Beyond Math and Bridges: Women and Engineering Creativity

Build bridges and solve math equations. That was my vague idea of what engineers did when I started college. After being accepted to Georgia Tech, my plan was to earn an engineering degree before going on to medical school. As my time at Tech continued, I learned more and more about what opportunities are available in engineering fields. It was incredible! I learned that engineers have tremendous opportunities to change the world and make a difference -- to push the boundaries of what we do and how we do it. Engineers are directly affecting the human condition through advancements in energy, healthcare, communication, biotechnology, transportation -- the list goes on and on. What I could do with an engineering degree seemed limitless, and I was hooked.

Upon starting my own career, I've found myself surrounded by intelligent, creative and inspiring colleagues. Our work is diverse, interesting and pushes well beyond my ill-informed notion of math and bridges. Math and science are important parts of engineering, but so is creativity. We're coming up with new ideas, new projects and new technologies to change our business. It's invigorating and personally rewarding on levels I never could have imagined as a college freshman.

As a woman in this industry, one would have to be naïve not to note the profession's challenges with diversity. Even though I personally have never thought of engineering as a man's job, the facts are undeniable. There were fewer women in my classes. There are fewer women at work. While I have never been made to feel that being a woman is a disadvantage, on average only 13 percent of engineers are women. This isn't an anomaly. In other fields within science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), women are underrepresented. I believe that employers recognize the critical role that women play in creative problem solving and engineering teams. Diversity is so important to these industries. How can anyone expect to create something new when they keep throwing in the same ingredients? So how do we get more women interested in STEM careers? I think the focus needs to start with our young students.

When I was younger, I was fortunate enough to have a support system that actively encouraged my pursuit of a STEM career. I never heard "that's a boy thing" when I asked for a chemistry set from Santa or registered for an advanced math class in high school. Now there are toys created and marketed specifically to encourage girls to embrace their interest in building and inventing. It is great to see an increased interest in the public conversation about girls in technology. I nearly missed my true calling because I was simply unaware of the possibilities.

As an engineer, I'm working to help show girls the potential of a career in engineering. Through a number of diversity and educational outreach activities, including "Introduce a Girl to Engineering" and local Girl Scout workshops, my colleagues and I get to share what we love most about being an engineer and the experiences we have already had in our careers. I'm proud to be part of a movement to encourage young girls to have a passion for learning, growing, building and inventing. After all, engineering is a lot more than just building bridges and solving math problems.

Megan McCarty is a Baytown Olefins Plant optimization engineer at ExxonMobil. She holds a B.S. in chemical and biomolecular engineering from Georgia Tech.

Through the support of ExxonMobil, Be An Engineer is a multi-faceted initiative seeking to inspire the next generation of engineers. The program aims to highlight the meaningful contributions that engineers make to the world, as well provide resources to assist young people interested in pursuing the profession.