Engineers’ problem-solving skills are transferable to authorship and advocacy.
By Jill S. Tietjen, P.E., F.SWE
Why did I have to be an electrical engineer first? That is the question I kept asking myself as I evolved into an advocate for women, writing women into history (with 12 books published as of late 2022 and more in process), and telling women’s stories. And it is a question for which I finally have an answer.
Engineers solve problems. I love to solve problems and puzzles. I evidenced this at only 2 years of age, when I started working jigsaw puzzles. Throughout my engineering career, I solved problems. Although I haven’t completely left engineering behind, today I mostly write books and speak. When writing books, I solve problems and put together book puzzles — making sure all the pieces are there and that they fit together. Those book puzzles aren’t all that different from engineering word problems: I need to figure out which data are relevant and which pieces are really needed to solve the problem. Putting together presentations for my speaking also involves problem-solving and fitting pieces together.
Finding the Society of Women Engineers has been pivotal in my life’s journey. Not only did it provide me social support from the time I joined more than 40 years ago, but it also provided the impetus for much of my writing.
Engineers have a logical thought process. I have benefited from this skill set throughout my book research and materials organization. Where can I find the information that I need? How do I best use online search engines in addition to the library research I often do? I use spreadsheets constantly to organize the information that most of my books require.
As a woman engineer, I had to develop what my dear friend Suzanne Jenniches, F.SWE, SWE past president and the woman for whom the Society’s Upward Mobility Award is named, “rhino” skin. This is thicker than thick skin. Throughout my career I was the only or one of few women engineers. That rhino skin helped me develop independence, self-confidence, and the courage of my convictions. That rhino skin is also important now in the field of publishing, especially when dealing with rejection and becoming confident in my book topics and marketing strategies.
Finding the Society of Women Engineers has been pivotal in my life’s journey. Not only did it provide me social support from the time I joined more than 40 years ago, but it also provided the impetus for much of my writing. First, Helen Huckenpahler, F.SWE, a member of the Denver (now Rocky Mountain) Section, asked me to help her write nominations for other members of the section for SWE Fellow. We worked on those nominations together, and I began to learn how to put successful nominations together.
Then my dear friend and SWE colleague Alexis Swoboda, F.SWE, went to the 1987 SWE national convention (as it was called at the time) in Kansas City. She came back to Colorado with the idea for an outreach program for young students: the “Great Women in Engineering and Science” essay contest. We put that program into place in 1988 — and it is still going strong. We conducted adequate research to understand who those women were and wrote biographies that the students could choose from so that the judges of the essays could do their work.
I am not revising history but restoring the missing pieces of history, the stories of the half of humanity who rarely appear in history books the world over. I believe that when women are valued — and all girls are educated — all of society will be a better place. Isn’t that what we all want?
Also in 1988, I was elected to the SWE board of directors, and at my first meeting then-president Jenniches held up the nomination forms for the National Medal of Technology and the National Medal of Science and asked for a volunteer to complete them. I volunteered. After many starts and stops and much learning on my part as I put nominations together (with the essay contest effort as the basis), in 1991 I was informed that Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, Ph.D., would be receiving the National Medal of Technology. At the ceremony in the Rose Garden, where I received that honor on her behalf from President George H.W. Bush, I looked around. Where were the women? Dr. Hopper was the first individual woman to earn that award; how could that be? It became my mission to nominate women for awards of all types.
Driven by a mission
Then Swoboda came across the National Women’s Hall of Fame, located in Seneca Falls, New York, the birthplace of women’s rights. We made it our mission to nominate women in STEM to the hall, as they were significantly underrepresented. Our first successes occurred in 1994 when Dr. Hopper and Maria Mitchell, recognized as the first female astronomer in the U.S., were inducted.¹ That was the first of many induction ceremonies we attended and the first of many of our nominations that were successful.
Also in 1994, my first husband decided he wanted a divorce. I went into counseling. It was the first time I had consciously thought about what I was doing, where my life was heading, and what my personal mission was. Nevertheless, if you had told me in 1994 what I would be doing in late 2022, I would have rolled on the floor laughing. I would have never believed it!
Our research for the essay contest and for nominations to the National Women’s Hall of Fame led to our writing articles about the historical women we had discovered. It also meant that when I was introduced to my future co-authors, Betty Reynolds, Ph.D., in 1998 and Charlotte Waisman, Ph.D., in 2003, I was ready to write books with them on women’s history. Leading up to this, I didn’t know that I was laying the groundwork for future books. I just knew that I had writing and research skills and that I was interested in the topics. The books were sort of the gravy. As an engineer and an expert witness, I was trained to both write and speak. In addition, as a consultant I learned about marketing. Today’s author needs to be able to write, speak, and market. Authors need to be able to handle rejection and promote themselves by speaking all over the country (and now the world). I learned how to do this through writing proposals, doing presentations on those proposals, and conducting short-list interviews in my engineering consulting career. As an expert witness I was trained to handle questions, and, specifically, to handle hostile questions. And, yes, I do get those when I speak about the women in my books.
Engineers make the world a better place; I do that currently through my advocacy for women worldwide. I am not revising history but restoring the missing pieces of history, the stories of the half of humanity who rarely appear in history books the world over. I believe that when women are valued — and all girls are educated — all of society will be a better place. Isn’t that what we all want?
My engineering career wasn’t a detour at all from my life’s journey but a very necessary set of experiences that helped me get to where I am today.
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.