Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 23  |  Friday, April 28, 2000  |  Number 8
In This Issue  |  FermiNews Main Page

Women Engineer's
Outnumbered by Undaunted

by Mike Perricon

Mayling Wong of the Particle Physics Division's Engineering and Technical Teams While they say their careers largely run a smooth parallel to those of their male colleagues, women engineers also know the everyday effects of being outnumbered in a traditionally male profession.

"I've tried to hire female engineers for our group, but it's difficult to find them," says Elaine McCluskey of Fermilab's Facilities Engineering Services Section. "We're looking for a few good female engineers to join our group."

"There's no real network of women engineers yet," says Emanuela Barzi of the Technical Division's Development and Test Department. "If there were more of us, we could support each other more."

In a 1999 survey, the National Science Foundation found women were among groups "underrepresented" in science and engineering. The NSF said women made up 50 percent of the population between the ages of 18 and 30, but earned just 36 percent of the doctorates awarded in science and engineering.

McCluskey remembers her engineering classes at Washington University in St. Louis having a 20 percent female enrollment. Chris Ader, of the Beams Division's Mechanical Support Department, remembers being the only female student in most of her engineering classes at Illinois Institute of Technology. Fermilab data for 1999 show women making up 11.9 percent of engineering physicists, 9.5 percent of physicists, and 4.3 percent of electrical and mechanical engineers.

But if female engineers are outnumbered in the Fermilab environment, a sampling shows their responsibilities are far from subordinate.

Ader, for example, is assembling components of the stochastic cooling system for the Antiproton Recycler, a critical component in the lab's goal of greatly extending its experimental reach in Collider Run II of the Tevatron beginning in 2001. Barzi, who has lived in Italy and Belgium, is in charge of the superconductor research and development effort for high-field superconducting magnets.

Mayling Wong, of the Particle Physics Division's Engineering and Technical Teams, has been instrumental in the design and construction of the Cerenkov Luminosity Counter, which must fit into a cramped space as part of the CDF detector upgrade for Run II. And McCluskey is in charge of the extensive structural renovations to Wilson Hall, the lab's headquarters building as well as its renowned symbol.

McCluskey, the mother of two children, cites the "family-friendly" atmosphere at Fermilab. She describes it as a lab-wide outlook that makes families and children feel welcome, and enables parents to feel comfortable about balancing their work and family responsibilitiesˇincluding that dreaded mid-day call from school that a child is ill.

In fact, the lab has a long history of family support, establishing childcare facilities in the 1970s, during its earliest days. The attention to the quality of life for employees extends to summer camp for kids, and fitness facilities, wellness programs and referral services for employees, in addition to an overriding concern with science education. And with nature trails, ponds, restored prairie lands and good birdwatching on its 6,800 acres, the lab functions as a recreational area for surrounding communitiesˇand for the families of its employees.

If those qualities sound distinctive, the Society of Women Engineers strongly agrees. The society's Chicago regional chapter presented its fourth annual Golden Family Award to Fermilab on April 14, recognizing the lab for "outstanding support of family issues." Wong, an active member of the professional society, nominated the lab for the award, which has previously been won by such noted companies as Motorola and Lucent Technologies.

"I was a little amazed that we won because of that level of competition," says Kay Van Vreede, head of Fermilab's Lab Services Section. "We're very happy because this is recognition from a group that we really want to bring into the lab. We need more women engineers. And we find that family support is the kind of non-traditional issue important to jobseekers todayˇand important to retaining people in their jobs.

"The lab has actually had these non-traditional benefits for a long time," she continued, "and they might not have seemed as valuable as they really are. As we were putting together our application, we realized that a lot of things we have here at the lab are extraordinary."

There was another significant event on April 14, in Washington, D.C.: President Clinton nominated Prof. Mildred Spiewak Dresselhaus, Institute Professor of Electrical Engineering and Physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as the next director of the Department of Energy's Office of Science.

