“It’s a man’s world,” they say, and looking at the statistics one would be tempted to agree.
Despite sobering statistics, women have contributed to the diverse fields of engineering throughout history. In fact, did you know that a woman, American toolmaker Tabitha Babbit (1784 – about 1853) invented the first circular saw? And did you know that Englishwoman Sarah Guppy (1770 – 1852) patented her method for the safe piling of bridge foundations, but still gave Thomas Telford and Isambard Kingdom Brunel permission to use the design free-of-charge when building their respective suspension bridges – the Menai and the Clifton.
And Lord Byron’s daughter, Ada Lovelace (1815 – 1852), did not follow in her father’s footsteps. At her mother’s insistence, she was taught science and mathematics. Her achievements received little attention when she was alive, but her collaboration with Charles Babbage on a new kind of calculating machine, the Analytical Engine, has now earned her recognition as the ‘first computer programmer’ and founder of scientific computing.
So defying stereotypes and despite the odds, these women pursued their vision and proved that they were indeed a match for any man in their chosen profession. We celebrate five women who, with determination and talent, achieved success in a male-dominated industry.
Dr Gabriella Cerrato
President, Sound Answers Inc.
Areas of expertise
Sound and vibration quality modelling, target setting and cascading, vibroacoustic modelling and correlation of CAE models, synthesis/prediction of products’ noise and vibration performance.
Gabriella Cerrato maintains that she does best when she follows her instincts. And that’s exactly what she did when she accepted a job at a small consulting firm after getting her degree in Italy. “I could have gone to work for big labs, but for some reason I felt attracted to the small environment and the fast pace of consulting although I was a theoretical physicist and the job was really much more practical than what I was used to.” It just so happened that the small company worked in noise and vibration and she has now been in that male-dominant field for over 25 years.
Annoyed by stereotypes, she believes that women bring thoughtfulness, less ego, stronger team and collaboration spirit to the workplace. “I still cannot understand and believe that people truly think that women are weaker, but it is sadly a reality. We also tend to be more patient, less vocal, and although in my opinion this may be a good thing, it may be seen as a sign of weakness. ”However, things are changing.
“It takes time to establish yourself as someone technical in a male-dominated environment,” she says, “But a MAJOR milestone was achieved recently! For the first time in my 30 plus years of professional life, I walked into a meeting with a customer as part of an all-female project team. That was so special to me.”
A self-confessed addict to the release of endorphins, it’s not altogether surprising that a lot of Gabriella’s inspiration comes from athletes and the amount of hard work they have to do to achieve their goals without whining. However, her greatest inspiration comes from women in leadership positions: “It must have been tough, but they made it.” Despite a sterling career, Gabriella does not hesitate when asked about her greatest achievement, “Obviously my daughter,” she says, “and after that, becoming a successful entrepreneur.”
Dorte Hammershøi, MScEE, PhD
Professor, Aalborg University
Dorte Hammershøi would not change a thing about the path of her career. “Getting an engineering degree was one of the best decisions I ever made. It has provided me with so much more than just a career. ” With a vision to make a difference, she is unashamedly proud of her personal scientific results and for her contribution to the foundation of a company (AM3D) that commercializes some of her scientific findings.
Inspired by her mentor, Professor Henrik Møller, to become a scientist, she became fascinated by the need for interdisciplinary approaches to many of the challenges in the field, and so entered the world of acoustics.
She considers becoming a professor in a male-dominated scientific environment one of her greatest achievements, but still believes that, despite her own success, it will always be easier for most men to relate to other men. “Men don’t trust their ability to understand women. And probably vice versa,” she says.
A strong advocate for women to consider engineering careers, her advice is to “ignore possible barriers as they take attention and focus away from the things that matter.” She doesn’t believe that women have one common professional skill that no man has. “The fact that approximately half of the population is female suggests that our work environment will be stronger, if we recruit from both genders. We are all best challenged if our colleagues, male or female, bring unique skills and competencies to the workplace. ”
Juggling career and family, Dorte is today the proud mother of “teenage children who never cease to amaze me”. Maybe, she took a leaf out of Dr Per Brüel’s book when she says, “He apparently decided early in his life that he would live a happy life, and he managed to remain happy through great challenges. This inspires me to focus on spending my resources constructively and not dwell on hurdles.”
President, Borla Performance Industries, Inc.
I began my career in advertising,” states Alyse Borla, who went on to co-found an exhaust manufacturing business with her husband, and where the main focus was to suppress sound. In the early 80s, they moved to the mecca of car performance, Southern California, and switched focus to enhancing power and performance. “We evolved into the sound aspect, and now we offer several exhaust sound options for the same vehicle. Orchestrating the right notes is challenging and exciting, and we gain great satisfaction delivering the right sound quality to enable a driver to personalize the driving experience.”
