Lisa Wilson

Aerospace Engineer

Location: St. Louis, MO

"I have often wondered how many potential female engineers have been "filtered out" of their technical paths simply because they were too influenced by input from other people."

In my high school yearbook, there was a section where seniors could submit favorite quotes. Mine was, “Can’t never could do anything.” Nobody ever asked me about that.

I can remember learning that quote when I was learning to tie my shoes. Literally. Perhaps I had already heard that quote a few times before, but that is the time I remember. I was fussing and trying to get Mom to do it for me, and telling her I couldn’t do it. She said, “Can’t never could do anything.” I remember stopping and looking at her and saying, “What?” She repeated it. (Say it out loud to yourself. It sounds weird.) Who or what is the subject of that sentence? Perhaps to a kid just learning to express herself, particularly, the wording seemed odd, and I had to ask myself what the heck that meant. I thought about it a lot. I would think about it more over the years to come, when my mom would offer up the same words, advising me, almost taunting me, challenging me to find a way around something besides resorting to “can’t.”

When I got into high school, I had already formulated a plan to become an engineer, and I already knew I wanted to go to the best school I could find. The main tenet of the plan was to get straight As and become valedictorian, while taking all the math and science I could. At freshman registration when I gave my counselor my class list, she said, "Why do you want to take all this math and science? It is a waste of your time." The comment set me off to such a degree that I don't even remember exactly how the rest of the conversation went, only that I ended up asking for a different counselor. The new counselor signed me up for the classes I wanted. I have often wondered how many potential female engineers have been "filtered out" of their technical paths simply because they were too influenced by input from other people; sometimes the very people they expect to be their strongest advocates.

My plan to get straight As in a largely technical curriculum went along fine until sophomore year, when I got a B in American History. Perhaps unusually, quarter grades didn’t actually affect GPA. Only semester grades did. We also didn’t have any pluses or minuses. If two quarter grades were different, the last one counted, so I could still get an A in my GPA by getting an A the second quarter. Even so, I was horrified. It did not bode well for my plans. When I got home that day, I told my mom about it, and I lay on my bed with the light off until dinner time, brooding. When I came out for dinner, my dad talked to me about it. You have to understand, to start with, that my dad thought I was a little bit too tightly wound. He told me that it was inevitable, and that it would hurt less if I got it over with sooner—if I went into junior or even senior year before it happened, I would just be that much more disappointed. I didn’t take that point of view as at all comforting. I didn’t say much and neither did my mom. Later, after I had sulked all evening and was getting ready for bed, my mom came in to say goodnight. She said, “The only one that can fix it is you. If you want it, go get it.”

I pulled up my grade in history, as well as achieving my goal of becoming valedictorian with a 4.0 GPA. Even so, when discussing colleges and my desire to go to a certain well-known engineering school, a peer with a brother in his freshman year at that same school said, "You shouldn't go there. It's too hard for you." I found it interesting that I continued to receive such comments. In a way, it fueled my fire to show such people they were wrong. I enrolled at the school in question. Once there, another student actually said to me, "You only got in here because you're a girl. They admitted a lot of girls this year." As it happens, the female admission was 30% that year. While that was the highest number of women admitted up to that time, 1986, and there was also a notable upward tick that year, I continue to find it laughable that 30% was considered preferential.

One of my strongest advocates, my mother, armed me with my resolve. "Can't never could do anything." “The only one that can fix it is you. If you want it, go get it."

I now work at a leading aerospace company and mentor school-age girls through the company's STEM out-reach program. I hope that I can provide similar resolve and positive messages, because I know the negative feedback is still out there. Girls need to be told they "can" until they believe it.