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I'm an Airman Engineer: It begins with good mentors

For Suzanne Bilbrey. her confidence began while growing up on a farm in Oklahoma. (Courtesy photo)
Suzanne Bilbrey
Director, Air Force Civil Engineer Center Environmental Directorate
Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas

    What's it like to be a female engineer in the Air Force?  A difficult question to answer, but perhaps a better question to ask is, "what's it like to be a female engineer?"  It's challenging, it's rewarding and sometimes it's impossible.  Although we've made some advances in the percentage of women in engineering over the last 30 years, we still have a long way to go to make engineering an inclusive career for women.

    There has been much study and discussion about a "woman's place" in engineering.  Truth is, a woman's place in engineering is the same as her place in medicine, law, education, manufacturing or trades. If the skill set, determination, resource and support are there, a woman will succeed at the same rate as a man.  When any of those things is missing, a prospective engineer will fail, and either drop out of the program or drop out of the career field after graduation.  Coaching and mentoring are invaluable to everyone, but especially important to any minority who doesn't necessarily see themselves in a teacher/professor or a leader/role model.  If all your engineering professors or executives are white males, and there is not intentional mentoring and development of minorities, they tend to migrate away from the engineering field.

    I have been fortunate in my career to have several forward-thinking mentors that have encouraged me and given me opportunities where others have not.  It didn't start with the Air Force for me, however.  Growing up on a farm in Oklahoma, my Dad didn't give me any breaks when it came to mechanical problems because I was female.  Drive the tractor, fix the truck, "jerry-rig" the barn door, etc.  When my first car had a flat in the driveway, he was happy to tell me how to fix it, walking me through each step without unfolding his arms.

    While that built confidence in the mechanical stuff, the turning point came for me while working as a summer chemical research assistant at Halliburton Services.  I was two weeks away from beginning my final two years studying at a small state university to be a chemistry teacher, when Halliburton's general manager of research called me to his office.  I was so nervous thinking I had made some grievous error, when he asked me how I liked my job and what my plans were.  He already knew, but then asked an incredible question, "What do you think of those engineers?"  I launched, unthinkingly, into a diatribe about how they thought they knew everything; the engineers didn't understand the limits of the equipment or testing protocol, etc.  Then he asked, "Do you think you could do it better?"  Within a week, with his intervention, I was on my way to Oklahoma State University to eventually graduate with a degree in Chemical Engineering, but wouldn't have dared imagine I could without that encouragement and mentoring.

    It's been much the same in the Air Force.  After working in industry for nearly 10 years, the EPA recommended me for my first Air Force job in environmental restoration at Reese AFB, Texas.  I am blessed to have been given opportunities at each new assignment by leaders who coached, encouraged and sometimes redirected my efforts.  Over the last 20 years, I have had five base-level assignments (ranging from engineer to mission support group deputy director), the legacy Air Force Center for Engineering and the Environment, two major command assignments, professional  military education in residence and now at the Air Force Civil Engineer Center.  Each job was rewarding, each one a challenge, but the numbers of women engineers in my career haven't substantially increased.  Recent studies indicate that women leave engineering jobs 30 percent of the time after more than 10 years in the field. I don't know what the Air Force statistics are on that same time period, but I do know it happens too often.  The most often cited reason from the women I talk to are few chances for development and poor workplace environment, with family situations a distant third place.

    We must work together to make the CE world more inclusive, more accepting and truly value the contributions women engineers make to the Air Force.  It begins with respect and it happens in the moments, not in a strategic plan.  It's not about another "program;" it's about how we treat each other.  I don't know of one female engineer who wants to be the best female engineer -- if you're an engineer, you just want to be the best engineer.  No gender bias, no racial bias, no bias at all.  Think about it, wouldn't THAT be the Air Force CE community you would want to be a part of?

(Editor's Note: This article is part of the "I'm an Airman Engineer" series for CE Online. The series focuses on individual CE Airmen to highlight their careers and the diversity, knowledge, career fields and people within our community.)