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Women in engineering say female mentors offer help on challenging road

Woman wearing VR/AR goggles.
Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

As a woman in engineering, Serena Lin says finding a mentor makes the challenge easier.

“Mentors are just the most important thing,” says Lin, an undergraduate studying electrical and computer engineering at Northeastern. “Finding those people who will support you and can relate to your experiences and give you relevant advice and can relate to you is the most important thing I’ve done since I’ve been here (at Northeastern).”

Tanvi Vinod Pathrikar, a graduate student studying bioengineering, agrees that finding a female mentor or group of female colleagues and friends to whom you could share not just research challenges but also life challenges is important.

“You are not alone in this — a lot of people at Northeastern are trying to help you and have been in your shoes before,” Pathrikar says. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help at any point.”

Despite an increased focus on STEM education, and a particular focus on opening these fields to women, just 16.7% of professionals in the engineering and architecture fields are women, according to the Society of Women Engineers. 

That has led to a unique set of challenges facing women in the field, as female engineering faculty and students at Northeastern explained during a forum on Tuesday, the beginning of Engineers Week. There were concerns about adjusting their priorities and expectations concerning home, student and work life upon the arrival of children or while juggling other jobs; feeling undervalued and patronized during group projects and job interviews; and feeling more pressure to appear “put together” and “less nerdy” than their male peers when talking with colleagues. The forum was hosted by Sarah Ostadabbas, director of Women in Engineering and associate professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Kelsey Pieper, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northeastern, advised future engineers to “find that group that empowers you.”

“Find a culture that really works for you and that will promote your growth as an engineer,” Pieper says, suggesting “great mentors who can help you explore, rather than belittle you.”

Pieper says that having female mentors helped her prioritize as a mother, researcher and professor. While that means establishing limits that colleagues in her field may not share — for instance, limits on working outside normal business hours — Pieper says she’s learned to not compare herself to others. 

“My life is different and that’s OK, I have different identities than them,” Pieper says. 

As for being a mother? 

“Do it,” Pieper says. “It will be a hot mess, but really great.”

Christina Velez, a graduate student in bioengineering, also advised not comparing your experience to those of your peers … as well as making some time for self reflection.

“I notice myself working to the point of burnout because I feel I’ve never done enough,” says Velez. “I think not comparing yourself to others is important but also checking in on yourself — make sure you are OK, because you matter too.”

And female engineers advised students to take advantage of opportunities while at Northeastern. 

That includes opportunities on campus:

“Professors have to be (at office hours) and are usually by themselves,” Pieper says. “You have the opportunity for one-on-one time.” 

And opportunities off campus:

“Boston is a very eventful city,” Ostadabbas says, advising an hour a week spent exploring. “Things happen; take part in that.”

Other recommendations included to stress being efficient over being a perfectionist; to remember that your career and life is, as Elaheh Hatamimajoumerd, a postdoctoral research fellow in electrical and computer engineering at Northeastern says, “not a linear, progressive line,” but includes “ups and downs on the road”; and to remember that engineering is “hard.”

“It’s a hard field, folks, engineering is hard,” says Ostadabbas. “So be proud of yourself every moment…I am excited to see how we as women in engineering can change the world.”