Words of Encouragement for Women in STEM

Assistant Deputy for Programs and Project Management Division
Published April 9, 2014
Caryl Hickel (right) on a work site with male coworkers in April 1979.

Caryl Hickel (right) on a work site with male coworkers in April 1979.

When I was in high school in the 70's, girls didn't consider engineering. Guidance counselors encouraged girls who enjoyed math and science to pursue teaching. That's the career I envisioned for myself; following in the footsteps of my grandfather Dr. Moskovitz, the head of the Math Department at Carnegie Mellon University. A chance remark by another professor, however, taught me something I hadn't known - Grandpa had a B.S. in Civil Engineering. That chance remark opened my eyes to new opportunities. With Grandpa's encouragement, and the backing of my bewildered but supportive parents, I abandoned teaching to pursue a civil engineer degree at CMU.

In 1980, when I was fresh out of grad school, engineering firms recruited females and minorities to fill quotas, but then weren't sure how to treat us afterwards. Like most women in my graduating class, I found myself the token female, working for a geotechnical firm that had never hired women for technical positions. Although I learned a lot and enjoyed the work, I resigned after 10 months because my immediate supervisor was extremely chauvinistic and unsupportive. He grumbled that I cost his department extra when I stayed overnight on a consulting job because I needed my own hotel room. I naively accepted his complaint until I learned that none of the male travelers shared rooms - my supervisor complained simply to keep me humble and apologetic.

A different situation occurred on a long-term assignment as the foundation engineer in charge of pile-driving, where I was the only female on a large construction site. One morning, a crowd of workers casually lingered around the Port-A-Jon, hoping to catch my exit and upset reaction after seeing the interior wall sporting the label "Carol" below some particularly lascivious graffiti. When questioned, I said my name was spelled "Caryl", so I couldn't possibly have thought the graffiti was about me. Disappointed by my lack of reaction, the workers never played another joke on me and learned to treat me as just one of the workers.

I have not been subjected to blatant discrimination since becoming a federal employee in 1981. And using the Port-A-Jon experience, I continue to treat subtle discrimination as a misunderstanding that can be handled with conversation, rather than reacting with outrage. For example, a Resident Engineer at Fort Bragg [North Carolina] unconsciously called me "honey" and "sweetie" in the office and on construction sites. I asked for a private meeting in his office, where I explained that the endearments were inappropriate names for the Office Engineer he entrusted to resolve request for information, approve payment estimates, and negotiate modifications on a multi-million dollar Corps facility. How could the contractors possibly treat me as a USACE professional when a fellow engineer didn’t? Since I realized he used the endearments without noticing or thinking, I offered suggestions for how to increase his awareness, such as respond in kind with "Yes, Sugar?", or to ignore him until he used my name correctly. With such a low-key approach, we were both able to laugh at this potentially uncomfortable situation. He gradually dropped all the inappropriate terms and began treating me as a professional subordinate rather than as his cute little girl.

Do women still suffer from blatant and subtle acts of discrimination? I'm sure they do, although I have not personally been the object of discrimination in nearly 30 years. But I am surprised that the number of female engineers has not increased much in three-plus decades. The District’s male engineers outnumber the females by nearly 5:1, according to statistics compiled by our Federal Women’s Program. FWP also reports that nationally, nearly half of all men pursuing Science, Technology, Engineering and Math degrees select Engineering, a selection made by less than 20 percent of their female counterparts. So, rather than discriminatory, the current climate might just be lacking of the support for women to consider STEM careers.

What can you do? Encourage young girls – your daughter, niece, cousin, and neighbors’ child – to consider exciting STEM job opportunities. Work with local schools, Scouts, and other groups to expose children to the many aspects of engineering and other STEM positions.

If you are already in STEM, but early in your career, I would encourage you to take risks by seeking opportunities to stretch and grow. With a 35-50 year work life, you have plenty of time to try different things, particularly with the Middle East District. You can deploy or travel in our area of responsibility, work on a project delivery team here and with other districts, collaborate on USACE-wide initiatives, and/or move into leadership positions.

Let me leave you with my favorite quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow."