February 22, 2018 | by Jennifer Callaghan

Today, many young girls wonder how they can change the world. Perhaps they wonder how they can make a difference in their communities. While many would encourage these girls to become doctors or teachers, will they be encouraged to pursue careers in engineering? Will these young women be encouraged to build things, ask questions, and “get their hands dirty”?

While many girls do not spend their childhood tinkering in a garage, taking cars apart, or walking around construction sites, I did. My father taught me the difference between pliers and wrenches at a young age. Although I suspect my presence wasn’t always helpful, I watched and helped my father perform automobile and household repairs. I asked tons of questions, and he answered with patience and knowledge. His patience helped me to question how things work and inspired my curiosity.

Years later, while in high school, I visited construction sites with my dad. As the project engineer, he was responsible for ensuring construction projects, often bridge replacements, were constructed according to plans and specifications. On these weekend site visits, I looked through stacks of construction plan sheets. My dad explained what was built during the previous week—perhaps pouring concrete for the piers or setting the steel girders—and described what work was coming next. I loved visiting these construction sites. It was neat to see sketches on plan sheets transformed into bridge elements.

My dad encouraged me to ask questions. He exposed me to projects and experiences that were not traditionally “girl-appropriate.” My father never pressured me to become an engineer; he was just being a good dad. However, when I chose a major for college, I never flinched in my decision to choose civil engineering. I loved building and creating. I loved problem solving, and I loved working outside. A degree in civil engineering was the perfect fit.

But it quickly became apparent that others did not see my choice as the perfect fit for “a girl like me.” My high school guidance counselor asked if I even knew what civil engineers do and suggested I become a teacher instead.

In my college engineering and construction management classes, I was often the only female student. During my summers in college, I worked for the New York State Department of Transportation as an inspector at a concrete plant—another environment where I was the only female. While these environments were daunting at first, I quickly learned that asking questions, sharing my opinions, and working hard was the way for my voice to be heard and my presence to be respected.

You’re an Engineer? A Professional Engineer?

There are still occasions where my knowledge or experience is questioned because I am a woman. Despite these occasional comments, I have been fortunate to work in environments where I am respected and valued. I love my job as a structural engineer. I am proud that my knowledge and expertise ensure existing roads and bridges are safe for the traveling public. I believe my career makes a difference in my community.  

Exposure to hands-on activities and actual working environments fostered my curiosity and led me down the path to pursue engineering as a career. Oftentimes, girls are not exposed to these experiences. This needs to change; we need to introduce girls to activities and environments that allow them to work with their hands, test devices, and see actual construction. We need to teach girls that their ideas are capable of changing the world. We need to show girls that engineering is not just for those who have an aptitude for math and science. Engineering is for creative, inventive problem solvers who want to make a difference.

Introduce the Girls in Your Life to Engineering

As the mother of three daughters, I have introduced my girls to hands-on activities like building model rockets and toothpick bridges. I believe engineering is the perfect career choice for young women! Many fun engineering activities can be found through a simple search, such as these cool suggestions from DiscoverE. I also suggest the many new STEM-based toys to inspire young girls, such as the newest American Girl doll, who is an aspiring astronaut.

Engineering allows a person to be curious and creative, work with people from various backgrounds and experiences, and have an impact on our society. Whenever my daughters ask me about my work day or a bridge I inspected, I am happy to answer their questions, just like my dad. I want my daughters to seek answers to their questions by using creativity and innovation.

We need to show girls that a career in engineering impacts the lives of thousands of people every day. We need to show girls that they have a place in engineering a better world.

Jennifer Callaghan, PE, is a structural engineer for EBA Engineering, Inc. She can be reached at 410.358.7171 or jennifer.callaghan@ebaengineering.com.