Laura Supra, Global Product Management and Applications Leader, GE Power and Rebecca Stoner, Senior Director of Engineering Interiors, Collins Aerospace
For sisters Rebecca Stoner and Laura Supra, engineering was a natural choice. Both women credit their family’s influence with their decision to study engineering and even their younger brother, Brad Dittmer, said he chose to follow in their footsteps.
Their father was an electrical engineer who gave them plenty of opportunities to fall in love with the field — from visits to his family’s farm in North Dakota to see how the agricultural machinery worked to watching the space shuttle launches — Stoner’s and Supra’s father inspired their professional calling.
“My dad made a point to wake my siblings and me up to watch the space shuttle launches, as well as take us to endless railroad museums where we learned about steam locomotives and the railroad industry,” Stoner said. She added that her sister’s choice also inspired her.
“My older sister, Laura, decided to become an aerospace engineer, following her dream to become an astronaut,” Stoner said. “Laura’s confidence in herself to follow her dreams gave me confidence that I would be able to make it through the tough engineering coursework.”
Supra added that her mother was integral in her love for space exploration. “My mother told me she held me in front of the television so I could watch the first man walk on the moon and my dad made sure we watched all the early space shuttle launches that were broadcast,” Supra said. “Based on that, it is not surprising that I selected aerospace for my undergraduate degree at the University of Colorado at Boulder and I stayed to get my master’s degree.”
Dittmer cited his older sisters as his inspiration to obtain an engineering degree. All three graduated from the University of Colorado. “I’ve always looked up to both of my sisters and their ability to succeed,” he said. “Knowing both of them decided to pursue an engineering degree made it a very easy decision for me as their younger brother.”
Although a stellar English student, Supra realized that a STEM career was the way to go for her. “One thing that I liked about math and science was that there was one right answer,” Supra said. “So being an engineer aligned with my interest in solving hard problems. Studying aerospace fit with my passion to push boundaries and explore as well and I eventually applied to become an astronaut.”
For her part, Stoner said her engineering aptitude became clear when she was young. She always liked to make things and know how and why things work. “My mom would tell you I mastered the art of the ‘5 Whys’ at an early age,” Stoner said. “I probably should have recognized that I was an engineer in training when for a seventh grade history project, I decided to make a miniature rolltop desk from balsa wood as a vehicle for my paper. Thankfully, my dad was willing to help me realize my vision.”
Making big impacts
Supra is a global product management and applications leader at GE Power focused on the technical sale strategy of next-generation gas turbines, specifically focusing on the China growth region. She has a M.S. and B.S. degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado, Boulder and more than 24 years of experience in the Aerospace and Power Generation fields.
Early in her career, Supra played an active role in Lunar/Mars exploration technology development. At the time she worked at AlliedSignal and focused on developing air and water recycling systems for space applications and she was selected to be one of four human test subjects at NASA Johnson Space Center for a 91-day isolated self-sustained test representative of a Lunar/Mars mission.
The test consisted of a series of life support equipment tests with humans in the loop as the metabolic load. The crew was comprised of two women and two men, with two being engineers and two scientists. “I partnered with the other engineer to maintain the life support equipment inside the isolation chamber while a support team on the outside monitored us,” Supra noted.
“This experience was like being an astronaut, except on the ground with gravity, and required using equipment as would be required for a lunar or Mars human habitat to recycle all the air and water we used. It was a very successful test overall and we were presented the Rotary International Stellar Team Award ‘in recognition of contributions to significant advances in science, medicine, and technology that will lead the way for human exploration of the Moon, Mars and beyond.’”
As the Sr. Director of Engineering for Collins Aerospace Interiors business, Stoner is responsible for new product development as well as supporting fielded products. She began her engineering career in the automotive industry and joined UTAS in 1995. She held various technical leadership positions of increasing responsibility in the Interiors Seating division from 1995-2015.
Stoner holds a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Colorado, where she served as a Resident Advisor, an Engineering Student Ambassador, and spoke at her engineering convocation ceremony. She will receive her MBA from the University of Colorado this December.
Helping to bring back ‘the magic of flight’ was one of her most significant design projects. “When I worked within our seating business, I was responsible for all technical aspects of the Boeing 787 Cabin Attendant Seating contract, which I am pleased to say we won. The vision for the Dreamliner was to bring back the magic of flight. And it was our goal to support that,” Stoner said.
“We were able to accomplish this by balancing the structural aspects with human factors and industrial design. Every time I board a 787 and see our Cabin Attendant Seat at the entry door, I am proud of the work accomplished by our design and operations team in helping keep the Cabin Crew safe and able to do their jobs in the event of an emergency.”
Breaking down the barriers
While both agree that the barriers continue to fall for women engineers, there is still much work to be done to engage more young women in the field.
“I believe that barriers still exist in today’s engineering companies for women and this is evident by the lack of female role models in high-level leadership positions. In many of my engineering college classes 30 years ago, I was often the only female in the class and still to this day it is quite common that I am the only woman in a meeting with numerous male attendees,” Supra said. “Although many engineering companies are focused on balancing the equation by hiring more women as GE is with their Edison Engineering program, there continues to be a gap of more experienced women in engineering.”
She adds that women need to support each other as they become engineering leaders. “I believe that in order to retain female engineers, women need to champion other women as well as continue to educate others that good leaders have different styles and employees should be measured by their achievements,” Supra said.
