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Sewing My Way to a Career in Engineering

I'm Betty Baker

Growing up in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s in rural Wisconsin, Engineering was not a field that was promoted to girls. In high school, I took Typing, Shorthand, Accounting and Home Economics classes. It was in Home Economics that I learned how to bake and sew. Yes, I am that old that I learned how to sew in high school. Looking back now, I think that is where my love for engineering happened. I was able to take yards of fabric and create something. I was able to use a pattern and create a finished product. I could make changes along the way and basically build something out of fabric. I could make my own patterns and be creative.

I finished high school without a plan. I started working at Ashley Furniture in the factory trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I worked on a machine and I found that I enjoyed the work of manufacturing. So, I decided to go back to school for Mechanical Design. That is where I had my first Drafting/CAD class and I think I was hooked. I was the only female in my class, and I did not have any women role models at the time. I graduated the only female in that program, and I started working in the field of engineering as the only female engineer. It was a tough few years of my life. I worked full time and I went to school full time to accomplish this and it was one of my greatest accomplishments.

Being a female in a male- dominated field has been tough. I have always felt like I needed to work harder to prove myself every single day. I have always been hard on myself and I always felt like I could not make a mistake or fail because I was a female. Well, everyone does make mistakes, but you fix them, learn from them and move on. That is what makes you a better person and a better engineer. A good friend recently said, “You can build on it or you can let it defeat you”. These are very powerful words that we should all live by. I did not have any female role models., I was on uncharted waters and I had to make my own path. I worked hard, tried to learn as much as I could, be involved and I have had a wonderful career. I remember the time a male made me feel like I should be at home having babies and cooking a meal instead of having a career in industry. That made me angry and made me want to help other women so they never had to feel that way. I did not let that defeat me, I built on it and that is why I promote STEM. I want to be that female role model to other young girls. I want to show them the opportunities that are out there if they just keep an open mind and say YES when a new career opportunity arises. I don’t want them to have to be on uncharted waters and feel like they are alone in a man’s world. Engineering is a wonderful field and I want to show young people, not just girls, all the areas of opportunity.

I have been very fortunate to work for a wonderful company like Ashley Furniture for my entire career. They believe in education and growing their employees. Over the years I have said YES to some career opportunities that I never thought I would. These are not things that are listed as part of an engineering job description, but they are opportunities that arise if you want to take advantage of them. The shy, quiet girl with glasses from a rural area took the opportunity to teach a SOLIDWORKS/CAD class at a technical college, she travelled overseas to visit factories, organized a girls STEM summer camp for girls, spoke to hundreds of students about being a woman in engineering and she helped start a FIRST Robotics team and is mentoring high school students in the field of engineering. There have been so many wonderful opportunities in this career that I cannot even list them all. It has not been easy, and I have been very nervous and uncomfortable many times in my career, but I have used each of these moments to grow and I have loved every minute of it. Promoting STEM not only helps the younger generation, but it has also helped me grow in my career. I have made many career friends both male and female and after many years I feel like I have become one of the guys in the Engineering male world.

So now, my words of advice for a young girl today, explore all areas of interest in your career fields. Don’t worry if it is a male or female stereotypical field. Try new things, find out what you like and don’t like, and it will guide you to your career. This is your career, no one else’s. Say YES to career opportunities that come to you. Your career path will not be a straight line. You will have many curves and bumps in the road, but you too can have a very satisfying career in Engineering. You will make mistakes and believe me people will always remember that one mistake over hundreds of accomplishments but that is ok if you learned from that mistake. We need more women in the Engineering fields. We need their creativity and we need more diversity in the field of engineering. Don’t be afraid to follow a career path that is male- dominated.

Good luck girls. Keep an open mind, learn and be true to yourself. You never know when a sewing class will be the start of a lifelong career. And remember, you can build on it or you can let it defeat you. Follow your dreams to becoming an Engineer.

With thanks - this article was written by Betty Baker.

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