One issue that frequently comes up for women who are educated as engineers is dealing with the idea that you are different; different from other women, different from male engineers, different from society’s expectations of you.
Jill Tietjen, an electrical engineer with more than 40 years of experience in the electric utility industry, long ago accepted her differences, and, sort of revels in them.
“I think it was very helpful that I was a girl scout, played the violin in an orchestra, and that I was always different growing up. I was doing jigsaw puzzles when I was two years old, and I was the shortest kid in class all the way through. I didn’t live in the right neighborhood. I was Jewish — in Virginia. And Jewish in Virginia, by the way, in the ‘50s and ‘60s meant that you couldn’t use the yacht club. I’m the oldest of four and the only one that is not a trained sailor because that rule was still in place when I was old enough to start sailing classes. But my sister and two younger brothers are champion sailors. I was always different. I was always the smart kid. I was always weird.”
But being different never stopped her. She served as the national president of the Society of Women Engineers, has been involved with IEEE women in engineering, is currently an IEEE Senior Member, and is currently writing about women in history who have made scientific and engineering discoveries.
Tietjen also sits on two boards, one an electric utility in Georgia that recently appointed a woman as CEO, and the other one an engineering firm in Denver.
An engineering beginning
Tietjen’s dad was a PhD engineer, working at NASA at the Langley Research Center (where the events covered in the movie Hidden Figures took place). As the oldest of four children of a federal government employee who wanted to send all four of his children to college, she was told that she would attend an in-state school.
Prior to college, Tietjen had a small career as a babysitter for several of her Dad’s coworkers. At 16, she was given a book on Fortran, one of the earlier computer programming languages.
“That’s what I did when I babysat, I learned Fortran. So, I saw all those engineers, but I never saw a woman as an engineer. I’m one of the first 10 women to graduate in engineering from the University of Virginia, and we were our own role models.
The University of Virginia admitted women as undergraduates for the first time in the fall of 1970. Tietjen graduated from high school in 1972. Her guidance counselor discouraged her from applying because she didn’t think Tietjen would get in.
Fortunately, Tietjen ignored that advice, applied and was accepted as a math major in the College of Arts and Sciences.
“Nobody told me that with the talents, abilities, and the skillset that I had, that I should consider engineering as a career, or that I should pursue an engineering education. But I loved calculus, so I filled out my application as a math major for the College of Arts and Sciences.
“I placed out of a semester of English and a semester of calculus, which is a very unusual combination. Halfway through my first semester, I could see what the kids in engineering were doing, the kind of classes they were taking. There were some engineering girls on my hall and I knew that was what I wanted to do. I was initially a math major. But there was an applied math major in the school of engineering. So, I became an applied math major with a minor in electrical engineering. I called home on the payphone in the hall of my dormitory to speak to my parents. At first, they thought I was calling because I was pregnant, but it was worse than that. I had transferred to engineering.
“Mom said, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ But Dad was absolutely ecstatic. I graduated in four years with applied math and a minor in electrical engineering. I belonged. That was where I needed to be. That was where I fit. That was where my skillset was.
“There were seven girls in my class. No, we didn’t blend in the class. We didn’t have any female professors. Did I know there weren’t any women in engineering? Did I know that the first year that the percentage of women in engineering in the U.S. reached 1% was 1972? No, I just thought there were no women in engineering at the University of Virginia because there were no women at the University of Virginia. And then I went into the workforce and went, ‘Oh my goodness, holy cow!’
“It was a good experience for me though, being at the University, because it prepared me to be different. No matter what I did, I wasn’t going to fit in. I couldn’t, because I wasn’t the norm,” she said.
While it’s a common feeling that there’s perceptual bias against women in engineering fields, Tietjen’s experience with two teasing, merciless brothers prepared her to work alongside men.
“I was already very used to male humor, the badgering, the back and forth, how to deal with it, how to handle it, how not to get upset about it, how to give it back,” she said.
Keeping the lights on
Today, Tietjen works in the electric utility industry, which she loves. She’s especially proud of the fact that during this pandemic, utility companies have kept the electricity supply coming.
“Electricity is being provided exactly as it needs to be provided, exactly as if nothing else is happening right now. There are hundreds of thousands of people who work to make sure that happens. Electricity has to be provided. It’s actually an obligation.”
Tietjen describes herself as a planner, which helps with her job of plant development. These huge facilities have hundreds of millions of dollars invested, which requires a lot of planning and documentation. Often, both written and oral testimony are required, which Tietjen handles. After the plants are built, they are put in rate base, which she testifies to so that the power plant is certified.
One would think that such projects build leadership skills, but Tietjen said her leadership skills came more from the volunteering she did through the Society of Women Engineers.
“When you work with volunteers, you do not have the option to hire or fire. So, you must persuade people to help with your project, whether it’s establishing a scholarship fund, raising the money for the scholarship, and so on. You have to persuade and motivate people to want to work with you. During those efforts, I learned budgeting skills, networking skills, facilitating strategic planning skills, and how to work with other people. I learned all of those things through my nonprofit activities, but in many ways those experiences supported and enhanced my career development,” she said.
