Life as a Woman in Engineering

February 26, 2015 | Author: Esther Massimini

Recent television shows that appeal to young women in their teens and early twenties (along with their mothers) have emphasized STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) careers. During the first week of February, two primetime programs spent considerable airtime integrating this theme in their storylines (“The Fosters,” “Switched at Birth”). The message that STEM careers are good for women is definitely being spread.

I have spent more than a quarter of a century in the engineering field and am often asked: “What’s it like being a woman in engineering?” Or “Is it hard working in a Dilbert world?” My answer is always: “It depends.”

It depends on if you are an engineer, what your department is like, what your home/personal situation is, where you live, where you are in your career. Each person’s experience is different, depending on the work environment and personalities.  For example, when I had my children, taking even a short disability-leave for childbirth was looked at askance, as if taking extended vacation!  These days, the U.S. has the Family Leave Act and there are similar laws in other countries. It has been years since I heard anything other than a positive and supportive attitude when life happens.

Women Engineers Are Changing the World

Honeywell Aerospace Engineering VP Barbara Brockett speaks at a Society of Women Engineers event

In October 2014, I attended the Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) of Women in Computing. As a long-time member of its affiliated online community, SYSTERS, I always wanted to attend, so when the conference came to Phoenix, where I live, I jumped at the chance. I knew the late Rear Admiral Grace Hopper from my time at the Pentagon. GHC is the LARGEST gathering of technical women in the world, and is part of the The late Dr. Borg was a pioneer in Human Factors, a discipline now receiving renewed emphasis at Honeywell as part of the Honeywell User Experience--HUE.

Last October, more than 8,000 women engineers and computer scientists from around the world, along with hundreds of men filled Phoenix’s Convention Center.  It was exciting to meet such tech luminaries as the Chief Technology Officer of the U.S., Megan Smith.

From my participation in SYSTERS and groups such as the IEEE Women in Engineering and the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), I have learned people in the minority in a profession are more likely to experience phenomena such as Imposter Syndrome. I have also learned that women in different countries have very different experiences.  For example, in the Arab world and on the African continent, women are the majority in many engineering departments--from tech startups in Gaza to financial software ventures in Zambia.


Leaning In…

In 2014, the American Psychological Association published a study of U.S. women engineers titled Leaning in, but Getting Pushed Back (and Out). The study spawned international attention, including media coverage on National Public Radio. Some of the study’s conclusions were:

  • 22% of U.S. engineering degrees are granted to women but only 11% of the engineering workforce is comprised of women.  The numbers are worse for minority women.
  • Engineering has the highest turnover compared to other skilled professions: accounting, law, medicine and higher education.
  • Leaning in often does not lead to opportunity—a lot depends on the immediate supervisor.  Often it is difficult to find supervisors to help women advance professionally—or they assume women would not want the added responsibility.
  • Feeling isolated in a male-centric workplace takes a toll.


Honeywell and Women Engineers

Honeywell Aerospace has a number of initiatives for women, especially engineers. One of the most prominent is Honeywell’s corporate sponsorship of SWE. The current President of SWE is  Honeywell Aerospace engineer, Elizabeth Bierman. As part of SWE’s Corporate Partnership Council, Honeywell shares best practices for retention and other issues.  A key takeaway is the book “Be That Engineer: Inspiration and Insight from Accomplished Women Engineers,” which features several engineers with aerospace backgrounds, including Honeywell Aerospace’s Director of Engineering Operational Excellence, Marla Peterson.


Honeywell Aerospace engineer and SWE president Elizabeth Bierman with City of Phoenix Councilwoman Thelda Williams and Honeywell Aerospace VP and General Counsel Harriet Mountcastle-Walsh


Our company also launched an Aerospace Women’s Council in 2014.The council’s mission is to foster professional and leadership development through cross-organizational engagement in events and activities that support Honeywell Aerospace business objectives.


Being the change…

As SWE and Honeywell’s Elizabeth Berman said on NPR in 2014, “companies looking to retain both women and men should improve their work-life balance policies.” SWE awards a Work-Life Integration Award to “an individual who has worked to create programs that help women engineers and other employees balance the commitments of career, life and family.” As a veteran of the aerospace industry, it is encouraging to see positive change and progress.

Esther Massimini

Esther Massimini

Esther Massimini is a Principal Engineer in the Flight Management Systems Center of Excellence with Honeywell Aerospace. She has been with Honeywell for over 29 years and also has worked in the Software Center of Excellence and Computer-Aided Engineering. Before joining Honeywell, she was a Senior Engineer at Motorola and served as an officer in the U.S. Air Force. Esther has a master’s degree in Operations Research from the George Washington University (GWU) School of Engineering and Applied Science, and also holds a certificate in Program Management from GWU’s School of Business. Her undergraduate degree is from Oberlin College, where she majored in Mathematics and History. She is a member of the Society of Women Engineers and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. She is also Green Belt and Design for Six Sigma certified.

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