that no matter who I’m working for or what team I’m supporting or how many woman are there or not, I’m constantly starting over. As a consultant I have various clients. Each time I start a new project I have to set a precedent, show my value, and prove that I have credibility. It doesn’t matter how many years I’ve been in the field or how many clients I’ve had; I find that that is a recurring process. I don’t know if it’s the same for men, but very often I find I have to prove myself all over again.”

Changing priorities and work-life balance

Stephanie entered the field of engineering because she liked gadgets and wanted to build robots, but now as a divorced single mother, engineering is most important to her as a source of stability and financial security. She views her current job in cybersecurity consulting as what her family needs at this point in their lives.

“In my transition back to engineering, a former director said to me, if you really want stability in the industry you should go into security. Security is the next big thing, everyone will have to have it, and it will give you some longevity and stability. So I migrated onto other security tasks and went from there.”

Stephanie was one of nine women in her electrical engineering major.

Stephanie was one of nine women in her electrical engineering major.

It isn’t easy being a single parent. Stephanie says that single parents are rare in her field, and most of her male co-workers are either single or have spouses at home to cover child care. “I’m a very hands-on parent,” she says. “I constantly weigh the two as priorities and often will take the hit in my career to support my family.” One of those hits involved turning down a promotion because the additional demands would mean more time away from her kids, and because moving up the corporate ladder would mean less of the hands-on, technical aspects that she enjoys.

Her current employer does offer benefits like flextime and backup dependent care services that allow her to be present in both her career and her family. Most important is having leadership who “gets it.” But Stephanie says some workers still expect that family life will be sacrificed for work, which isn’t an option she has as a single mother.

What’s next?

Stephanie doesn’t think she will be in consulting or cybersecurity forever. Eventually she sees herself moving on to other interests and opportunities. For one thing, she still wants to build robots.

But meanwhile, she counsels girls to have confidence in their ability to build a career in engineering or technology. “You can do it!” she says. “You’re no different than anyone else. You can build an app, build a game, build the next toaster, or design the next super-duper flat iron. There are so many tools that we use as women that are designed by men that we may have been better off designing ourselves.”

“I often say it’s cool to be a girl geek. And if that’s your heart’s desire just keep pushing for it, seek out those opportunities, meet those people, and try.”

Check back later for more stories from women in engineering and technology, as well as the release of the AAUW research report Solving the Equation: The Variables for Women’s Success in Engineering and Technology, coming March 26!

Solving the Equation is made possible by these generous supporters: the National Science Foundation, Research on Gender in Science and Engineering award 1420214; AT&T; and the Mooneen Lecce Giving Circle.

This post was written by Research Intern Jean DeOrnellas.


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By:   |   March 09, 2015

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