Nobody questioned Jenn Donahue’s credentials when the U.S. Navy tasked her with building a bridge across the Euphrates River during the Iraq war. By that point in her military career, she was already an experienced engineer and operations officer for a Naval Mobile Construction Battalion. It was a reputation built on years of successfully tackling the jobs no one else wanted.
“I volunteered to take on harder projects that maybe some of my counterparts would not. You have to put in so much effort in order to make sure that projects succeed. That’s how I got through it. I pushed as hard as I could to say, ‘I am equivalent. I can do this. I can do even better.’”
But pushing harder to stand out from the crowd was an unspoken requirement for soldiers like Donahue. For her, and other women in the military — especially project leaders — there was no innate presumption of competency. For most of the men, capability seemed a given. Historically, women earning the kind of respect reflexively given to male members of the military has been a slow process.
“In earlier parts of my career, I definitely had that feeling that they looked at me like, ‘we don’t know about her.’ The reason why is, especially in the military, they hadn’t incorporated women into the construction battalions until the mid-’90s. In 1942, when they were first developed, it was an all-male club. In the mid-’90s, they started to introduce women, and so we were viewed as that weird entity like, ‘we don’t know what to do with them, we don’t know what their capabilities are. Let’s just push them in a corner and maybe they’ll go away.’”
Donahue did not go away and was not relegated to the corner. She continued her military career leading reconnaissance missions, building outposts, and leading other projects like developing earthquake defense plans for nuclear power plants. Now in the private sector, Donahue combines her military experience, Ph.D. in geotech earthquake engineering, and operations consultant background as a keynote speaker focusing on leadership through trust and mentorship.
“There’s a couple of things that I think about as a mentor, and one of them is sacrifice. To be a really good mentor, you’re going to have to sacrifice your time. One of my best mentors told me that he gave up several projects because it was so important to him to mentor others that he took time away from other projects so that he could help me and several other women. You have to sacrifice. The first thing is you have to realize is that you’re probably going to have to give up your own time and possibly projects if you’re really going to invest in someone.”
Donahue explained that this type of investment in people, especially young women interested in STEM fields, is crucial. And the earlier young women find mentor’s willing to sacrifice their time to nurture an interest in STEM, the better.
“That’s one of the hardest ones, trying to actually get women into STEM. I think you can’t start at college. I think you’re already too late. I think you have to start even before high school, maybe down into junior high. I think that’s where it’s really needed the most. Maybe even further down from that, maybe ten years old. I think that’s where it really starts.
Donahue said this was certainly the case for her.
“I was ten years old, and I realized that I had more fun actually building the Barbie house than actually playing with Barbie. I took this thing apart and rearranged it so many different times that my mom was like, “Wow, she’s probably going to be an architect or something like that. If we start to cultivate and get women and young girls accustomed to engineering and the sciences and let them know that, ‘Hey, this is cool and it’s something that you can do at that early age,’ I think then it’s going to start to propagate, and we’re going to get more momentum.”
Finding talent and keeping it
Building relationships and an understanding of what individuals want out of their careers are foundational to good leadership.
“This is probably first and foremost — understand what they want. Do they want to be the leader of the company someday, or are they just happy where they are? And understanding that, and trying to tailor your mentorship to that person, is something that I think many people fail at because they automatically think, ‘Well, this person wants to be like me. They want to go do this.’ Oftentimes, I see that those mentor-mentee type of relationships start to break down because it’s not going in the direction that the mentee really wants to go.”
Donahue said that at the core of this kind of mentorship is communication. Simply put, you must get to know the other person. Especially in male-dominated fields like engineering, there is an even greater need for interpersonal relationship-building between new female engineers and established leaders looking to adopt a mentorship role.
“I’ve researched mentorship, and almost 65% of the female talent stays within an organization if they’re mentored, compare to, I think, it’s 20% if they’re not. It makes a difference if you mentor people. They appreciate it, and then they are invested.
Progress — where we’re at and where we need to go
“Now you’re starting to see more people and more women coming into STEM, and so it’s moving along that track. As long as we’re able to retain them, then we’re going to have more and more people in, especially females, in these leadership positions, more women starting companies, more women going out and doing great things.
Now, if you’re a young girl and you’re seeing the female president of a company, that’s very empowering because they realize, ‘well, I can do that too.’ When I was a young kid, I didn’t see any of that, and I just had to trust that I could get there too. Well, now we are. And so now we have more momentum behind this and we’re saying, ‘You have more females now coming into these engineering and STEM projects than we have before’ because they’re starting to see that yes, they can do it too.”
When asked what she wished men understood about the unique challenges facing women in STEM, she spoke about navigating obstacles that might not be there for the men who do the same work.
“I would wish that men would understand that we have a different path to get to where we want to go, and it might not be the same path. We have different obstacles that we have to overcome. Just an understanding, and this is a side-by-side comparison, that we have different obstacles and to please understand that. But also realize, that’s also a great strength.
Because we bring a diversity of thought, we bring a diversity of ways to solve problems because we have had a different path. That’s what I would like male engineers to understand. That by bringing us on the team, you’re going to get someone who’s going to solve problems in a completely different way than you might, and we have a different way of getting to that answer, so it’s really the team.”
Donahue says that there’s much more work to be done, but we’re on the right track.
“We’re not going to solve this overnight… I think it’s going to be almost generational before we get there. I think about where we’ve just come in our last generation and how many women were starting to get into leadership positions. That’s part of a flywheel effect.
But I think it’s going to take probably another 10 to 15 years to start to get us up to an equal footing. That’s just my own opinion. But just looking back over the last 25 years of my life, I’m starting to see the momentum build, that we will get there, but we have to keep pushing. We have to look down; we have to find the females that have that drive, that have that fire, and hold on to them and not let them escape and go do something else.”
Filed Under: Women in Engineering