One Woman’s Experience Working in the Automotive Engineering Field

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Irene MurphyEditors Note: Irene Murphy has worked in the automotive and semiconductor engineering fields for a combined total of 25 years.  Her educational background includes a Bachelor’s of Science in Electrical Engineering, Master’s Degrees in Program Management and Semiconductor Materials Science.  She lives and works in Arizona with her fiancé, pack of rescue Pit Bulls, her favorite sports car a Corvette Z06 and her small herd of horses that she breeds and trains in her spare time. We are lucky to have Irene as a major contributor to this site as she brings a wealth of knowledge and industry experience to  Automotive Engineering HQ.  

We all have to make choices within our lives and one of the biggest choices we must make is our career path.  If we are lucky, our career path can also be our passion in life and I’m fortunate to be able to say that working in the automotive engineering field has been able to satisfy the technical, geeky side of my personality while still providing for my family and passions outside of the office.  But choosing a field that is still male dominated did present challenges throughout my career and there were times I had to make tough choices about my life and career to move forward.

The automotive industry was in my blood

When I was in high school, I excelled in math and science courses and also had a talent for foreign languages and graduated as valedictorian of my class.  In addition to the advanced level courses I selected while in high school, I also chose to take a vocational course in auto mechanics.  I was fascinated by cars and often helped my father do every day repairs and maintenance and also worked on rebuilding muscle cars and racing with friends.  At that time I was enamored by the Chevelle SS and worked with friends to rebuild a ’69 and a ’72 Chevelle which they competed at the local track.  My fascination for vehicles continued throughout my life and finally settled on Corvettes and racing autocross when the opportunity came up with the local Corvette clubs.

I grew up in the Flint, Michigan region which is one of the central hubs for the automotive industry and at the time I joined the field was the biggest employer in the region.  So when I was growing up it wasn’t uncommon for people to work in the automotive field; what was uncommon though, was choosing to go the technical route as a female engineer rather than pursuing the more typical careers that women seemed to be choosing but that did not interest me in the slightest.  Living in the center of the automotive world meant that automobiles were a large part of our everyday life.  Many in my extended family worked in the automotive industry in roles from mechanic, assembly line worker, designers and even engineering.  It was my uncle in engineering and the heavy influence of my father who pushed me to earn an engineering degree at General Motors Institute or GMI.

Earning my engineering credentials

I cannot say that my choice in degrees was actually the best fit for my interests as I choose Electrical Engineering only because it was the hardest degree offered at the school and I wanted a challenge and I’m happy to say the school was challenging.  When I enrolled and was accepted to the school I was also required to have a sponsoring company to work with during the off-sections that would give me the necessary work experience I would need to finish my degree requirements and I selected an electronic components manufacturer with locations in Mexico, that interested me because of my love for foreign languages and the opportunity to travel.

When I enrolled in my chosen degree program I immediately encountered what I would see throughout my entire automotive engineering career.  The engineering field is dominated by men.  In my class of 283 Electrical Engineering students there were only 8 women, several of which did not make it until graduation.  Now this could be an advantage for women looking to meet a partner to have these humungous odds but can be a distraction when earning a degree.  Additionally, I faced outright discrimination in grading and work throughout my degree and had to scrutinize all of my papers and exams to ensure they were graded fairly.  Many of my professors gender equality symbolsdemanded a higher level of perfection from the female engineering students that choose to enter this field and it was often more difficult to meet their high expectations.  In one example, on a Communications Theory exam a professor marked me down ten points for missing a problem but the same mistake on my male study partner’s exam was only marked down five points.   The score was adjusted on my exam when I pointed out the error, but showed me I had to be vigilant.  Another example was in a Manufacturing Processes class when we were graded on whether our welds would pass a strength test and the professor showed outright surprise when my weld passed on the first try.

The bias I faced when earning my degree was a foreshadowing of the types of issues that I would face as I started my career in the automotive industry so my education prepared me in more ways than one.

Working as a female in the automotive engineering world

Throughout my twenty five years working in the engineering field I have had to face the fact that the field is dominated by men.  In some cases, I was able to work this to my advantage and when I decided to move to another company and work on a special project I was the sole female engineer and easily landed the job so that they could meet their hiring requirements.  On the other hand, though, longevity with a company, is rarely rewarded with advancements despite my successful performance and in order to move forward in my career I was forced to find a new position.  No matter which company I worked for the population of my coworkers was always similar there being at least four men for each women in the company.

Additionally, there are other issues that women face if they decide to have a family and go on maternity leave.   There are laws that prevent discrimination for a woman who takes time off to have a child and bond with a child but if they take advantage of this benefit they are labeled and will have to fight the stigma that comes with having children. (Note – many companies offer the same benefits for a father but many men choose not to use this benefit because of the biases they will face)  While I did not face this issue myself, I was denied a promotion because the manager felt that all women eventually would decide to have children and told me so in a phone conversation and that he could not be faced with being short-staffed on an important project.  This comment led me to another revelation when I took this issue up with human resources.  While they did not condone those actions there was no way to prove that the conversation took place and they are tasked to protect the company and not their female employees.  This realization made me realize that I had to focus on my job, protect my interests and fully document the work, conversations and any issues that I had immediately and directly.

Working in the automotive engineering has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life but this arena has come with many challenges.  There have been technical challenges that I had to overcome on tight deadlines working late into the night in order to meet production schedules as well as personal challenges that I faced working as a woman in a male dominated field while still trying to maintain my personal life.  Despite all of the issues I’ve faced I would never change my decision to become an engineer and work in the automotive engineering field and I would recommend this field to any female who has a passion for automobiles!



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