International Women in Engineering Day (INWED) takes place every year on June 23 to celebrate the work and achievements of women in the field of engineering. INWED provides an opportunity to raise the profile of women engineers and highlight the career opportunities available in this industry.
Historically, women have been under-represented in the academic and professional engineering fields; however, numbers have increased over the years. In 1960, about 1% of all engineers were women. In 2019, women made up approximately 20% of the engineering workforce.
Organizations like the UK’s Women’s Engineering Society (WES) hope to see these numbers grow even more as they work to provide young women with resources and opportunities that encourage them to pursue careers in engineering. The organization launched Women in Engineering Day in 2014, and the holiday became globally recognized in 2017.
Each year, people participate in hundreds of INWED events across the globe. In honor of INWED 2021, we’re sitting down with Presto Geosystems’ very own Civil Design Engineer, Sam Justice. Backed by a decade of specialized engineering experience, Sam is an accomplished civil engineer with a proven history of guiding complex projects to successful outcomes. She holds a geotechnical engineering degree from the University of Michigan and a geological engineering graduate degree from Michigan Technological University. She is also a registered professional engineer and an active member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and the Society for Women Engineers (SWE).
How or why did you choose engineering as a career path/area of study?
SJ: I always wanted to be an engineer, pretty much as soon as I knew engineers existed. I always loved knowing how and why things worked, and more than that, I want to know how things fit together with the rest of the world. That is the difference between a scientist and an engineer for me. It is awesome that we have people who can spend years studying a single thing, like trying to discover a new subatomic particle. But, to me, the people who would take that new knowledge and do things with it and help people with, are the ones I wanted to be. I saw engineering as the path to being able to do something tangible in the world and be able to point to something, and say “that thing works because of me.”
Where did you study engineering?
SJ: I completed my undergraduate in Geotechnical Engineering at the University of Michigan (Go Blue!). Once I finished that degree, I took a break from school and worked for a few years at a consulting firm. Then I decided to go back for my Master’s degree in Geological Engineering at Michigan Technological University.
What is the most exciting thing about your job?
SJ: In my job, I am essentially a consultant, rather than a project engineer. So instead of focusing on one or two projects at a time, I am a part of a dozen different projects every week. It’s exciting to see the variety of projects that are happening at any moment, from small home improvement projects to multi-million-dollar private company jobs. Moving from one type of work to another so quickly keeps me feeling energized about what I’m doing, and definitely doesn’t leave room for me to get bored.
What does a typical day in your role look like?
SJ: Usually, I spend my days reviewing project information for an engineering or contracting firm and providing my recommendations and expertise on a construction or remediation strategy. I can be pulled into the beginning, middle, or end of a project, so I have to make sure I know what the clients are hoping for, and what is realistic based on what has already happened. I also spend a lot of time talking directly with people, either about a specific project we are working on or through hosting learning webinars for our industry. There are a lot of questions about the geosynthetics industry, and I try and answer them the best I can.
What is it like to be a woman working in a historically male-dominated industry?
SJ: It can be tough, no doubt about that. But things are changing for the better every year, and it’s becoming less of a male-dominated job all the time. There is still some sexism, mostly in the form of someone being surprised that a woman is in charge of providing recommendations or teaching classes. I counter that by just knowing my work and having confidence that my knowledge is valid and sought after. Other engineers are getting more accepting of women in the industry, and the industry itself is catching up to the times, but it’s not always a smooth road. But it’s worth it, I think, to get to do things I do, even if there are still some people who think I shouldn’t have a seat at the table. I like to think that what I do is making it a little easier to be heard.
Have any women in the engineering world influenced you? How?
SJ: I had a professor at Michigan who really inspired me to know that I could make it as an engineer. She taught classes, was a senior member of a consulting firm, spoke at conferences, and regularly told government departments; I swear she did it all because she really loved what she did and believed that she could do it all. To her, it didn’t matter that she was a woman, or that she was an immigrant, or that people told her she should be doing something else. She had knowledge that others didn’t and was enthusiastic about sharing it with everyone. I try to model the way I teach after her, and I know it has made a difference and made me a better engineer.
What are you most excited about when thinking about the future of engineering?
SJ: The civil engineering world, and the geosynthetic industry, in particular, is constantly evolving, coming up with new ways to complete projects faster and cheaper, and greener. I love the shift towards green infrastructure and low-impact development. Construction and landscaping are some of the most immediate and impactful ways to help our planet, and I can’t wait to see what we come up with next.
What advice would you give to young women who are interested in pursuing a career in engineering?
SJ: Don’t be afraid to be passionate about being curious. Don’t ever let someone stop you from asking questions and getting answers. Being an engineer can be a daunting amount of work, but you’ll never be bored, and you’ll learn more than you can imagine. There is so much satisfaction in knowing the how’s and the why’s about something. And engineering is such a broad term! There is no limit to what you can do with an engineering degree, and it opens so many doors. It sounds cheesy, I know, but it really is a great career path, because you can make it whatever you want it to be. You just have to want to ask the questions and keep digging until you get the answers.