GE additive blog
A View from a Woman Engineer
In honor of International Women in Engineering Day, Kelly Brown shared with us the support and resistance she experienced on her path to becoming an engineer.
I had some strong women in my life too, but generally, their advice was not to make waves and go for a career that would not hinder my husband’s career and was more flexible for when I had a family. Now, to be fair, that was a pretty common response at the time. I just knew I could not be a teacher or a nurse, which were the main career paths for girls at the time. I didn’t like kids at the time and I can’t do bodily fluids…so they were just not options for me. Nope, I knew math and science; I knew how to build things; I could weld, redesign and rebuild things better than the original design. Yep, I was going to be an engineer.
As I approached my junior year of high school in 1988, I was taking advanced classes, classes at night at the community college; I was setting myself up for my engineering path. I walked into the guidance counselor’s office to finish filling out applications to college. The guidance counselor looked over my application and said, “Wait, these are all for engineering.” I confirmed that they were, in fact, for engineering. She said something I will never forget: “You can’t do engineering, especially as a female. Let me get you some applications for teaching.” As she looked at my facial expression, she filled in, “It’ll be good, you can teach math and science.” Still speechless at this point, she ended with, “Look, you will find your husband in college, you will have kids, you will need flexibility to raise your family. Choose wisely.” I took a deep breath and replied. I will remove some of the colorful words I chose that day that got me an in-school suspension, so I will paraphrase: “How can you consider that good advice? How can you tell me what I will or will not study in college? Literally, the thing I choose will be for the rest of my working life!” Then I added, “Thankfully, you find yourself across the desk from a strong female; thankfully, I couldn’t care less what your advice is. I have known I will be an engineer since I was about eight years old. I will not make a grave mistake of following your advice. But consider the next female who comes into this office and consider enabling her to follow her dream no matter what is on the paper. If she has the aptitude to follow the dream, it is your job to help her do that. Do not impose your 1950s mentality on anyone else.” I stormed out and reported to the vice principal’s office for my punishment. It was totally worth it.
Now, one thing she was right about. I was married and a mom before I finished my degree. I had to take time away from school to run the family business, so life got in the way for a bit. However, I survived, and a couple of years paused is way better than 30+ years of doing something I would hate. I will take it.
I ran into similar roadblocks in college. Especially as a mom who commuted and worked. I was told repeatedly by some of the male faculty that my responsibilities were at home. I was told I would never finish. I was reminded that my grades would continue to suffer with so much on my plate, so I should just quit. I used that as my ultimate motivation. I could prove all of them wrong. I went on to leave my class as the highest-paid coming out of school, not the highest-paid female but the highest-paid in the graduating class. The top students were amazed. You see, real work experience in engineering while finishing my engineering degree meant my 2.9 GPA didn’t matter. I may have been 1 of 10 females in my class (which is still a relevant number in some schools today), but I was doing real work and was already outpacing the new students who didn’t have that experience. During graduation, my kids watched me walk across that stage, which meant the world to me. They saw what hard work can do for you and what their sacrifices did for me. Equally special, my grandfather, father and godfather where there, still cheering me on and telling me, “Now it is time to actually run the world.” I haven’t accomplished that yet, but there is still time left.
I tell this story as we continue to talk about how to get women into STEM, how to get girls in elementary and middle school excited about engineering. [WATCH VIDEO]The numbers don’t show a huge jump from when I graduated. It could be poor guidance counselors or poor teachers or professors or even people in your own family who are trying to help you make what they perceive to be the right choice. If you see a young girl who leans towards the math and sciences, nurture her. Help her know what’s possible and then let her choose her path. Too often people intervene because they care, and they think they are helping. Those of us who are lucky to know better can at least offer invaluable information to help that girl know what is possible. The rest is up to her.
"Your career is not a straight line."
Kelly Brown is the engineering operations leader at GE Additive and was interviewed during Women in 3D Printing week to share some of her experiences gained while working in the 3D-printing industry.