This article is part of Design World’s Women in Engineering series.
With two sons and a husband at home and a leadership position at GE Power, Chicagoland engineer Dayna Johnson is outnumbered by men on both fronts. It’s something she embraces — partly for the value that her unique perspective brings in both arenas.
Johnson joined GE in 2012 as a commercial manager — leading large teams through the bidding process to develop winning proposals for high-voltage electrical substation projects. Prior to joining GE, she worked as an engineer designing water and wastewater projects for rapidly growing communities in the Chicago area. Her background includes a B.S. in engineering and a Master of Engineering Management.
When we asked Johnson what first drew her to engineering, she shared that she spent a long time in high school undecided on her career path. As someone who was good at math and science, she had plenty of teachers tell her she should be an engineer … but she found no subspecialties exciting. However, she remained open-minded about the possibility of engineering as a career.
“Then my junior year of high school, I went on a field trip to a local chemical plant. I knew that this was a great opportunity to learn about the different types of engineers in a facility like that, but it took until the very end of the field trip to realize what type of engineer I wanted to be. I talked with the wastewater-treatment plant operator, and his job was fascinating to me — as was the idea that we could treat wastewater with microbiology instead of chemistry. That sparked my interest in civil and environmental engineering and confirmed the thought that I wanted to be an engineer.”
Another inspiration for Johnson was one that many in STEM share — the life and work of Marie Curie. “I was tasked with doing a biographical report on her in 8th grade, and I was amazed with her scientific contributions to society. A martyr to her profession, she left her mark on science … and made it known that it was not only a male’s space in which to work.”
Johnson also credits her physics teacher in high school for encouraging her to pursue engineering — and providing her with tools to learn about what engineers do … and information on where to go to school for it. “He also made himself available to answer any questions I had. After all, it’s one thing to tell someone that they should be an engineer; it’s another to help them envision what that looks like in their life.”
On the topic of challenges that women face in engineering, Johnson is keenly aware of how the engineering workforce is still only approximately 13% women — even though women are awarded about 20% of the engineering degrees in the US.
“As a woman, it can be challenging if you don’t have any female role models in your office … and it can sometimes feel like a good ol’ boys club. This has been my biggest struggle in engineering … feeling that I can achieve and advance when my peers lack a diverse viewpoint. Consequently, I have made it a higher priority to ensure my employer values diversity. One of my tactics for me to personally deal with this problem has been making sure I have an outlet that does value diversity in the workplace and gives me the opportunity to talk to other females. That is how my involvement in the Society of Women Engineers grew out of college; I needed an outlet with people going through struggles similar to mine, where we could brainstorm and sympathize together.”
Since Johnson’s college days when she joined SWE, she’s served as Chicago Regional Section President and as Region H Lieutenant Governor and Treasurer. She was previously the Awards and Recognition Committee Chair — and is currently serving on SWE’s Board of Directors.
Part of Johnson’s SWE work over the years has included outreach (from Girl Scout patch events to engineering expos) with activities across all disciplines of engineering. Johnson said that often she’ll see innovation and creativity of girls at these events and finds it sad that they’ll lose that interest as they get older. When it comes to mentoring, Johnson tries to engage women who are newly out of college: “While not in a formal mentoring program, I encourage and enjoy one-on-one situational mentoring, where I can help recent graduates talk through some of the issues they have — whether those challenges relate to office politics, engineering problems, or just how to survive outside of college. While helping students learn about engineering is crucial to the pipeline of future engineers, it’s also critical to try to retain new engineers by helping them through their problems and questions as they navigate their entrance to the real world.”
On design projects and sales work, Johnson recounted a past victory that informs her work even today.
“In one of my roles, I was leading an effort to try and win a sale, but the caveat was that I needed to include a new product line in our project offering. This included an international team that was not used to doing business with North America … and my North America team that was not used to the small amount of information that the international team was providing.”
This project in particular was constantly evolving — so the inputs needed were regularly changing. It would’ve been easy to sit and complain about the situation, but Johnson and her team determined that easiest way to have everyone perform their best was to make communication open. “So we setup regular meetings to discuss design changes and product specifications, and then completed our tasks faster and with much less uncertainty. This set the standard on how to work with this new product group moving forward.”
Not to say that there aren’t other challenges that Johnson faces day-to-day.
“I feel we engineers are generally good at the engineering portion of our jobs. It’s the random non-engineering challenges that complicate our projects. I was working on an energy efficiency grant application for one of my last company’s clients. This was an application that no one was too excited about doing, unfortunately, which meant it got pushed off to the last minute and to one of the younger engineers — me. I still remember vividly that this grant application was due by email at 4 PM on a Friday. I started working on it on Thursday morning, and by about midday Friday, I was on pace to finish … if I could just keep the distractions at bay.” However, right at 2:15 pm that day, the power went out. Getting this application submitted turned into an engineering project of its own.
“Because of our office set up, losing power meant losing both internet and phone. I had some pages that needed to be scanned, but no way to scan them. So I sent a colleague to an office-supply store to scan those pages to a flash drive while I continued working on the application. I had a laptop, so I could keep working for a few hours … but still with no internet. As soon as my colleague returned with the scans on a flash drive, I took off for the nearest Starbucks and connected to their outlets and Wi-Fi to compile the final documents and email them off. Not only did I complete the application, I had 20 minutes to spare!”
Of course, it took ingenuity, delegation skills, and adrenaline to make the application happen. “Fortunately engineers are problem solvers, and we generally are pretty good at whatever challenges get thrown our way,” mused Johnson.
For leadership skills and lessons, Johnson emphasizes how diversity is a strength. “I think it’s important to understand that everyone has a different approach to leadership, and not all styles of leadership work for every situation. Scenarios where I feel most effective are those where I’m driving a team towards agreement — getting parties with differing goals to agree. It’s important to understand that in these situations everyone has something they need from the end result, and everyone has something they want.” Leaders must be able to understand what everyone needs and try to make things happen to satisfy those needs, Johnson continued. “One caveat is that sometimes those parties don’t actually admit what it is they need — they only focus on the want. One very important aspect of team leadership is to distinguish between the two and help the team understand what each person’s needs are and how they’re being met.”
On the topic of how to boost participation of young women in engineering today, Johnson quoted Marian Wright Edelman: “You can’t be what you can’t see.”
Girls and young women need to see role models in engineering and engineering leadership that look like them. “Given that only 13% of the US engineering workforce is women, this can be a challenge — but we need to be able to highlight the careers of successful women in our companies and in our culture,” said Johnson. “This is at all levels of the company — and yes, it’s important to see women in company C-suites — but it’s also important to see women in middle management, as team leaders, as project managers, and as successful engineers.” These women need to be visible both internally and externally.
“When schools are looking for career day speakers, we need to send the diverse engineers. When companies are giving tours or participating in events outside of work, we need to be sure their women are participating, so that young girls know that these women have meaningful, viable careers that they can strive to attain. There have been some great commercials lately geared towards this, including some by GE,” said Johnson. “Let’s make sure our young girls see these ads and the role models around them,” she added.
Johnson has some final advice for women getting started in the industry: “Be yourself. In a male-dominated industry, it can feel like you need to try to act like the men around you. Be different. Be confident … and be proud to be yourself.” You weren’t hired to be a clone of the other people you work with, Johnson underscored. “You bring a unique perspective to the team — embrace it.”