Stoner agreed, adding that women also need to believe in themselves. “First, we need to overcome our self-made barriers. We can’t limit ourselves by only considering ‘traditional’ women’s careers,” Stoner said. “Second, women need to overcome self-doubt and perfectionism. No one is perfect and we are capable of anything we set our minds to.”
Stoner advises that more women engineers need to trust that they are as capable as their male colleagues and take the tough assignments. “Don’t shy away from the troubled programs,” she said. “That is where you will learn the most and have the most impact.”
Finally, Stoner suggests that men need to be open to assisting women. “They need to recognize that women will bring different perspectives and may communicate and lead differently than men,” she said. “Different is not less effective. For example, my leadership style is more collaborative and supportive; which has led me to getting feedback from male colleagues that I don’t have enough edge. Maybe they have too much edge? The key point is that we should be judged by our results and not be expected to mirror the behavior of others. Be authentic to your own style.”
The sisters are proud to work for companies that have developed programs to close the gender gap. For example, Supra points to the GE Women’s Network (GEWN), what they call an “affinity network” that tries to connect, develop and inspire women in engineering around the world.
“I am a member of the GEWN Greenville Steering Committee where I lead the Professional Development committee and plan activities for women to learn about their strengths and how to build upon them,” she said. “I am also very passionate about changing the way leadership skills are viewed as diversity needs to be valued in our ever-changing global business world. GEWN also is active in inspiring young women to become engineers through STEM outreach efforts such as the GE Girls program.”
Stoner added that Collins Aerospace’s parent company, United Technologies, has committed to achieving gender parity in senior roles by 2030 as a member of Paradigm for Parity, a coalition dedicated to addressing the corporate leadership gender gap.
“We have seen that diverse and inclusive teams are significantly better at solving business problems,” said Stoner. “By nature, diverse teams bring new ideas, experiences and skills to the table, which can be real game-changers in our industry. Women bring unique leadership competencies to the workplace such as empathy, collaboration and humility which support UTC’s performance-based culture, and are complementary to those of their male counterparts.”
Working towards the future
Mentoring is extremely important to these sisters, who are working to help shape future engineers both personally and professionally. For example, Stoner insists that we need to reach young women in middle and high school and ensure that they don’t shy away from math and science curriculum.
“I have mentored younger female engineers and I found it very rewarding. They look up to me as someone who has balanced a career and a family and they appreciate my candidness and advice,” Supra said. “I also strive to introduce them to other people in my network and especially to brag about them openly to my male peers. I believe that women in general strive to be perfect and are very self-critical, so they need champions to help promote their skills and accomplishments.”
Supra’s favorite young high-potential female engineers she loves to mentor are her two daughters, who both excel at math and science in high school. “In elementary school, one of them competed multiple years in the science fair and ultimately was the overall winner for the county in fifth grade,” she said with pride. “I also hope that their aunt and I inspire them as female engineering role models in their life.”
Stoner is a member of the 2015 cohort of the Collins Aerospace’s Executive Development for Global Excellence (EDGE). She has also represented her company at the 2014 Women in Aviation (WIA), National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), and Society of Women Engineering (SWE) conferences. She also tries to support STEM events when she can, and actively mentors colleagues while being a strong advocate for recruiting and developing women. And as an avid distance runner, she supports Girls on the Run as a running buddy.
While working for the Interiors Seating division in Colorado Springs, Stoner mentored female engineers in the University of Colorado’s Chancellor’s Leadership Program and is currently mentoring six women engineers at UTC. She is also a founding member of the Collins Aerospace Systems Women in Engineering Leadership Coalition (WELC). The WELC is a team of senior engineering leaders, both women and men, focused on recognizing, recruiting, retaining, and sponsoring female engineering team members. It links directly to Collins Aerospace’s support of Paradigm for Parity.
Supra adds that she believes we need to think differently about how to encourage young women in selecting careers, including educating them in advance on the application of engineering, career and salary growth potential and how higher leadership levels are typically held by people with advanced degrees such as master’s degrees or PhDs.
“I also think we need to combat the gender bias as girls are being raised and teach them that they can do anything they aspire to,” Supra said. “Multiple times when the man sitting next to me strikes up a conversation on the airplane, he is shocked to find out I am an engineer. I personally loved the #ILookLikeAnEngineer campaign that was on the internet a few years ago — it openly addressed the unconscious bias that is out there in the world.
“GE embraced this campaign when it came out and we did a few internal events inspired by it. More recently, GE partnered with other leading companies to launch ‘She Can STEM,’ which is based on ‘If they can see it, they can be it.’ I would love to see more companies doing campaigns like these.”
“I believe it is up to our current generation of engineers to get the word out about how exciting and rewarding engineering can be. This is the responsibility of all current engineers, regardless of gender. We need men and women to tell their daughters, sisters, families, and educators to encourage women to consider this field,” Stoner said. “We also need to get in front of young women in middle school. The Girl Scouts Trailblazing badges are a good example of reaching potential engineers sooner.
“Companies can encourage women engineers by partnering with the community as UTC does by supporting SWE,” Stoner concluded. “But we also need to ensure that we are placing women in highly impactful engineering leadership roles.”
One thing is for certain, Supra and Stoner can STEM with the best of them.