Six myths about being a woman in engineering

Six myths about being a woman in engineering

Valecia Maclin decided in the 8th grade to become an engineer after her father showed her how he turned drawings into creations.

What's a typical "engineer" look like? Some might picture a cubicle-dwelling, introverted nerd. And engineers are also all men, right?


For those whose only exposure to engineers is watching the sitcom "The Big Bang Theory," here's a dose of reality: engineers are men and women from every walk of life, and they are as diverse as the rainforest. And to prove it, turned to some of our own employees to debunk some of the more common myths about women in engineering.

Myth No. 1 — You’ll be the only woman in the office.

Not true. When Angela Juranek began her career at Raytheon in El Segundo, California, 21 years ago, she was surprised to see more women engineers at work than at school. On her current assignment, which involves the assembly of a spectrometer, a device that analyzes the wavelengths of light, Juranek manages the program with three team leads -- all of whom are women.

Juranek said the secret to advancing your career, regardless of gender, is that you have to be hungry for advancement  and set goals. Many of our female engineers belong to an employee organization called the Raytheon Women’s Network, which holds conferences and seminars to support them.

“You have to own your own career. You have to ask for those hard assignments,” said Juranek, a senior manager in mechanical engineering at Raytheon’s Space and Airborne Systems business.

Juranek said that career-minded women can find allies in senior women. She mentors many herself, guiding them in ways to advance professionally and personally.

“You don't have to be aggressive to succeed as a woman in engineering,” she said. “But you do have to believe in yourself and exude confidence, because then you will project that.”

Myth No. 2 — Women don't occupy top positions in engineering.

False. At Raytheon, women lead the engineering departments of two of the company's four divisions: Laura McGill at Raytheon Missile Systems and Danielle Curcio at Raytheon's Integrated Defense System's business. Women also hold top positions throughout the company, like Valecia Maclin, a cybersecurity program director at the Intelligence, Information and Services business.

In the 8th grade, Maclin’s teacher assigned her to write a paper on "What I Want to Be When I Grow Up." Maclin planned on writing about her ambitions to become a doctor…then she had to dissect a frog. Soon thereafter, her father, an aerospace mechanical engineer, took her to work, and her term paper topic and career plans changed STAT. She was hooked on engineering.

"He showed me designs that he had drawn on paper, and then showed me the finished product," Maclin said. "I was inspired by how he was able to make something on a piece of paper come to life, and he was doing it for a noble cause—to protect our men and women in uniform. Also, it didn't hurt that he had a really big, nice office."

Maclin has risen through the ranks during her career in engineering through a combination of technical, financial, people and leadership skills.

"Math is a great equalizer, because it's not subjective. There's a right answer and a wrong answer," she said. "It's problem solving and coming up with solutions."

But number crunching isn't all engineers do. Which, Maclin said, busts another myth: "I think there's a misconception that engineers sit in dark rooms and don't get much sunlight. But there's nothing further from the truth. We're still a people business. I love building relationships and working with people."

Sharon O'Neal

This is what an engineer looks like. Sharon O'Neal and other Raytheon-ites want the world to know the truth about women in engineering.

Myth No. 3 — You’ll get paid less than the men.

Wrong. At Raytheon we conduct regular pay equality audits. As a result, we have one of the most balanced pay systems in the technology industry. We're also subject to fair-pay rules that apply to federal contractors.  

Sharon O’Neal said that for many years there was a perception that women got paid less than men; however, oftentimes that was a result of the men being in more professional, technical or leadership positions. Today, it's a different story.

"I can't imagine a more equitable system," said O'Neal, software engineering director at the Raytheon Missile Systems business. "The bottom line is Raytheon is a pay-for-performance company, and it's a fundamental principle of the company."

Myth No. 4 — Engineering is too demanding of a career to raise a family.

Not true. At Raytheon we’ve instituted flexible hours in many of our divisions. Many workplaces operate on a 9/80 schedule, which gives employees every other Friday off whenever possible. We recently extended a 9/80 schedule to our corporate team as well. And most Raytheon facilities shut down through the winter holiday period so that employees can spend time with their families.

