Six-year-old Huy Tran dangled from a mango tree branch, spying through a hole in a hut’s palm roof. Below, the muted glow of a nine-inch black and white television flickered in the crowded room. Everyone had gathered to watch the Americans land on the moon. Peering through the part in the roof, Huy Tran witnessed Neil Armstrong bounce along the moon’s surface in his space suit. That day in July 1969, she began to dream.
One moment. That’s all it takes for a spark to ignite. A little girl imagines that she can be a part of a thrilling, faraway world blinking on a television screen. She’s not sure how she’ll get there. And she has no idea what obstacles await her. But she never lets go.
A Road Traveled Less
While we’re rooting for little Huy Tran in the tree, let’s fast-forward to 2012. Women are shattering glass ceilings in many fields—but are beginning to walk away from careers in technical fields. In the United States, where women make up half the total workforce, they hold only 24 percent of tech jobs. And the number of women even attempting technical
degrees is on the decline.
In the middle of a San Jose State engineering class, Dina Verdin’s pretty face and long, blond hair are hard to miss. Among undergraduate engineering majors, there are about six men for every woman. Verdin, a junior majoring in industrial systems engineering, doesn’t know why so many people think girls can’t handle math and engineering. “We can do just as much as men can do, but women get a lot of discouragement,” she says.
Verdin remembers how excited she was when she first told her dad about changing her major to industrial systems engineering—after a professor sold her on the field. “You shouldn’t do that,” her father had quickly said from across the table at a restaurant.
“Why?” she had replied, deflated.
“Only guys study engineering.”
But she decided to follow her passion anyway, and stays on track by focusing on her future. She hopes to go to graduate school and become a professor one day. Verdin says she loves giving back and inspiring others to move forward with their lives or careers, which she’s already doing through Society of Latino Engineers and Scientists, a student club. Verdin helps middle school students get excited about engineering during Science Extravaganza, an annual event held in February.
Verdin, who is the youngest of six children but the first to attend college, is on her way to becoming the kind of role model and mentor that many say is needed in the field. A lack of access to mentors is often a barrier to advancement for women who enter careers in technical fields.
San Jose State Materials Engineering Professor Stacy Gleixner understands the importance of encouraging more women to take on roles as mentors. She says she never had a female technical professor throughout her education at MIT and Stanford. At San Jose State, Gleixner says, there are a fair number of women on the engineering faculty—and more have been brought on since she arrived in 1990. But prior to coming to SJSU, all of her professional mentors were men. She knows from personal experience the power that one off-hand comment from a professor can have on a student.
As an undergraduate at MIT, Gleixner worked in a lab and tutored kids in Cambridge most days of the week. Yet, until the professor who ran the lab asked her why she hadn’t requested his recommendation for graduate school, she hadn’t even thought of going to grad school or becoming a professor. “When I look back on it, he definitely was the single person who had the biggest influence on my life,” she says.
On the other hand, Gleixner also remembers sitting in calculus class in high school, feeling good about her acceptance to MIT, where she planned to study one of a few majors that her father deemed “real” and worth his parental investment. One of the boys in her class had not been accepted to MIT. In front of the class, the teacher proclaimed that she, the class valedictorian, had been accepted at MIT not because she earned it, but because MIT was heavily recruiting girls. “It stung,” she says as her nose crinkles at the bridge of her glasses. “It still hurts decades later.”
Huy Tran’s happiest day was when the Mars Pathfinder Sojourner rover sent home the first picture of Mars on July 4, 1997, which meant that the heat shield she and her team designed had done its job.
Written in the Stars
In spite of stinging comments and having too few female role models, women like Verdin, Gleixner and, yes, Huy Tran, do make it as engineers. Back in that village at the southern tip of Vietnam—across the river from a known gathering place for the Viet Cong—Tran held on tight to her dream of working for NASA. The war escalated. The communists took over. Still, she focused on math and physics in school. There were only three girls in her high school class of 80 students. When the teacher sent pairs of students to the blackboard to solve a math problem, the competition was fierce. With chalk-covered fingers, the girls won most of the time. Tran tells her story with the giddiness of the schoolgirl she once was—the one who beat the pants off the boys whenever she stepped up to the blackboard.