The appointment might be symbolic of changing times, because the NSF studies on under-representation have also indicated that the number of science and engineering bachelor's degrees awarded to women grew by 36 percent between 1985 and 1995. And if Wong, Barzi, Ader and McCluskey are a representative sample, the key influences in developing an interest in engineering are little different for women from those for men.

McCluskey's father was an electrical engineering professor at Washington University in St. Louis. She grew up with a knack for crafting things with her hands (though not many male engineers are likely to speak proudly as she does of sewing her own prom dress without working from a pattern). In her undergraduate days at Carleton College in Minnesota, watching the day-by-day construction of a new building for the Geology Department convinced her that civil engineering was to be her life's work.

Ader remembers gravitating toward her father working on cars in the family garage. He had become an auto-body man after finishing high school. But from the first time he saw her showing an interest and getting her hands dirty, he encour-aged his daughter to follow her mechanical skills as far as she could in school and college. Which she did, with the help of a scholarship from the Society of Women Engineers. She withstood her mother's raised eyebrows in her younger years.

"My mother was worried about me being tomboyish," she recalls.

Now she's gotten her husband, a mechanical engineer, interested in classic cars. And together they are restoring her own classic, a 1965 Mustang. Ader is amused that many people are startled at learning that she likes to weld, but says there's nothing startling about the acceptance that she and her work have received in three years at Fermilab.

Barzi says that although her father encouraged her towards arts and literature, which she also loves, her natural inclination has always been towards physics, math and technology. She adds: "The fact that during high school I loved playing the piano did not reduce my drive for science."

Wong, a mechanical engineer, liked to take things apart when she was a child ("I wasn't so good at putting them back together," she admits), and taking apart a hairdryer introduced her to the wonders of electricity. As students, her parents had emigrated from China to the suburbs of Chicago, where she was born and raised. Her father was a civil engineer spending a lot of time on the road, but he always encouraged her, even offering tutoring by phone for physics homework.

Then it was on to the University of Illinois, majoring in biology, but she found she was more interested in the lab equipment than in the experiments. She got her master's in mechanical engineering from Case-Western Reserve University, joining the lab three years ago.

"It's always my hope to be accepted for my work, and not to be set apart because I am a woman," she says. "I always have technical questions, but so many people here are so willing to share their experience and their point of view. Fermilab has a vast wealth of technical knowledge among engineers, machinists and technicians. I've felt very comfortable in this setting. It's been great."

The surroundings aren't so congenial everywhere. McCluskey remembers early in her career that despite ready acceptance from her professional colleagues, she sometimes experienced rude comments and behavior from construction workers. Barzi bristled at the challenge of a family member that she could never withstand the rigors of technical studies at Italy's University of Pisa. When she got there, she found that she and other female students often received what they felt were unfairly low grades.

"But I was self-confident enough to refuse those grades, which is something you can do in Italy if you want to prove that you have been under-evaluated," she says.

Refusing the grades meant retaking the exams, which she did successfully enough to earn Laurea degrees at Pisa in both engineering and physics. She came to Fermilab with a fellowship in 1994 for her physics thesis in di-boson production at CDF.

"There is much more formal respect for female professionals here," she says, after three years as an engineer in the Technical Division. "This is a very good working environment. There is more consciousness of diversity, and there is regular training in these areas, and maybe that is why."

Their numbers may be growing in university studies, as the NSF studies show, but women engineers know the importance of intangiblesˇ and helpˇin a non-traditional field. Barzi emphasizes the importance of confidence to women setting out in science and technology careers. Ader is proud that her father encouraged her both to work with cars and take her education as far as she could. McCluskey is grateful for the professional mentors who helped her career. Wong wishes she had pressed her teachers for more attention in school.

"Young girls start off strong in science, but for some reason they back off in junior high and high school," she says. "I know I was reluctant to ask for help. I would encourage young girls to ask questions, to ask for help, to get a teacher to sit down one-on-one and explain things. If one teacher won't, then ask another teacher."

Wong has one more piece of advice for a girl interested in science and technology.

"If that's what you want to do," she says, "then go for it. Go for it one hundred percent."

last modified 4/28/2000   email Fermilab