Life Lessons from Hall of Famers

Personal stories from a longtime SWE member and inductees to halls of fame share the benefits of determination, perseverance, and the value of a sense of humor.

By Jill S. Tietjen, P.E., F.SWE

When I give my “Navigating My Career” talk about the lessons I’ve learned over the course of my life and career, I say that everyone will face adversity. In fact, as I learned in writing my 2022 book, Over, Under, Around, and Through: How Hall of Famers Surmount Obstacles, we all face obstacles over the course of our lives — sometimes it feels like constantly — every single one of humankind. In addition, as women engineers, we need to navigate our careers within the context of a male-dominated environment.

In this article, I provide advice and lessons learned for thriving in a male-dominated environment and surmounting the obstacles in our lives using my life experiences and the experiences of others, including some of the hall of famers from my book.

Never give up. I was flabbergasted when one of my co-authors told me she had a spreadsheet project to do. When she couldn’t figure it out, she gave up. I didn’t know that was an option! If you have to get something done, you get it done. Clara Brown was born into slavery. When she was 35, she, her husband, and their surviving children were each sold to different owners. For years Brown looked for the members of her family. She learned that one daughter was still alive, and, for 47 years, Brown looked for that daughter. At age 82, Brown and her daughter were reunited, and Brown met her granddaughter for the first time. Clara Brown never gave up.

Find a way. When someone tells me I can’t do it, or women can’t do it, that just stiffens my backbone and makes me try harder. World-renowned soil scientist Diana Wall, Ph.D., was told early in her academic career, “We don’t need any more women in ag.” She said she despaired for about 24 hours before resolving: “I’ll show you. You don’t know me. I’m now going to be aware of this type of behavior. And I’m going to see how I can survive in this field.” Dr. Wall thrived.

Today, a geographic feature in Antarctica and a soil microarthropod species are named for her.

When LaRae Orullian became the first woman officer at her bank, she asked to go to the same type of banking school that all of the other officers before her (men) had attended. She was told no. She got a scholarship. She was still told no. She asked for time to attend the school. She was still told no. She attended banking school during her vacation because she knew she needed the knowledge. And she used that knowledge when she became the inaugural president of Women’s Bank.

Dr. Diana Wall and LaRae Orullian found a way — as necessary, they went over, under, around, or through.

Prepare for the worst thing that could happen. Nine months after my first husband and I were married, his parents died in a murder-suicide. We were 22 years old. His two brothers were 14 and 18, and they came to live with us. When I counsel people about issues in their lives, I tell them to envision the worst thing that could happen as an outcome — and then prepare for it. While my experience is an extreme example, and the worst thing almost never happens, when contemplating life changes or major decisions, a healthy awareness of what might go wrong and considering options should that happen is essential. It is important to not obsess about the worst outcome, just to envision it, and to ensure that you are prepared for it.

You will need to develop “rhino skin” — this is thicker than thick skin. Learn to not take things personally. Learn to be determined, to persevere, and to be persistent. Emily Howell Warner was determined to become a commercial airline pilot. She took flying lessons, earned her student pilot’s license and a private pilot’s license, became a flight instructor, and then a Federal Aviation Administration examiner. For years, she trained men who became pilots and applied to be hired as a pilot herself. After five years of applying, she heard that her name was not on the list of new hires for Frontier Airlines. She obtained an interview and became the only applicant required to take a check flight on a simulator — which she passed. Warner became the first woman hired as a pilot by a commercial airline.

Today, her uniform hangs in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Be excellent technically. Work hard. Be good at what you do. Become an expert, invited to speak at industry conferences. Get nominated for awards — through your company’s internal program, your alma mater, and professional and community organizations. Become like my friend, Jackie, whose nickname was “Do Most” because she could do most whatever she was asked. Complete a major power plant construction project on time and on budget. Check. Oversee the studies needed and the preparation of the application for a certificate of public convenience and necessity for a new power plant. Check. Supervise the entire process from issuance of a request for proposals to project construction and completion of a power plant. Check. Always deliver. Always follow through on your commitments. Be reliable. Be dependable.

Hone your sense of humor. You will need it. Learn to laugh at situations. Learn to laugh at yourself. I am in a client meeting — 13 men and me. Two of the men are developers who want to develop a power plant. During the meeting it becomes obvious that they really don’t know what they are doing. They don’t know where it will be located, how big it will be, or when it will become operational. As Bob (president of the utility) and others ask them questions, the answers keep changing. Bob gets frustrated and finally says, “Will you make up your mind? Or are you going to continue to be as fickle as a … ?” Bob turns beet red, looks at me, and I say, “What are you going to do now, Bob?” And he completes the sentence, “a woman.” A keen sense of humor, used often, is imperative.

Another example of humor that I just love involves SWE Past President Suzanne Jenniches, F.SWE. She was given the responsibility for full-scale development operations and Lots 1 and 2 production of the APG-164 offensive radar system and electronically scanned antennas. Many Air Force personnel expressed great reservations that a woman with her experience could lead such a technical and critical effort. The first production readiness review (PRR) occurred less than six months into the program.

The Air Force colonel in charge of the PRR stood up in the audience on the first day of a five-day review and announced that it was going to take a “6-foot-4-inch man weighing 200 pounds” to pull this off, and Jenniches wasn’t it. He was ready to fail Westinghouse at that point. Jenniches answered back from the podium that just six months ago, she had been 6 feet, 4 inches and weighed 200 pounds. The job had taken its toll, but she believed that she was up to the task. Four days into the five days scheduled for the review, the colonel called everyone back into the auditorium. All their questions had been answered, and they were going home a day early.

Emotional intelligence is not optional. Use your intuition often — trust it. It will serve you well. Two of my colleagues and I are in New York in January 1991 arranging the financing of a major power plant with New York bankers and attorneys. We are in the conference room of the attorney’s office at 7 p.m. Someone calls into the conference room: “Turn on the radio.” The Gulf War has started. I watch the banker we are with. He has a different color pen for each topic area. He is putting the caps on all the pens and putting them away. I say to my two male colleagues, “This meeting is over.” They ask, “How do you know?” And I reply, “Because David just put all of his pens away.” Use your eyes, your ears, your heart, and your intuition.

Have a support network in place. As we learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, we are social animals, and we need contact with other people. We need people who care about us and our physical and emotional well-being. We need a network of people who encourage us. If you don’t have a social support network, get one. My primary support structure for years and years has been the Society of Women Engineers. A place where I was accepted. A place where I did not have to prove myself. A place where others understood and had similar experiences. A place where others could relate to me and tell me I wasn’t crazy.

You can do it. You can thrive in a male-dominated environment because you already have the skills you need to surmount the obstacles you will certainly face throughout your life.

Jill S. Tietjen, P.E., F.SWE, (she/her) was the FY92 president of SWE. She has been inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame, the Colorado Authors’ Hall of Fame, and the National Academy of Construction.