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2006 Speeches
Mary Armstrong

Mary K. Armstrong


Shared Services Group

"Taking Charge of Your Career"

Society of Women Engineers

Keynote Address

2006 National Conference

Kansas City, Mo.

October 12, 2006

Thank you, Elizabeth.

Good Morning.

When you let me know early this year that the Society had asked me to attend today, I was thrilled. I have been looking forward to this outstanding conference and the chance to meet with all of you. This organization played a key role in setting me on my career path in engineering...and I am honored to be able in some small way to return the favor.

I am here today to talk to you specifically about a deep connection that we share--the connection is our career choice -- engineering. I made the choice more that 30 years ago, and I have learned, in that time, that I am the one who controls my future. It was my choice to become an engineer. And I can tell you, most sincerely, that it was the best decision that I made in the first 20 years of my life.

I often think back on how I was so fortunate to pick engineering. It was a pretty isolated career path for women at the time. There were few role models for me, yet that choice took me farther than I could have ever dreamed. It allowed me to have the power to take charge of my career.

I am here today to emphasize that to you each of you. You have the power to fulfill your aspirations for a career in engineering. And, I believe, your choice has huge consequences for our profession, for our quality of life, and of course, for you.

Mary Armstrong and classmates at the University of Washington in Seattle I want to begin my time with you this morning by showing you a picture (right) of four young women taken about 30 years ago at the University of Washington in Seattle. It was an event hosted by the local chapter of the Society of Women Engineers to introduce young women to engineering. The young women are high school students, seniors at Bethel High School in Spanaway, Washington. Their physics teacher, the dashing fellow in the suit, organized the outing so his students might be encouraged to go to college and continue studying the sciences.

Yes, that's me on the left, the future engineer. That's where my career in engineering got its start. Little did I know at the time that I would be here with you today. Fortunately, I must add, as influential as our teacher was, he had no effect on our sense of fashion.

Of the four women in the photo, one chose a technical career. Really, that's not a bad percentage for the 1970s. But, if you think the rate of women entering engineering has changed in thirty years, you'd be wrong. According to research published annually by the Society of Women Engineers, women make up only a small minority of the U.S. engineering workforce. The size of that minority? Right now, says the research, it's ten percent.

I was told there would be about 800 of us in the room this morning. If this room represented the entire population of engineers working in the U.S. today, only about 80 would be women. This little group of tables over here. If this were a breakfast of all biologists or pharmacists working in the U.S., I'd draw the line right down the middle. Half men and half women. Just about the same for college-level instructors. Half men and half women. Heck, if I were addressing a gathering of all the architects in the U.S. or all the farmers and ranchers in the U.S., there would be more than double the number of women in the room.

In my way of thinking, one in ten is not a good percentage. Even the one bright spot in engineering employment has dimmed recently. The Information Technology Association of America reported that the percentage of women in the IT workforce dropped from 41 percent in 1996 to just under 33 percent in 2004.

So, I've got to ask: Why is this happening? Is it our schools? Our colleges and universities? Maybe our social stereotypes? I doubt, as some have said, that there are biological reasons or differences in aptitude.

What I believe many women need, is to feel a stronger sense that they can take charge of their career in engineering. That they understand: One, the engineering career has enormous flexibility in it, and Two, the engineering career has value for our society. I believe, as does the Society of Women Engineers, The Boeing Company, and many others, that engineering is a highly desirable career aspiration for women, and that women should have every opportunity to succeed and advance in their aspirations. A diverse engineering workforce--one that includes men and women, one that accepts differences in ethnicity, family status, sexual orientation, age, and physical abilities--is good for engineering. It's good for business. And it's good for the world.

The research group, Catalyst, published a report in 2004 of their research of 353 of the Fortune 500 companies in America. The report stated that companies with the highest percentages of women corporate officers, experienced, on average, a 35 percent higher return on equity and a 34 percent higher total return to shareholders, than those with the lowest percentages of women corporate officers. Thirty five percent is a significant improvement in financial performance when women are in leadership positions. It is no wonder today that businesses and major employers, like Boeing, are actively encouraging diversity in their workforce. Diversity is rewarding, not only in its social context, but also to the bottom line.

We face many choices in our life that affect our careers. Do we continue to work while we raise a family? Do we return to work? Do we stay with engineering when there are so many other opportunities or, on the flip side, when there are roadblocks and difficulties?

I have been very fortunate: my family, my community, and my employer have been great sources of strength and support. But I also have kept one truth in mind: I am the one responsible for my career.

There are three examples of events from my work-life that I would like to share with you today. For me, they illustrate the point that you can take charge of your career

The quick summary of my career experiences can be simplified to three key points:

I suspect these three ideas match the career experiences of many others in this room. They match the Society's tagline very nicely. Aspire -- Advance -- Achieve

Aspire. When you are in school and after you start your career, to take maximum advantage of the learning opportunities you have. It will help you throughout your career.

Advance. Move forward in your career development. Don't be shy about taking the initiative and take advantage of situations to advance your career.

Finally, achieve. Have the courage to follow your heart to do what you are really passionate about.

The first story I would like to share with you is about how I used education as a career enhancer. When I was at the University of Washington, finishing my bachelor's degree in chemical engineering, the vast majority of my classmates were headed out to start their careers. They had real engineering jobs. And in 1979, there were two to three job offers for all of us fortunate enough to have chosen chemical engineering in that era. Only a few chose graduate school. I had not really thought much about grad school. I was the first person in my whole family to get a four-year degree, so I had focused on completing that accomplishment.

