January 29, 2005
Life Outside the Cubicles
Following the November 17 lecture co-sponsored by the Engineering School and the University of Virginia’s Women’s Center, an engineering student in the audience noted she is working harder academically than friends in the College of Arts and Sciences. She asked speaker Jill Tietjen (Engr. ’76) what she should tell those who ask, “Why do it?”
Tietjen, a former national president of the Society of Women Engineers, told the young woman she should tell her friends that because of engineers, people can ride safely in planes. Because of engineers, people have reliable lighting and heating for class. “There is value that comes from the work that engineers do,” declared the engineer, author and founder of her own motivational speaking firm. As for the extra work, she told her audience, “There will be a payoff. You will make a difference in the world.”
Tietjen believes engineering is suffering from an image problem stemming partially from the rise of the environmental movement in the 1960s and Earth Day celebrations of all things natural over things technical and manmade.
“But I have a reconstructed knee,” she says. “That’s not just medicine. There’s a lot of engineering in that. The screws weren’t made by doctors; they were made by engineers.”
Her own thesis at U.Va. had to do with the mechanical strength of dissolvable sutures. “There’s a lot of fascinating things that engineers do,” she emphasized, always trying to counter the popularized image of an engineer as Dilbert – a lonely, single, undervalued man in a cubicle. “I have personally never worked in a cubicle,” she stated firmly.
Since graduating as one of six women in her engineering class, she has worked in the electrical utility industry, as an independent engineering consultant and expert witness, plus earned an MBA. An active mentor and principal of her firm, Technically Speaking, she advocates on behalf of women in science and engineering, as well as serving in leadership roles with the Metropolitan Denver Girl Scout Council. This fall, Tietjen received the 2004 Tau Beta Pi Distinguished Alumnus Award that recognizes alumni who have demonstrated the engineering honor society’s ideals of integrity, breadth of interest, adaptability, and unselfish activity. She also received the 2004 Virginia Engineering Foundation Distinguished Alumni Award.
In order to help remedy her discipline’s PR problem, Tietjen encourages fellow engineers – men and women – to become more visible in the community: “For example, run for school board, for city council. Run for Congress. Don’t just join professional organizations. Join the Rotary Clubs, the Lion’s Clubs – this is how engineers actually become humanized.”
She laments the dearth of positive role models for scientists and engineers, noting how doctors and lawyers are celebrated in shows like ER and LA Law. A Harris Poll undertaken for the American Association of Engineering Societies, estimates that three-quarters of the women and over half the men in this country don’t even know what engineers do. Tietjen points out the same percentages would apply to parents who due to this lack of understanding, don’t direct their children to engineering careers. Consider that those same men and women are our also children’s schoolteachers and the problem is compounded.
“I have a friend who owns a company that makes equipment that cleans water. That gives her great satisfaction,” says Tietjen, noting Americans enjoy long life expectancies in large part because of clean water. When engineers take technology skills to developing countries to improve water systems, she says, an important result is that “little girls no longer have to carry water for their families. They can go to school. They can become literate. That’s just one of many ways that engineers add value to life.”
Story by Jeanne Nicholson Siler at the School of Engineering and Applied Science University of Virginia.