In the corporate world of the 70s there was nothing unique about the challenges Alyse faced as a working woman. “Being a woman mostly meant being a secretary,” she says. “Over the decades since, in a male-dominated industry, I have had to fight to rise above being mostly considered ‘the wife’, even though I am the highest ranking officer.”
But with strong female role models growing up, and a husband of nearly forty years who she describes as “gender blind in every aspect of his life,” she has paved the way for today’s fiercely determined women. “A woman can elicit a receptive state of mind from a man as long as he doesn’t feel emasculated. Our nurturing nature can make us great managers and leaders and if a woman decides she wants something, she can be relentless in the pursuit of her goal.”
Her advice for women at the start of their careers? “Don’t settle but rather strive for excellence in every aspect of your life because you can have it all if you are willing to take responsibility, confront obstacles and work hard.”
“I am living my dream!” says Alyse, “Why waste your time and energy with excuses and roadblocks when there is so much happiness and fulfillment out there to grab and enjoy. My business and my family are my passions. Oh yes, and there must be dancing!”
Dr Helen Ule, PEng
Vice-President and Business Manager, Akoustik Engineering Limited
Areas of expertise
Psychoacoustics and sound quality, structural modal analysis, measurement and analysis of community noise impacts from airports, environmental noise and vibration analysis.
As a child, intrigued by space and future exploration, Helen Ule wanted to be an astronaut. Realizing that this was unrealistic, she turned to maths and science, culminating in the highest echelon of her profession – a doctorate degree in engineering. “This opened up the opportunities for me to partner in my own company in the field of noise and vibration consulting.”
An accomplished musician, Helen recalls that, “Music has always been part of my life. Going into acoustics was a natural transition.” Part of the appeal was also the fact that there were less acousticians than, for example, automotive engineers. “This suggested to me that there is something very special about being an acoustician. I always like being on the fringe, of being a bit ‘out there’.”
Her dream is to expand her company in terms of the types of consulting jobs and number of employees, “While I very much enjoy the hands-on components of taking measurements and processing data, I realize that for the company to grow I need to mentor the younger engineers and pass my experience on to them.”
For Helen, education is key, “I have encountered school guidance counsellors who have advised young women to not focus on science and mathematics... But they should not limit their education, and potentially close doors by not including maths and science in a well-rounded education.” And as a female in the industry she has never faced barriers in her professional life. “Hard work, confidence and a positive attitude will allow you to achieve the goals that you set for yourself.”
She concludes, “Women play many roles in life, and have to juggle their time around... In other words, they can be more efficient in getting things done.” She smiles wryly, “My philosophy is, if you want to get a task done sooner, rather than later, you give it to a busy person.”
Maria del Mar Franco-Jorge, MEng, AMIMechE
Engineering Function Manager, HORIBA MIRA Ltd. (MIRA)
Areas of expertise
Vehicle NVH subjective appraisals, human perception and subjective-objective correlation of NVH performance, modal analysis, vehicle ride and suspension refinement, R&D and engineering management.
“I landed in noise and vibration by chance,” says Maria del Mar Franco-Jorge, who on finishing her degree moved from Spain to the UK to join MIRA as an NVH engineer. “It was a good way to apply my ‘theoretical’ knowledge in a fun environment – driving cars on a proving ground or testing in a laboratory.” Her dream job was to become a white-coated scientist working in a laboratory. “Instead,” she laughs, “I have a managerial role, wear a suit and lead a team of very clever and challenging engineers.” Her career has been full of opportunity including a secondment in China.
In 20 years at MIRA, Maria has never found significant barriers associated with being female despite the predominantly male engineering teams. Asked what advice she would give women, she says, “There is no need to give advice, women are doing well and there is no need to try harder to prove yourself in the work environment, just because you’re a woman. Women should be confident of their own capabilities and do their best without trying to prove a point – that should be enough to make them shine!” She continues “Women tend to be able to step back and see the whole picture better than most men and, in general, are more capable of multitasking. However, this is sometimes detrimental as we miss some of the important details.” “In fact,” she adds, “being a woman has not made
a difference to the path of my career. Being a mother has.”
A good work-life balance is often one of the biggest challenges for women, and Maria makes time for friends and family, travelling, running and swimming – an accomplishment she’s proud of. “At the end of the day, I guess my biggest achievement is to be able to juggle professional and personal life with reasonable competence.”
*Source: UN report, 'The World's Women 2010: Trends and Statistics'