Slashing Stereotypes: Q + A with Female Engineers at Grace
When you think of an engineer, who do you picture? Is it a middle-aged man with a calculator in hand? Is he exceptionally analytical? Is he brilliantly intelligent? Did you picture any female engineers?
In a world that changes daily, it’s important to face our stereotypes head-on and challenge what we think to be true. This image of a male engineer may have been accurate in the past, but it’s changing every day. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women made up 8% of STEM workers in 1970. In 2019, that increased to 27%. At Grace, female engineering students are celebrated and empowered to pursue their passions.
We sat down with two women in engineering and heard about their experience studying and working in the Orthopedic Capital of the World. Natalie Gerber, a senior engineering student at Grace, has already accepted a job post-graduation at WishBone Medical, a pediatric orthopedic company in Warsaw. Through her connections at Grace and WishBone, Gerber met mechanical engineer Mary Wentorf, a member of the Advisory Council for the Department of Engineering and wife of Fred Wentorf, Department Chair and Associate Professor of Engineering.
The two female engineers share their experiences as women in engineering and the opportunities that they have found in the Orthopedic Capital of the World.
What are some of the benefits of studying and working in the Orthopedic Capital of the World?
Natalie: From an academic perspective, we’ve had several projects with different companies. In fact, I got connected to my internship at Wishbone because of a project for class. We also had access to real engineering problems and tours of different engineering facilities in the area. I was able to sit in on an advisory council meeting, where having local engineers give input and direct what the students are being taught makes sense.
Mary: The fact that I have been able to work at my fourth company in the area and still not move has been kind of amazing. Now I have contacts at 12 different companies, and that networking is super important because you never know where they’re going to be. The companies here want to pour in to Grace students to give back and help the next generation, but we also want to know who those top students are before someone else grabs them.
How do you see your experiences as female engineers different from those of male engineers?
Mary: When I started my first job, I put my hair in a bun and wore men’s clothes based on my experience in college with fellow students and older male professors. I was determined not to be a girl, but an engineer! At my first job, I was the second female in a group of 55 engineers, and my manager told me that I couldn’t just go out to lunch with the other girl. I had an uncomfortable experience with another male engineer who made inappropriate comments. I thought we would have engineering challenges, not those kinds of dynamics. That was not the kind of engineering I was prepared for. I’m thankful that those experiences have been infrequent, but they are real, and I think it’s important to speak up right away. By speaking up and showing people where the boundaries were, I think that helped me out. I couldn’t worry about whether or not I was missing an opportunity. It’s important to focus on doing the best at the job I can and not worry about all the rest.
Natalie: There were a couple engineering classes in high school where I was the only girl, but I never felt like I couldn’t do engineering because I was a girl. I’ve always loved learning, and working through stuff has always been fascinating to me. Coming here to Grace, there were two other girls in the grade above me, but for the past two years, there haven’t been any other women in engineering. It wasn’t huge, but I relate to feeling like an island. Walking into East Hall, the engineering building, I know I’m the only girl in that building. At times, I’ve felt like I need to do more work, but part of that is the high standards I put on myself.
What impact do you hope to make in your careers as women in engineering?
Mary: For me, the constant theme for my career is that I want to help people. I want it to have a tangible impact on improving their lives and getting people to where they want to be. And I want to be known for being a Christian who is bold – the person that thinks it’s okay to share their faith at work. That’s not prevalent in today’s culture.
Natalie: I know I want to stay in the medical field because I feel like there’s a lot more direct impact – I know I’m helping people. And there’s more of an interest for me, too! When it comes to the body, there’s so much to learn, and I’ll never get bored. I want to keep learning and make things that improve the lives of other people, but I don’t want it to just be that. I want to have an active faith that is impacting the people around me.
Why is it important to find a professional mentor? Who has been a mentor to you?
Mary: Wherever you go in your career, it’s important to find a mentor who’s not in your management chain. There’s been two different people I’ve had like that who have given me such good insight. Sometimes, it’s awkward to ask questions of your boss, so having someone in a slightly different management role is good. Not to mention, they can look out for you and they can champion you.
Natalie: I would say that Mary has been the biggest mentor of mine. She always encourages me, has my best interest at heart, and has wisdom about engineering and life in general. She knows what she’s talking about and genuinely cares about me. She is an example to me of what it is to be a female engineer and a Christian.
What advice do you have for girls who dream of being female engineers?
Mary: Try to get connected with people and see if you can do a day in the life. My biggest advice is that you don’t have to know where you want to be. God’s got this. Look at those opportunities in front of you as opportunities to explore. Don’t be afraid to ask someone if you could meet and talk for a little bit. You might have to reach out to three or four individuals before you find someone that clicks.
Natalie: I’m working in the engineering department this year. Part of that is taking on a mentor role with the whole freshman class and specifically with the girls. I try to comfort them and encourage them. The biggest advice I would give is to not expect yourself to know everything. When I was interning at Wishbone, I went in expecting myself to know what I’m doing before I even learned it. Go in with a growth mindset and don’t get caught up in not knowing. Don’t limit yourself. If you want to try it, try it.
How have you learned to trust God in your journey as women in engineering?
Mary: I am a classic overachiever, and I often tried to muscle my career into place. I stressed about what was next, how to plan out my next 2, 3, 5, 10 years and constantly worried that I wasn’t doing enough to get where I needed to go. Was I trying enough? Networking with the right people? Selecting the best opportunities? And classic God move – He threw me curveballs I had never guessed would be possible and could never have planned on! God kept nudging me out of my comfort zone and on the path He laid out for me. He showed me that He is bigger than all the tough stuff life can throw at me, and he can turn any situation into good.
Natalie: Trust is huge. It is definitely a significant part of my faith, trying to continually place trust in God instead of in myself or my own abilities. As far as the big decisions in my life, I have always felt confident that God has guided me. It was about saying “yes” to what God had planned for my life and career as one of many female engineers rather than making my way to those decisions on my own. I have had incredible clarity and confidence in those decisions, which is something I thank God for. I trust that if God has guided me to these places, he will surely be there with me every step of the way.
At Grace, you will be guided and mentored by female engineers in a town chalked full of engineering innovations. Check out our engineering program to discover how you can use your gifts and pursue your passions.