Women in the workplace… why should we care? Women achieving “firsts” in different industries… why should we care? Women breaking barriers and realizing their full potential… why… should…we…CARE? As one of relatively few women who have graduated and held a career in Electrical Engineering, I can tell you that being “one of a few” or a “first” in your industry… well, it really sucks.
Growing up as a Puerto Rican child in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Pittsburgh, PA, I had no idea what possibilities were out there for me when I “grew up”. The only role models I truly looked up to in my life were my mom and dad. When faced with the decision to choose a college and a major, I felt I only had two options - be a teacher like mom or an engineer like dad. I chose Electrical Engineering for three main reasons: I thought it was cool you could blow things up with something invisible, it was a career where I could make a lot of money, and it was the major with the least amount of chemistry (I hated chemistry). That was the extent of sophistication of my choice. I wasn’t naturally good at math. But, I had already decided that’s what I was going to do. I didn’t even know what an electrical engineer did from day-to-day!
In college, I remember guys not wanting to be my lab partner in lab courses because they were afraid they would “fall in love with me” or thought I was stupid. As the only girl in some of my classes, it could be very uncomfortable. I’d look around the room in a new class for other marginalized groups. Anyone else who could share the “outsider” experience with me. Anyone who wouldn’t move away just a little bit when I sat next to them. I was grateful when someone would reach out to me, encourage me, or be a genuine friend.
While I was in college, I did some incredible things by my standards: I lost a full-ride AT&T scholarship, I pieced together new scholarships and cashed-in bonds, I ran and was elected president of the 99.9% male IEEE chapter of Penn State University (and encouraged a female peer to succeed me), and I graduated in one of the most difficult majors in the school. As an adult, I worked as an engineer in the construction industry for almost two decades. I worked on multi-million dollar projects in many different industries and directed thousands of hours of team activity towards important production goals.
I have worked in jobs and environments that were dirty, difficult, and male-dominated and could have done NONE of this if nobody cared. The teasing and the flirting, the guys who were afraid they would “fall in love with me” or thought I was dumb, they never went away. They just got a little older, a little bolder, and a little more entitled. Trust me, the unpopular little Puerto Rican girl with big glasses and a silly sense of humor from a small Pittsburgh neighborhood was still insecure and always praying for a miracle. Everything I have accomplished in my life, I have done “with a little help from my friends” (quoting the famous song by the Beatles, circa 1967), family, professors, peers and team members - men and women.
I created a coloring book called ”Careers for Little Sisters” to help young girls dream about the possibilities in store for them when they “grow up”. I did not stereotype or marginalize, and I did not create boundaries or limitations… I explain a wide variety of careers girls AND boys can consider when they grow up, and what kinds of people might like that particular kind of work. I wanted children to see more opportunities then just the ones in their immediate circle of influence. I also wanted to feature beautiful minority women in various occupations not normally held by women, let alone women of color. I believe it's important for our future as humanity to encourage all children to become exactly who they came here to be, and give them permission to dream BIG goals for themselves.
It doesn't matter if you don't see anyone else like you doing something you want to do. I’m so grateful for having parents and friends who supported my vision to enter a field that still, in 1991, was predominantly white and male. This book also gave me the courage to turn my career in a direction that better suited my natural talents. I now have a thriving online project, a management business while caring for my baby girl and I am harnessing opportunities to build the life of MY dreams and create positive change in the world. The little girls of today are the mothers, lovers, teachers, visionaries, and leaders of tomorrow. That is exactly why we should care.
Melissa Del Toro Schaffner
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