The Shoulders of GiantsMarch 27, 2009
They say that behind every successful man is a woman. I think it’s also fair to say that behind every successful woman is a woman — or, more likely, many women. Women’s History Month is a good time to think about the women who have helped us get where we are today — our mothers, our sisters, our mentors. Specifically, I’d like to write about two women who are breaking through barriers in engineering and helping other women (including myself) to succeed along the way.
Peggy Olorunsola earned her engineering degree from the University of Illinois in the 1970s, when there were far fewer women in engineering than there are today. When she was hired for her first engineering job, she was told outright that she was being hired not for her strengths as an engineer but because affirmative action required companies to hire women. It turned out she was a terrific structural engineer as well as a great manager, and she climbed her way up the ranks to become the director of engineering at Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation. Born Peggy O’Reilly, an Irish Catholic, she married a man from Nigeria and together they raised three sons. As the mother of three African American young men, Peggy has a special appreciation for the challenges facing both women and minorities in the workplace. Perhaps because of this, Peggy has made a point of hiring women and minority engineers, including myself. As my boss, she cultivated my strengths and made it possible for me to work part time as I earned my graduate degree. She talked to me about her own experiences as an engineer and what kept her motivated and engaged in her job. In short, she was a valuable mentor.
Alice Phinney is the head of mechanical engineering at the same company. Alice earned her first bachelor’s degree in biology and later went back to school to earn a second one in mechanical engineering once she realized that the job market held more opportunities for engineering than for biology majors. I met Alice when I was assigned to a project on which she was the lead design engineer. The daughter of a well-respected and well-known engineer, Alice has a dynamic personality and a million ideas. As my boss and mentor, she gave me lots of opportunities to learn and grow as an engineer and when she moved to another project, she recommended that I replace her as the lead design engineer. Because Alice believed in me and created opportunities for me to grow in my career, I had opportunities that I otherwise would not have had.
There is a stereotype that women are their own worst enemies in the workplace. That hasn’t been my experience; in fact, women have been my greatest allies.
This post is part of a special Women’s History Month series.