One day, I was riding the elevator in Benson Hall at the U-dub with one of my professors, who said something to me about grad school as my next step. I was both surprised and flattered. This guy was brilliant and if he thought that I could do this, then maybe I should consider it. So consider it I did. I got a fellowship, and off to Rochester, New York I went to get my masters. I will never forget purchasing a one-way ticket to a place that I had never been to before. I didn't know a living soul in the area. What a huge learning experience that was for me!

I can tell you that the decision to pursue an advanced degree early in my career has paid me back many, many times over. It gave me more time to develop the fundamental skills of engineering. It helped me develop significantly more self-confidence in entering a field that can seem so impersonal and rigid. And most importantly, the graduate degree set me apart from the rest of the pack throughout my career, and even today. For those of you still in undergraduate school, consider grad school in engineering. It will be time well-spent, considering the decades of an exciting career you have ahead of you.

So what happens once you have your degree and you are making your way in the world of work? That brings me to my second story. It's about taking the initiative. When I started at Boeing, it had a reputation, like many engineering employers, as a place that stressed hierarchy. It could feel impersonal. But I liked the location in the Pacific Northwest, where I was from, so I took the risk. When I interviewed, it happened over the phone. Yep, a little impersonal. When I arrived for my first day on the job, my supervisor, Dorothy, promptly introduced me to a stack of company procedure manuals. Yep, a little impersonal. So, I was desperate to make some kind of connection. How, I asked myself, did my job contribute to the company's success?

One day, a couple of weeks into the job, I got into my car and drove to see Dorothy's boss. Unannounced. I just walked up to the secretary and said, "I'm a new engineer in Dorothy's group. I just wondered if Bob had a minute for me to introduce myself."

She said, . . . Well of course he has a minute! I met Bob, and I said simply that I was a new engineer in Dorothy's group and wanted to introduce myself. And you know what? Bob knew my name. He was happy to make a few minutes of time for me. We had a short but cordial conversation where I got to talk about my excitement at being at Boeing and being able to share my education and experience. There were no awkward moments. And Bob remembered me. To him I became more that just a name on the roster of engineers.

Looking back on it now, it felt really out there for the times. It looked like I was going outside the chain of command. But my intentions were totally above board. Anyway, I figured that if my boss took exception to my initiative, the job probably was not a good fit for me anyway. As it turned out, I left that job in a short time and transferred to another group within Boeing, one that had an excellent fit with my interests. In 22 years at the company I have had nearly 20 different jobs. I want you to know that moving around is ok. In fact, it has brought me huge advantages, a diversity of experience and an ability to build many relationships.

Ok, now for the last little story, which is about following your heart. It's from a later time in my career, after I had moved into management. Two opportunities came along at once, forcing me to make a hard choice. Boeing was setting up a site in northeastern Montana for flight testing. A place away far from the city and other air traffic. I was asked to get it up and running. At the same time, I learned that I had been nominated to receive a company-sponsored fellowship, an opportunity that was thought to be a sure step to executive management.

The people I talked to compared the two and immediately recommended the fellowship. By comparison, they told me, the assignment to Montana looked like banishment for committing a huge blunder. There I would be out of sight and out of mind for future opportunities.

I looked at my choice much differently. I would be setting up a new operation that was a huge business and technical challenge. It would be totally under my direction. It was in a remote location that I had never experienced before. The assignment really called to my adventurous spirit and my heart. Of course, I chose the remote assignment.

It was scary at first. I had to do a lot by myself, without a crew of engineers validating my work. There was no one but me to set up the contracts, create the business practices and manage the staff. Yes, I may have let my mentors and advisors down. As they say, I had to break some glass. But it was not a lot of glass. I kept in touch with them by letting them know how it was going and visiting them when I was in town. . . . in fact pretty soon they thought it was their idea to take the Montana assignment.

Well, that job in Montana was the single best job I have ever had at Boeing. It prepared me for all the management positions I have had since. And it resulted from me following my heart.

Those are the three stories. I could speak about many other worthwhile techniques I have used to advance my career, like mentoring and developing networks. As a matter of fact, we at Boeing have an number of mentoring programs that are huge for us -- for individuals and for the business. I am personally involved in a number of mentoring relationships.

I applaud your choice of engineering as a career. You can go anywhere and be anything that you want to be in this or in any other field. You have done the hard work of acquiring the technical skills. That commands huge respect in any field you choose from here.

Aspire, when you are in school, to take maximum advantage of the learning opportunities you have. It will help you later in your career. Advance, be bold. Move forward in your career development. Don't be shy about taking the initiative, question the status quo and take advantage of situations to advance your career. Finally, achieve -- follow your heart to do what you want to do.

Here at the conference, you have an opportunity to hear from a wide range of presenters who will speak about career development and the value of improving the diversity of the engineering workforce. I know Elizabeth is participating on one of the panels with other Boeing executives. Visit with these people and see how they feel.

Well, that about wraps up my thoughts. I want to express my gratitude to SWE, for organizing that event at the University of Washington some thirty years ago. And thank you to SWE today, an invaluable resource to all of us in our development. And thank you to SWE's Conference Program Board, president Jude Garzolini, and executive director Betty Shanahan, for having me here today to be with you.

I hope the stories from my career can help you. Your talents and energy, your unique perspectives, are vital to the health of our profession. A profession that so desperately needs a diversity of talent and ideas.

You've been a wonderful audience. Thank you for your time. I would be happy to open up to questions.