Today, Tran is the deputy director of the aeronautics directorate at NASA Ames Research Center, which has 400 employees and a budget of more than $130 million. With the perpetual smile of a woman who is living her dreams, Tran, ’87 BS, ’90 MS, Mechanical Engineering, is still competing with the boys. When she works on projects or goes through a major technical review, there are still mostly men in the room.
How did she come so far? Tran pushes her long, black hair over her shoulder as she shares the unlikely story of how she and her family escaped from war-ravaged Vietnam by boat, spent a year in an Indonesian refugee camp, and eventually found themselves picking watermelons in Woonsocket, South Dakota.
“My mom and dad knew if we stayed in Woonsocket I wouldn’t make it to college,” says Tran. The family moved to San Francisco to stay with a friend of Tran’s father. Within a few months, they moved to Sunnyvale, where Tran could go to school.
No one had any idea that NASA Ames was located in nearby Mountain View. Tran discovered this fact when, at age 19, she got a De Anza College internship in a lab working to improve the performance of space shuttle tiles. She’s been at NASA ever since. Now, she’s an internationally recognized expert on advanced entry systems and thermal protection materials, with an Invention of the Year Award from the U.S. government on her office wall. Her invention, the Stardust Return Capsule, returned the first-ever sample from a comet. She says the day the sample came back was the second happiest—and proudest—day of her life. The happiest day was when the Mars Pathfinder Sojourner rover sent home the first picture of Mars on July 4, 1997, which meant that the heat shield she and her team designed had done its job.
The Exception Rules
Tran’s story is an inspiring exception. While she had her own unique obstacles, she also surmounted others that many women face. Sometimes, even if women have the drive, they live in a place where there are limited opportunities, have no family support and no mentors, and sometimes they get sucked into the princess vortex before they even start school. One comment can make the difference between a little girl or a woman pursuing math and science or playing it safe. And once they’re in the field, there are more obstacles to making it to the top.
NASA recently began in earnest to recruit and retain women. But what if a woman’s company or organization doesn’t encourage and actively pursue diversity? The dearth of women in technical leadership roles reflects a culture that has not shifted along with changing needs and demands. This is not just about diversity. It is about lost opportunity. Lost innovation.
Gleixner passionately believes that “if the U.S. doesn’t fix the engineering pipeline problem, we’re doomed. I think a lot of people feel that. If we can’t make engineering attractive to women and underrepresented groups, we’re never going to catch up with the global workforce.”
She says because the number of men going to college and studying engineering is declining, it can’t just be men who are engineers anymore. Gleixner thinks it’s society’s responsibility to fix this pipeline issue. “And that comes from both directions: girls dreaming that they can do this and parents and teachers supporting them,” she says. “And CEOs making a climate that promotes diverse attitudes and visions.”
When female students come to her office, Gleixner emphasizes to them that young girls’ inferiority complex is a very well known, very female response. She thinks that all the females in the room think they’re not worthy and that they’re of lower ability than everyone else in the room. If you tell girls this, they instantly feel better about themselves. There have been studies where men report more confidence and better understanding than the women across the board, but then that better understanding is not reflected in grades and GPA, says Gleixner. “I do think it has to do with the innate wiring that comes down from evolution. The confident one killed the wooly mammoth.”
Sometimes girls have to go out on a limb, like Tran did in that mango tree, to follow a dream. When Tran was eight or nine, her grandfather came home with a calendar with a picture of a woman scientist, wearing a lab coat and inspecting a test tube. He said to his intrigued granddaughter: “She looks like you.” But Tran lived in a small village in Vietnam far from NASA. At that time, she thought that being a scientist was just a pipe dream. Still, she hoped.
While Stacy Gleixner hesitates to caution her female students, she feels that the high-tech world is sometimes not family-friendly. Many career tracks demand long hours without flexible schedules, she says. “For whatever reason, there is a very real and very significant glass ceiling in that industry. It’s something to know about when you’re considering it.”
But there are women working on that glass ceiling. Every day, Huy Tran walks down the long corridor to her office, the oil-on-canvas eyes of NASA’s directors past and present—all men—watching her. She knows the men in those paintings deserved to lead NASA. But they all had their entire lives to become “next-to-god” experts, to prove themselves and to imagine not just breaking into a competitive field, but becoming its leaders. Women are just beginning to establish themselves at that level.
Still, she says, looking up at the portraits: “One of these days we’ll have a woman up there.”