Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Women's History Month Blog Series (Part 1)

In recognition of Women's History Month, Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC) presents a special blog series featuring candid responses from female ECBC employees and leaders on their experiences as females in the science and engineering fields. The first part in this blog series features Meg Hower, Lead Systems Engineer for the Joint Service Aircrew Mask Joint Strike Fighter Variant (JSAM-JSF), Akansha Raja, a Systems and Logistics Engineer for the Joint Service General Purpose Mask team, and Elaine Stewart-Craig, Division Chief of the Special Projects Division in the Engineering Directorate. Check back throughout the month of March for the continuation of this series.

Meg Hower
During my first week as the new systems engineer on a program, I found myself at Brooks Air Force Base (AFB) in San Antonio. I had been invited to a program management review (PMR) for the JSAM-Fixed Wing with what was at that time the 649th AESS. The Wing Commander, a Colonel, as well as the Squadron Commander and a number of Air Force support personnel were in attendance. I remember sitting down to begin introductions and noticing that not only was I the only female in attendance, but I was also the only person not in fatigues and had to be the youngest by maybe 20 years. I felt like there was a giant red arrow hanging above me pointing out that “one of these things is not like the other!”

As a female engineer, I often find myself trying to blend in to the pack. It’s as if I don’t want colleagues to see me as a “she,” I just want them to see me as “me.” I don’t want folks to attach any connotations based simply on my gender. So in this particular scenario I was painfully aware of the contrast. I was convinced that someone else would notice, and that I would be treated differently.

But then it came to be my turn to introduce myself. I gave my name and title, the meeting coordinator moved on to the next person, and that was it. No alarms sounded and my hair didn’t catch fire. During the course of the meeting there were several occasions in which my input was sought and technical discussions were held with me as a valued contributor. Yes I am a female engineer. But the men in that room were talking to me as an engineer first.

I will admit that during my career there have been a handful of instances where I have found myself working with someone who was sexist. But when the topic of broader participation of women in the engineering field comes up, the Brooks AFB PMR is always the first thing that comes to mind for me. I can’t think of a clearer example in my experience of the shift in attitude that I believe has taken place in the last several decades. We are all, regardless of gender, working toward the common goal of providing the best support possible to the warfighter. And that, I believe, is how it should be.

Meg Hower is currently the Lead Systems Engineer for the Joint Service Aircrew Mask Joint Strike Fighter variant (JSAM-JSF). She has been with ECBC since shortly after graduating college with a bachelor of science degree in biochemistry in 2006. She has had the opportunity to work on a number of programs during that time, primarily focusing on Systems Engineering in Acquisition, particularly in the Sustainment and EMD phases.

Akanksha Raja
Even at a young age I knew that I liked working with my hands. I liked to be my father’s assistant doing household projects. As I got older I realized engineering was the way for me to develop new things while using my hands. In high school I had a wonderful chemistry teacher that intrigued my passion for chemistry. Now I had two fields that I really enjoyed, I figured why not combine the two. This is how I decided that I would like to become a chemical engineer. Last year, which was my senior year of college, I was applying for both job positions and graduate school. I put in my application for the Department of Army because of my desire to give back to the country that provided my family and me an opportunity for successes. The Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC) was the next step. As a chemical engineer I wanted to be able to use what I had learned in college and I believed working for ECBC would allow me to do so. I chose ECBC instead of graduate school to gain real work experience, while still being able to use what I had learned in school.

As female engineer just entering the workforce I can confidently say that women are gaining momentum in engineering. For example, in the chemical engineering department at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), the majority of professors are female, which is very unusual for this field. The fact that there exists an engineering department comprised mostly of women shows how the gap between women and men in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is decreasing. I believe this change is due to more women becoming independent and realizing to do so, they must acquire a good education. Fewer women today aspire to be housewives and more would like to show their potential to have an impact on our business world. This may be slightly biased; however I believe that women can multitask far better than men, allowing them to aim for higher education while maintaining a full time career. This may explain why more women are going for masters and doctoral degrees.

Regardless of the momentum, it is still hard to overcome the fact that men outnumber women in STEM fields. As a woman in a STEM field, I experienced the challenge of having to prove myself to my male colleagues. Not only as a woman, but as a minority, I had to show them that I fully understood the subjects and I could provide useful information when trying to solve problems. It took several trials but with hard work and persistence I was able to gain their respect.

Having recently graduated I know I still have much to learn about the working world. If I could offer one piece of advice to females looking to begin their careers, I would say that it does not end just because you have graduated. There will still be times were you will have to prove yourself and there will be times when you feel you may not be able to do so, but you have to push through and prove that you are just as good as anyone else.

Akanksha Raja is currently working on the Joint Service General Purpose Mask team as a Systems and Logistics engineer. She has been working at ECBC for approximately seven months and this is her first professional full time position. She recently graduated from the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) with a bachelor of science degree in chemical engineering.

Elaine Stewart-Craig
I always knew I would be in a science field and began college as a chemistry major. When I was in high school, I had multiple teachers encourage me to study engineering in college but I didn’t really understand what engineering was and so dismissed the recommendations.  During my second year in college I realized that engineering was a better fit for my math and science aptitude and switched to chemical engineering; it turns out my high school teachers did know what they were talking about. 

I initially had intended to work for a commercial company but the job market in 1982 was very weak and the largest hirer of engineers was the Department of Defense. I had intended to only stay for a few years to get some experience and wait for the job market to improve but I really liked working for the Army - I felt my work was making a difference, even if only in a small way.  Helping America’s Army while making a paycheck was so much more fulfilling than simply bringing home a paycheck, even if the other paycheck was potentially larger.    

I have been at ECBC (or early versions of ECBC) my entire career, except for a 5 month assignment at the Office of Management and Budget.  When I first started there was only one other woman engineer that worked in the same area and we didn’t work on any of the same projects.  Luckily, there were many male engineers that started at the same time as I did and they were accustomed to females in their college engineering classes so it was easy to relate and work with them.  The older male engineers had a harder time accepting the women as equals.  The first time I went TDY my supervisor asked if I needed my father’s permission to go, and he was serious.  Today being a woman at ECBC is so commonplace that I rarely notice the makeup of the organization in terms of females and males.

Elaine Stewart-Craig is the Division Chief of the Special Projects Division of the Engineering Directorate.  She has been in the engineering field for almost 28 years and has spent all of that time with the Department of Defense (DoD). She received a bachelor of science degree in chemical engineering from the University of Virginia and an MBA from Loyola.

The content in this blog entry does not represent the views or beliefs of ECBC, its employees, its management or the federal government.

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