Mom, Mechanical Engineer, Eileen Miller
“I don’t want someone to ever look at me and think ‘Oh she got her position because she’s a girl,’ instead of seeing that I worked just as hard as everyone else. I have worked hard to be where I am, and if I get promoted, I want people to say ‘Wow, Eileen really deserves that. She worked her butt off,’ and not ‘Oh, well I’m better than her but she’s a girl.’”
Name: Eileen Miller | Occupation: Mechanical Engineer | University and Year of Graduation: University of South Carolina 2013, B.S.
I have met a number of fantastic female engineers, but Eileen is the first woman who I have interviewed that is a mom. She offers a very different perspective in the conversation about women in engineering and brought up a few points that I never even thought about.
Sitting in Starbucks, she showed me some of the props that she brought to use in her photos. One of the most important props to her was a piece of composite that she made during her first week at work. She explained that she actually made a few mistakes while making the composite panel, and said to me: “We learn more out of our failures than we do succeeding.”
Eileen graduated from the University of South Carolina and continued on to get her Master’s degree in mechanical engineering. She then decided to begin her PhD in 2014 and continues to pursue it while working full time as a composite materials engineer in Charleston. She told me that she has always loved math and originally wanted to be a high school math teacher.
“I wanted to be a math teacher because I wanted math to make sense to people instead of having them just memorizing steps. My first year in college I was an education major, but I soon realized that the public education system was not for me. I wanted to help kids learn - not help them pass standardized tests. I knew I wouldn’t be happy holding someone’s hand and making them do homework when they really didn’t want to,” she said.
Eileen started brainstorming what else she could do with math. Her father, her aunt, and her uncle are all engineers, so she figured she would give engineering a try. Despite knowing several engineers in her family, Eileen told me that she still didn’t know what engineering actually was.
“I just wanted something where I could use math. People told me you can do mechanical because it’s the most broad. I figured I would start there and switch to another type of engineering if I wanted to. I ended up liking mechanical engineering and stayed,” she explained.
As with all career paths, there come challenges and rewards. I asked Eileen what her thoughts were about this and if she could name anything in specific. She had a lot of thoughts.
“First of all, I think that I’m really lucky in the group that I’m in and the culture in my organization. There are a lot of other women engineers where I work, and it’s a pretty young group. I don’t feel like I have any challenges as compared to someone being hired into a group with senior colleagues as the majority. I think the challenges I have are more self-imposed. What I mean by that is: I am uncomfortable when I’m managing projects and calling a colleague that is more senior than me and asking him to do something for me, or telling him that he’s not delivering and we need it by Friday. That’s uncomfortable because you’re taught to respect your elders. It’s a very non-intuitive situation to be in. Also, I don’t want someone to ever look at me and think ‘Oh she got her position because she’s a girl,’ instead of seeing that I worked just as hard as everyone else. I have worked hard to be where I am, and if I get promoted, I want people to say ‘Wow, Eileen really deserves that. She worked her butt off,’ and not ‘Oh, well I’m better than her but she’s a girl.’ Sometimes people will look at me and say ‘Well, you have an advantage because you’re a girl’ and I really don’t like that,” she said.
Eileen shared with me that she thinks her boyfriend, who is also an engineer, has had more of a hard time with her being an engineer than she has. What she means by that is the management where she works is really flexible with work-life balance with her son being sick and picking him up from school. The management at her boyfriend’s work on the other hand is more traditional, and they don’t understand that Eileen has to work too, and that he sometimes needs to leave early or stay home when their son is sick.
“He has to stand up and say ‘No, Eileen has a job too, and we have to switch off and watch our son and share the responsibility,’” she said.
Eileen said that apart from those challenges, she loves her work: “I guess I didn’t think about the rewards. I just really love my work. I’m happier working - it gives me something to do and challenges me everyday. I like it - that’s my reward.”
Now as a full-time working mom AND student working on her PhD, Eileen looks back at her 18 year-old self and realizes how important it is to finding a balance between humility and confidence.
“I don’t know where I was when I was 18 years-old, but I see people graduating now, and I see this level of superiority among engineering students thinking they are better than other majors, graduating with entitlement. But as soon as you get to the work place, you realize you don’t know anything. Understanding the balance between humility and confidence is really important to get you through your career. If I had taken the time to realize that school wasn’t everything and made more relationships that carried into my adult life, or finding a hobby, I feel like it would have been better for me,” she said.
When I told Eileen about my personal struggle with my identity and asked her if she went through the same thing, she was the first person to tell me that she actually had the opposite experience. She never tells anyone what she does and always gives people a generic answer. I wanted to know why.
“It’s because people always give you an over-the-top reaction when you tell them that you’re an engineer, and I didn’t want to come off as bragging. For some people, it’s threatening. When you’re in a bar and some guy walks up to you and asks to buy you a drink, and you say you’re an engineer, they just turn around and walk away.”
“That’s never happened to me! Has that happened to you?! In my experience, they seem to be really impressed!” I exclaimed.
“Yeah! They are intimidated and it’s as if they want to say ‘Never mind,’” she replied.
Eileen continued: “When people ask me where I work, I just tell them where I work and that’s it, unless they ask what I do. I think in general, it’s just not my personalty to tell people a lot about my life. If you find out what I do, then great. I don’t talk about work with my friends because it’s not what we have in common.”
Eileen does appreciate the fact that her boyfriend is an engineer because she can talk to him about what is going on at work, and he seems to understand where she is coming from. I asked her if she would recommend engineering to a young girl who loves math and science, and she said something that opened my eyes to an unfamiliar reality.
“Yes, if that’s what she’s interested in. My perspective is now different because I am a working mom. There are two camps for moms: one is the ‘working mom camp’ and the other is the ‘stay at home mom camp.’ The war is real between the two. Everybody has an opinion! ‘Oh you breast feed your child,’ or ‘You bottle feed your child,’ or ‘You hold your child too much.’ A lot of people feel strongly about the mom being home and raising the child, and for me, I send my child to daycare. At the end of the day, it’s whatever is right for each family. For me, I am not a homemaker. I would be miserable and depressed. Our house would still look the same. I am a better person for my family because I work. Our child is socialized and he gets what he needs, and I get to go to work and be happy. Rather than encouraging engineering, I feel like it’s more important to tell people ‘You do YOU.’ If they want to stay at home, then do it! If they want to work, then do it! Kudos to all the women who are stay-at-home moms, because I could never do it! It’s hard - both jobs are hard and we need to stop criticizing each other,” she passionately said.
Speaking of passions, I asked her what hers were. What gives her joy?
“Now that I’m a mom, I get lost in the identity of being a mom rather than being an engineer. A lot of women get lost in being a mom, and they lose what they love to do. But I think that when people ask me what my hobbies are, I say what my family likes. I’m pretty much a ‘tag-along mom,’ and I’m okay with that! My family likes to go on the boat, we like to go fishing, we like to camp and be in nature,” she said.
I asked Eileen if she has ever experienced burnout with all that she does. She answered with wisdom.
“I think that the biggest thing is if you want to do something, there aren’t any excuses for it. A lot of people use a situation as an excuse. If there is a will, there is a way. Whatever it is, just do it. Don’t think about it and wait and say you’ll do it when so and so happens. However, you do need to know yourself and create boundaries. There were semesters where I didn’t take a class because I was tired, and there were other things going on. You have to be realistic about things and take some time off. You have to prioritize things. No matter what path you choose, there is some sort of sacrifice that you have to make,” she said.