The most important communication skill she learned was listening.
“You need to listen to what a person says, pay attention to how they feel, notice how they’re reacting, and understand also that people don’t hear what you say. I learned early that you need to verify what they heard you say. I had a person that was working for me and I gave her instructions. And then I asked, ‘Now, what did I just tell you that I wanted you to do?’ And she told me, and it wasn’t even close to what I thought I had told her I wanted her to do,” Tietjen said.
That listening, that communication, and valuing everyone on the team are critical. Everyone is important.
“I was in a work situation back in the day when you actually had the word processing staff type your reports and testimony. I was traveling and I needed something immediately. The only reason I got it done was because I had always treated the word processing staff with respect. I treated them with value. I understood the important role that they were playing. And I thanked them, appreciated them for what they were doing.”
“I’ve had plenty of failures, but I don’t know that I would consider any of them engineering failures.
“My perspective has been that I contributed in some way to a situation. So, I want to figure out how to fix what I’m doing wrong, and I want to not make those same mistakes again. So, what is it that I can do differently? How can I learn from the situation? I’m going to make mistakes. I’m human. Let’s just hope I make different mistakes. Let’s not make that same mistake again,” she said.
One “engineering failure” Tietjen mentions is the low number of women entering and staying in engineering.
“I’ve been working to increase the number of women and percentage of women in engineering for 40 years, along with many men, university programs, organizations, even government initiatives. And we’re not there.
“I was on the steering committee for the celebration of women in engineering for the NAE, the National Academy of Engineering, 1997 and 1999. And our motto at that time was 50-50 by 2020.
“There are so many reasons why we have not reached higher numbers. If we really knew the answer, we could fix it. One of the reasons I’m a big supporter of the National Center for Women in Information Technology, which was an outgrowth of a conference that I helped organized in 2002, was because I thought, ‘Okay, if they can fix this problem for computer science and information technology, we’ll just take the strategies that they used and then apply them to all the engineering and hard sciences.’ That was 2002. That organization is almost 20 years old, and the last time I saw the numbers on computer science and information technology, they were going down. Women started at about 40% in computing or some high number. I could have the number wrong, and then it was under 10% last I heard. Girls are 40% of the STEM workforce based on ability. But in developed countries where women have choices, they choose other things.”
Clearly there’s a need not being met by companies and industry to keep women, who are well-trained in engineering, in their fields.
“I’ve been the only woman on the Georgia Transmission Board off and on for 24 years. There’s now another woman on the board, the first one since 2010. I do activities for the women in the company, because I think it’s important to be that role model, and to see that you can persevere.”
The National Academy of Engineering, 20 years ago, tried to change the perspective of engineering, and tried to change the percentages of women in engineering.
“We’re pretty much in the same place. I think the career is wonderful. I think it’s important. I think it’s beneficial. I think engineers do incredibly important work. I think we need diversity of all kinds in order to make projects and products that work for everyone.
“But there are plenty of other choices, plenty of other ways to make money, to support your family, to get satisfaction. Very few people are one-dimensional,” she said.
Society has long held an opinion of which gender does what.
“Men are groomed by their parents and society to be the breadwinner. They need to stick it out in their career choice because they see themselves as having to provide for their family, and so on.
“Women have not been encouraged to have careers. And when they do, they have additional responsibilities. There are so many things that happen in their lives. They’re the ones that end up being responsible for almost all of it, kids, elder parents, husbands or partners focused on their own career.
“I have a very dear friend I met through the board of trustees at the engineering school, at the University of Virginia. And one time she took me aside and she said, ‘Jill, I couldn’t stay in engineering. I have three kids and my husband was so work-focused, the only way I could do it was if I stepped back from engineering.’ She became a teacher. But she apologized to me,” Tietjen said.
The support structures to encourage and then support women in engineering are not as strong as they need to be. It’s the women who are expected to pull back from their careers when family and other issues arise.
The pandemic may finally shift this perspective a bit. Tietjen thinks one positive effect will be that anyone, man or woman, will be able to work from home as needed.
“We just spent more than a year working from home and so we know we can do it. Many of the businesses that are doing work from home are finding out that they’re actually more productive. So, nobody can say you can’t be productive working from home.
“From that perspective, that might make it a little bit easier for women and men with family responsibilities. A father might want to attend a parent-teacher conference or a child’s afterschool game. After the pandemic is over, if anybody raises an eyebrow about that, you just have to look at them as the employee and go, ‘Well, where were you for the last pandemic years?’”
“I’ve spent more than 40 years working to encourage more women and young people to be engineers,” Tietjen said. “I just feel so strongly that young women need encouragement to consider this great field. I didn’t get that encouragement. People didn’t tell me I needed to do that. I didn’t get appropriate advice at key points along the way.
It’s so important for these young women to have the opportunity to know that this is a wonderful, marvelous career. I actually [say to] one of my friends, Lynn, who is a college Dean, ‘Lynn, everyone should be an engineer.’”