As Women’s History Month came to a close in March, Haley & Aldrich committed to celebrate inspiring women in the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry every month. We’re doing so because, despite our progress, we recognize that in order to push the needle even further, we need to remain focused on the vital role of women in the workplace and women working in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).
Last month Amy Murphy, LSRP, shared a story that was a game changer in her career. This month, Haley & Aldrich Senior Associate and Geotechnical Engineer JoDee Taylor talks about her unconventional path to her career in engineering and why she wouldn’t change that one bit.
How many years have you been in the engineering field and what led you to pursue this particular career path?
I’ve been an engineer for 20 years, but I didn’t start college intending to be an engineer. I pursued the field because I was bored with the two other college majors I tried – business management and computer science. After I realized I didn’t want to write code, I looked for something else in the college coursework that would challenge and interest me. I decided to try engineering because I’m good at math and science. To my surprise, I liked it!
Engineering satisfied a part of me that likes to solve problems. Initially, I planned to be a structural engineer, but I took an “Intro to Soil Mechanics” course, and at the same time got a part-time job as an undergraduate research assistant for a geotechnical professor (Dr. Muraleetharan at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, OK). His research in unsaturated soil mechanics piqued my interest and imagination of what “civil engineering” study could explore.
While completing the civil engineering coursework, I learned that of the five civil engineering sub-disciplines (as classified at that time), geotechnical engineering requires the engineer to not only follow a building or other design code, but also requires more experience and judgment in the design than the other sub-disciplines. To this day, this keeps it interesting and challenging for me. Although there are projects that will be somewhat “run of the mill,” most of them will have some aspect that will keep me on my toes.
Describe your road to your college education and what you learned from it.
In eighth grade, I made a wooden plaque with a picture of Penguin Opus (Bloom County comic strip) that said, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” At the time, I know I chose that cartoon because it resonated with me, but at that age I couldn’t articulate why.
“My road to college education was a “road less traveled” in comparison to some, but the challenges I’ve faced have given me a sense of self-reliance, tenacity, self-worth, and a perspective that it’s never too late to make the right decisions.”
I came from a lower middle class family and there was no money for college. I started college at the University of Guam. I moved out of my house at 19, and worked full-time, got scholarships, and took out student loans to survive. Once I decided to stick with civil engineering, it was necessary to move off-island because the University of Guam only had a “pre-Engineering” curriculum at the time. Between moving over 7,000 miles (Guam to University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK then to Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN), transferring schools and losing transfer credits, it took me 7 years to get my Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering. Luckily, it took me less than two years to get my Master of Science in Civil Engineering after one more move to Atlanta.
My road to college education was a “road less traveled” in comparison to some, but the challenges I’ve faced have given me a sense of self-reliance, tenacity, self-worth, and a perspective that it’s never too late to make the right decisions – even if we’ve made poor ones in the past. Life is not linear, and you can self-correct your path – you just need to know and accept that it won’t be easy or quick, but it’ll happen if you want it to.
I still own that wooden plaque and I hang it where my daughters can see it daily, and where I can look at it when I need a reminder. That clumsily-made 36-year-old piece of wood was a little reminder that kept me going when I doubted myself and my path.
What advice would you give young women or girls thinking about entering this profession?
I grew up in a family and culture where there are differences in what was considered “men’s work” and “women’s work.” My father was a gifted electrician and mechanic, but he would only teach my brothers about fixing and building things because I was a girl. Even when it was obvious that I was good at math and science, it didn’t make much of a difference to my male family members in how they viewed my potential. But despite the familial and cultural constraints, I went against the norm – and my life has been richer and better for it. Believe in and “bet” on yourself!
Biology has only given us some physical/musculature disadvantages to men, but in all other things there is nothing in which we cannot match our male counterparts. Many experienced women professionals, including myself, are looking to lift the younger women up, just as we were lifted up unknowingly by women who bucked the trends. Look for a positive mentor and learn from them, but also know that you can pick and choose what advice feels right for you at that time.