One of the keys to work-life balance is working for a company that cares about professional development, said Jessica Thomas, a Cybersecurity and Special Missions program manager for Raytheon’s Intelligence, Information and Services business. That's because smart managers know how to develop employees with the skills to back each other up.

"I have capable team members who are leaders in their own right and can pick up where I left off," said Thomas, who has a 10-month-old son, Deacon.

And by the way, we'd love for Deacon to join our ranks someday, too. That's why we have the Raytheon Scholars Program, which assists employees' children who plan to continue their education in college. The program supports a wide range of educational options, including vocational and technical training, and associate and bachelor's degrees.

According to Thomas, the 10-month-old is already exhibiting the charisma of a CEO. After bringing Deacon into work one day, she said, "He already knows 'how to win friends and influence people' — everybody at work fell in love with him instantly.”

Charlene Horvath

Star Wars fan Charlene Horvath turned her dreams of becoming an astronaut into a career in engineering.


Myth No. 5 — Engineering is harder for women, math-wise.

Oh, please. Seriously? Math doesn't discriminate. While men may outnumber women in science and math careers, gender doesn't give men or women a biological advantage when it comes to solving equations.

"Math isn't easy for anybody—men or women," said Charlene Horvath, a systems engineering manager at Raytheon's Integrated Defense Systems business in Woburn, Massachusetts. "While it's hard, it's still fun. You get a real sense of accomplishment when you solve an engineering problem. It's really worth the work."

Horvath became interested in math and science after taking an astronomy class during the summer of her freshman year in high school.

"I've always had a fascination with space," Horvath said. "I wanted to be an astronaut growing up, and I love science fiction. Before going to see the new Star Wars movie, I watched all six of the previous movies in a marathon session."

Horvath decided to take more math and science classes so she could pursue her dreams of a career in space.

"One of the subjects I learned about in astronomy was physics, and it was so interesting that I wanted to learn more about it," she said. "There weren't that many girls in the class, and at first, I underestimated myself and thought it might be too much. Then I found out that the boys in the class were having difficulty grasping the subject as well. I learned then that you can't give up when it's hard at first."

Horvath enjoys engineering at Raytheon because of the teamwork she enjoys and mentorship that she has received.

"If there's a problem that you don't understand, then you're not on your own...," she said. "It's a place where we all help each other."

Myth No. 6 — You have to work with nerds who ONLY LIKE videogames.

Yes, it’s true that Raytheon has an active, after-hours gaming league. We also have "innovation nights" where engineers show off their hobby builds. And we're big into volunteering at FIRST Robotics competitions. But you don't need to be a World of Warcraft "Loremaster" to gain admission to the "engineers club." Although knowing some “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” trivia will gain you a tremendous amount of geek cred at work.

Nora Tgavalekos admits that while she's nerdy by nature (she once visited the grave of Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier, a French mathematician and physicist, while visiting Paris), she has other interests outside of "tech stuff."

"Sometimes it's nice to talk to people who don't know what a Fourier Transform is," said Tgavalekos, referring to a term non-engineers will need to Google.

So what does she like to talk about instead?

Sports. Tgavalekos plays softball, and, in fact, she's in the lineup in a league with some of her Raytheon co-workers. And it's that love of sports that led her to become an engineer.

"I played high school softball and became fascinated in the mechanics and physics of the game so I could reach maximum performance," said Tgavalekos, Raytheon corporate chief software engineer at our headquarters in Waltham Woods, Massachusetts.

Later, an ACL injury while playing softball led her to study biomedical engineering in college and to her career at Raytheon, where she.sees a lot of parallels between sports and work."Both require a lot of teamwork," she said. "In softball, you don't have to be the best hitter, and in engineering, you don't have to be the smartest person on every topic. That's because when you're surrounded by a good team, you can do some pretty cool stuff."

Tgavalekos said these days she occupies most of her free time enjoying and caring for her two daughters, ages 3 and 1.

"Because of how fast cyber is taking off, I've decided I am going to teach my 3-year-old how to code," she said. "I'm just waiting for her to learn to read first."

Nora Tgavalekos

Nora Tgavalekos, an engineer by trade and recreational softball slugger, hopes girls hit it out of the park in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math careers.


Published On: 02/14/2016
Last Updated: 01/11/2018