Why I’m No Hidden Figure

Here’s how to attract and retain women and minorities in careers such as engineering.

Hidden Figures was awesome. The true story and entertaining film shines a spotlight on the African-American women who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to make our nation’s space program a success. I’m so proud of their work and glad they are finally getting the attention they deserve.

The movie is also raising awareness of the shortage of women and minorities working in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

Our nation must do more to recruit and retain women in these fields, and we’re not keeping up with other countries producing mathematicians, physicists and computer programmers. Women make up less than a quarter of the STEM workforce, and these figures have changed very little in the past few decades.

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Our nation must do more to recruit and retain women in STEM fields.

When I look back over my 30 years in engineering, I can identify several factors that made the difference for me – and might do the same for other women.

Early exposure

I didn’t set out to become an engineer. In fact, I didn’t even know any engineers and was unfamiliar with the various engineering disciplines. It was my phenomenal high school guidance counselor, Mary Grace Cummings, who set me on the trajectory I enjoy today.

She was such a force. She recognized my aptitude for math and science and recommended an internship at Honeywell Avionics. That work experience taught me how to translate math and science into business, and that knowledge motivated me as the coursework grew more difficult.

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High schools would have more latitude if advanced and vocational tracks were available.

To create more engineers, scientists and inventors, we need to engage and reach students early in their lives, starting in grade school. Parents and educators can identify natural aptitude in math and science and push those kids toward their talent.

High schools would have more latitude if advanced and vocational tracks were available. There are many trades (such as mechanic or electrician) that would provide solid careers and starting points for students not interested in a traditional four-year college. All students would benefit from the opportunity to learn a hands-on skill.

Our universities do a great job with the theoretical aspects of engineering, but internships give the courses more meaning. I cannot stress enough how important co-ops and internships were in my own development.

These practical, hands-on experiences really make engineering come to life and provided lessons unavailable in the traditional classroom.

Working with actual engineers can help students visualize a career path, and understanding different corporate cultures is something students would never get in college lecture halls.

I know that engineering frightens many students. The discipline is challenging (there is a high dropout rate), and the coursework is demanding. But a career in engineering can be very rewarding.

An inviting corporate culture

When my great-grandmother became ill during my second year at Stanford University, I returned to Florida to help care for her and took a job unloading trailers at UPS. Soon I discovered that this company was a great fit for me.

The culture at UPS was vastly different than the if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it air of complacency I had experienced.  The founder of UPS, Jim Casey, encouraged all employees to be constructively dissatisfied and look for new and better solutions.

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The founder of UPS, Jim Casey, encouraged all employees to be constructively dissatisfied.

Early on, Jim recognized the value of the then-new science of industrial engineering. He stressed the need for doing things the most efficient way and providing the lowest cost and best service for our customers. And that is what industrial engineering is all about – creating efficiencies.

As industrial engineers, we integrate systems with people and find solutions that create value. We understand the underlying cost drivers for service enhancement and product development, which makes us a valuable asset in the pricing process. We are also continuously forecasting and planning, which puts IE at the forefront of critical business decisions.

Industrial engineering has a long-standing history at UPS. Most, if not all, business units have their own IE department (such as Small Package, Supply Chain and Freight, UPS Air Group, Global Business Services). There are industrial engineers in Marketing, Business Intelligence and Analysis Network Planning and IT.

That’s why I tell my team that IE stands for Into Everything.

Freedom and flexibility

Engineering also gives you a great foundation for managing.

A former director of mine once said, “If we have five people in the room and we all agree, I don’t need four of you.” He gave me the freedom to always express my ideas and to analyze problems and find solutions.

The best way to improve a process is to understand the process, and he warned me not to get too far removed from the process. He taught me to become a good engineer and a good manager.

These management skills have served me well during my 30 years at UPS. I’ve held various positions in industrial engineering and operations. I’ve had both domestic and global assignments that have been challenging and rewarding.

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Engineering gives you a great foundation for managing.

Unfortunately, my lengthy tenure is not typical because many women leave engineering, some even prior to finding their first job. Women make up 20 percent of engineering graduates, but nearly 40 percent of women who earn engineering degrees either quit or never enter the profession.

A recent Harvard Business Review article cites corporate culture and lack of job fulfillment as contributing factors. Organizations that want the most for their company will provide more flexible work environments, fulfilling work assignments and women-led groups to attract and retain talented women.

Debunking stereotypes

When accepting an award for Hidden Figures, Taraji P. Henson, who played Katherine Johnson, admitted she failed math because she felt it was a subject for boys. Our kids need encouragement to excel in these areas and reject the stereotype that math and science are only for boys or nerds.

A lot of what people of all ages typically think about engineering is not actually true. Here are some myths:

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A lot of what people of all ages typically think about engineering is not actually true.

  • Engineers sit in cubicles and don’t talk to people: Engineers are good communicators, and we often work collaboratively.
  • Engineers are separate from sales, marketing and management: Good engineers are integrated in all functionalities of the business. They help their companies find the best solutions and make the best products for their customers.
  • All formulas, no creativity. Sometimes there’s more than one right answer and more than one way to get to the end game. Engineering gives you a lot of opportunity to be creative through integrating processes, setups and people in different manners.
  • Once an engineer, always an engineer: Engineering provides a great foundation for business so a lot of engineers find new opportunities by branching off into marketing and management careers. And because they already understand business processes, they tend to make great entrepreneurs, too.

The ultimate reward

Engineering, while not for everyone, is an extremely rewarding career. With hard work and determination, anyone can be successful.

Mentors are great assets, trusted advisers who can talk you through challenging situations (whether a difficult problem set for thermodynamics or dealing with group dynamics for a project at work). Mentors are too often overlooked. Women, minorities and everyone really can benefit from the wisdom of others.

Thanks to those women who paved the way. goldbrown2

You might also like:

How to Put More Women on the Entrepreneurial Fast Track

Closing the Gender Gap in Senior Management

Smashing the Glass Ceiling: 6 Davos Leaders Explain How They Did It

Tandreia Bellamy is Vice President of Industrial Engineering and Global Logistics at UPS.

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