Growing up, I always knew what I wanted to be. I wanted to float in mid-air and see the craters on the moon in person. I wanted to see the whole world with my own two eyes, from afar. I wanted to be an astronaut. At the time, I had no idea what it took to become an astronaut, and I didn’t care. I was determined to get it done.
As time went on and I got older, I felt a shift. I still wanted to be an astronaut, but I just felt that doing something else—like becoming a teacher or an accountant—was more realistic for me. I didn’t know why I felt that way; I just did. Accounting didn’t light my fire, but I was good with numbers. So it seemed to fit. In high school, I had the option to select either science or engineering as my major. I selected science, because engineering was “not for girls.” This was not something I was told; this was a feeling. Something deep inside made me feel this way, and I had never slowed down to think about why. It simply was. Life went on, and I graduated from high school and started college as a finance major.
When we pursue goals without passion, it shows. I didn’t feel driven; I felt forced. I felt as if I had been backed into a corner and threatened to do this thing. I needed to “find myself,” as many 19-year-olds tend to do. So I quit. I stopped so that I could get started on something that makes me feel warm and makes my eyes light up when I think about it. I was searching for something to make me want to be better and smarter. I just didn’t know what it was.
I tried various jobs and careers in search of my passion—from massage therapy to real estate. I even thought about pursuing a career in dentistry. I like white teeth. Perfect fit.
While I was a realtor, I had many memorable clients. But there is one in particular who I will never forget. He was a civil engineer. During one of our meetings, we got into a discussion about his career. He told me a bit about what a civil engineer was and how a typical day went for him. This sounded very interesting, so I began probing him for information. I joked, “Maybe I should become an engineer too.” He replied with a smile, “It’s really difficult, and most people aren’t cut out for it. Maybe you should stick with real estate.”
I smiled on the outside, but I was crushed on the inside. What about me made him think that I couldn’t do it? He obviously assumed that I was not intelligent enough. But why? Was it because I am a woman? Was it because I am African-American? Either way, this made me feel badly about myself.
Knowing that someone else thinks that you are stupid does something to your self-esteem and your self-worth. I replayed that conversation over and over in my mind trying to make sense of it. I spent a lot of time beating myself up for dropping out of college. I fell into a brief depression. That point in my life was very difficult.
Then one day, I decided that I wanted to make a change. I began doing research on how to become an engineer. I decided that I would register for school for the upcoming semester. I knew that this would not be an easy journey, but I was determined to prove to myself that I could do it.
Ten years later as I reflect on the day that I made the decision to walk down this path, I am elated. My search is over. I have realized my passion. When I awaken in the morning, I know that I am necessary in the world. When I go to sleep at night, my daily accomplishments give me satisfaction and pride.
Working as a woman in engineering has been an experience. Sometimes people look right past me and ask someone else the questions that they should be asking me. They assume that I have nothing of value to offer. I could get offended or upset, but I don’t. I just wait for my chance to show them who I am and what I am capable of—not because I have something to prove, but because I want to change their perception of what an engineer looks like.
We are all responsible for changing the perception that engineering is not for girls. According to the National Science Foundation, in 2015, less than 15 percent of all U.S. workers in engineering occupations were female. (Fortunately, EBA Engineering’s Structural Engineering Department is comprised of 44 percent women.) When she addressed the National Science Foundation in 2011, Former First Lady Michelle Obama stated that “young people—particularly our girls—need to understand that doctors and scientists are something that anyone can become, no matter how much money your family has, no matter where you come from or whether you’re a man or a woman.”
Teach the girls and young ladies in your life that they are powerful, capable of making a difference, and important. Encourage them to follow their dreams and be supportive. Introduce them to engineering and help them see that engineers make a difference in this world and that they improve peoples’ lives by developing solutions to real-world problems.
Sometimes I think about my real estate client and wonder if we will ever cross paths again. If we do, I will thank him—not only for planting the seed in my mind, but for his lack of confidence.
Now, as a structural engineer, I perform the daily analyses necessary to keep Maryland’s bridges safe for travel. In addition, I work with the Maryland State Troopers to ensure that the directions provided as a result of the analyses are followed. This may not seem very important to someone, but this work means a lot to me. And that is what matters most.
Never let someone else dictate your path. The thing that we all have in common is that each of us has only one life to live. Everyone has their own special talent and ability. Give yourself a fair chance to realize your greatness, your own special offering to the world. There is something that needs to be done, and you are the only person fully capable of doing it. Don’t doubt yourself. Many people will tell you no; do not be one of them. Be courageous. Be ladylike. #GirlDay2017
Lytangia McFadden is a structural engineer for EBA Engineering, Inc. She can be reached at 410.358.7171 or firstname.lastname@example.org.