Paving the way graphic with arrows and science symbols

Written by Greg Breining

CSE women alumnae inspire future generations of women in science and engineering

After Jane Lansing (CivE ’76) entered the engineering world, she felt the sting of slights familiar to many women in male-dominated fields. Customers wouldn’t address her directly but instead talked to her male colleagues. Clients asked her to get the coffee for meetings.

When she wrote about her experiences in Fortune magazine last year, she expected her essay would sound like so many war stories from the past. She was astounded when many professional women thanked her for shining a light on snubs they experienced all the time.

“I was frankly blown away by the number of young, super-smart, capable women in the organization today who sent me notes to say they completely resonated with it,” said Lansing, vice president of marketing for Emerson Automation Solutions, a $9 billion global technology and engineering company based in Bloomington, Minn. “It was a little sad, too, I should say.”

At-work attitudes can create a sense of isolation at school and work for many women.

“Being in a program where there weren’t very many women, it was natural for me to look around and think, maybe I’m just not good at this stuff—I’m a woman. Maybe this field isn’t where I belong,” said Nancy Daubenberger (CivE M.S. ’97), now an assistant commissioner at the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Today, females are making gains in STEM. Girls outnumber boys in high school pre-calculus and advanced biology classes, according to the National Girls Collaborative Project. Nearly as many women as men earn STEM college degrees, though not in all degree areas and not at all colleges. Some schools graduate as many women engineers as men. But most, including the University of Minnesota and many other big public universities, graduate about four men to every one woman.

Women also remain outnumbered on the job. Many women graduates decide against STEM jobs or soon drop out of the STEM workforce. According to U.S. News and World Report, citing U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “women comprise 39 percent of chemists and material scientists, 28 percent of environmental scientists and geoscientists, 16 percent of chemical engineers and just 12 percent of civil engineers.”

“Numerous explanations have been offered for this discrepancy,” according to MIT News, reporting on an MIT study, “including a lack of mentorship for women in the field; a variety of factors that produce less confidence for female engineers; and the demands for women of maintaining a balance between work and family life.”

Amy Abouelenein (ChemE ’89, M.B.A. ’96), vice president of innovation, technology and quality for General Mills Global Baking platform, says finding a job in a food-based company was key to maintaining her interest. She doubts she would have toughed it out at a chemical or oil company. “I may have said, I’m married, I’m having kids, I’m done.”

How do women succeed in engineering? Five University of Minnesota science and engineering graduates who have risen to the top of their professions say hard work, leaning on the support of other women, and finding their passion have enabled them to flourish. Here are their stories.

Amy Abouelenein: Serving the world by making food people love
Nancy Daubenberger: Building bridges
Michele Brekke: Aiming higher
Jeannette Brown: Compounding chemicals
Jane Lansing: Passionate marketer