A Female Engineer Coming of Age in the 1980’s

What is it like to be a female engineer forging a career in a male-dominated profession?  I would expect the answers to be wildly different depending on the decade when a woman engineer first enters the workforce.  My career as a chemical engineer has spanned four decades, and as I reflect on those early years in the 1980’s, my stories would probably have many of today’s young female engineers question the peg on my honesty-meter.  With a spirit of humor, I share some of my more interesting, coming of age stories and lessons learned of what it was like to be a woman chemical engineer in a sea of male colleagues.

sandi-marvin-mobilBefore I begin, you may wonder what prompted me to now share these personal stories after almost 40 years of a long and successful career.  Well, as I was rummaging through some personal files buried deep in boxes stored in the spare bedroom closet, I stumbled upon this photo of me and Marvin, another young engineer, circa 1988. What is odd about this photo? I immediately chuckle at the silliness of me, a process engineer, in the control room of the Mobil Chemical plant in Edison, New Jersey, wearing a hardhat, white blouse, gray pleated skirt, black pumps, and a string of pearls.   In truth, this was a staged photo, taken by the Mobil media team who wanted stock photos of various Mobil engineers to use at job fair booths where teams recruited young engineers.  However, this was a standard photo of the day.  Women were a fraction of the engineering profession relative to the long history of the chemical industry, and neither females or males had yet figured out how to acclimate this gender blending.  Females struggled with how to act, interact, and dress for success within this male-dominated society.  Most males were uncomfortable working with us—this was especially true of those who were older, who in most cases were our superiors making decisions about our promotability, raises, and job opportunities.

In my opinion, most male engineers related to women as mother, wife, or daughter, but not colleague.   Even if they were comfortable working side-by-side with their female counterparts and accepted them as equals, women engineers still made the male engineers’ environment slightly uncomfortable, because it disrupted their relaxed and established behaviors of swearing and telling of sexually based jokes. Now, male engineers were forced to think before speaking so they did not offend any woman colleague in the room.  Note, I said woman colleague, not women colleagues.  I cannot count the number of times in a meeting, when a male engineer would get passionate about a topic, say “sh*t,” “fu*k,” or some variant expression of such, and the room would go silent.  He would then turn towards me and say “Sorry,” or “Pardon my French.”  Personally, I can swear with the best of them and was not offended in the least, but what did offend me was the fact that these men were uncomfortable swearing in front me.

The painful reality is that any time someone is on guard in your presence, you may be allowed in the group, but you are never fully accepted.  I knew in my heart that my opportunities at Exxon Chemical would be limited, because people are only willing to invite others into their ranks when they are comfortable with and trust them.  Field studies of company organizations by Jackall (1988) indicated that employees have little chance of being promoted into higher levels of management without “…mirroring the kind of image that top bosses have of themselves [and making] the people [who are] most responsible for [one’s] fate comfortable” (p. 58).  Women were only advancing into lower-level management positions, mostly because of affirmative action and political and societal pressure.   Although women might be able to gain trust through hard work and performance, I knew many of the male decision-makers would never feel comfortable with women engineers in their higher management circles.

Statistics show that in 1999 women accounted for 25% of all engineers under 25, but only 5% of engineers over 49 (Wikipedia, 2016).   In 1999 I was 37 years old, and my best estimate was women accounted for less than 10% of the total engineering workforce.  But I am getting ahead of myself.  Going back to the early 1980’s, my story begins as a newly graduated chemical engineering recruited into Exxon Chemical. In 1984 the oil/chemical industries were crawling out of an economic trough.   Despite Lafayette College’s reputation as a prestigious engineering school, only half of my chemical engineering class received job offers.  I was one of the lucky ones, hired by Paramins, a division of Exxon Chemical.  I was surprised to receive their offer, because I used Exxon as my first practice interview when they visited the campus.

In the early 1980’s women engineers struggled with how to dress for an interview.  The prevailing trend was to dress as much like a man to fit in and subjugate your female gender. So, we donned either blue pin-striped or gray suits with shoulder pads for that masculine look, white collared blouses, and a paisley ascot or necktie fashioned into a bow.  We had matching kerchiefs in our breast pocket.   Our only differentiation was the skirt versus slacks with low heeled pumps.  Did I win Exxon over with my academic and work accomplishments or my ability to visually fit in with the rest of the male engineers?  Was I the chosen candidate because of affirmative action?  Regardless, I was grateful for the job offer as a contact engineer, working in a chemical plant making lubricant additives.

Despite all these facts and figures, what are some of my most interesting personal stories as a young, female engineer starting her career at Paramins in July 1984.  I soon learned that this division normally hired 25 graduating engineers per year, but with the economic turn down, they had not hired any during the previous 3 years.   Myself and another woman, Joan, were the first new hires in several years.  I quickly learned that the rules which I believed governed success did not apply here.  For 22 years of life, I was conditioned that if you did the work well, you got rewarded, which represented how the typical academic world operated.   Learn the material, apply the material, earn an A.  These rules did not apply at Exxon.

Let us start with the uniform?  What is the appropriate Exxon dress code? As contact engineers, we were expected to dress in a way that balanced our need to spend time in both the plant and office.  As I looked around, there were two women role models.  What were they wearing?  The standard female dress for Exxon was to look like a man, which meant khaki pants such as Dockers, a long-sleeve buttoned-down shirt, and penny loafers or boat shoes.  I owned none of those outfits but soon invested in a few.  Afterall, I wanted to make a good impression.  The women did not wear make-up or jewelry, except on occasion Diana wore a pair of small gold hoop earrings.   Initially, I played the dress game, even though these outfits contrasted with my personality.  I felt suffocated in this Exxon uniform.  Over time, I started to add color to my wardrobe with jeans and print tops/sweaters.  I wore make-up and jewelry.  Although closed-toed safety shoes were always worn in the plant, I traded my penny loafers for clogs when around the office.  No one said anything, including my boss, but the repercussions came during my first salary action.  I had a glowing performance appraisal, but when I got a relatively poor raise, I asked a lot of questions that my boss was uncomfortable answering.

I then found out about Exxon’s forced ranking system, which means that everyone within a band of job classifications must be ranked “1 through last” by a committee of supervisors.  This exercise is completely independent of performance reviews and used to allocate merit increases.   Although no one is privy to their ranking, I did find out I was in the bottom third.   The typical Exxon employee response would be to accept your ranking without question, but I needed answers.   I felt badly for my administrative boss, Paul, who was left to answer my probing questions.   Uncomfortably, Paul, shared that my ranking was based on the way I dressed.  The other supervisors in the room who do not know my work performance judged me on my appearance in the office hallways.  I do not remember his exact words, but Paul implied that I was flashy and not conservative enough.  I agree that visually I did stand out from the other few women engineers, but seriously, my salary increase was partially a reflection of me being too female?

For argument’s sake, I asked Paul for an example among my peers who was considered a top performer and why.  Paul referenced Doug because of his dedication to the job; he typically arrived at 7 am and left at 7 pm.   Although I did respect Doug’s abilities and contribution, I knew that at the witching-hour of 5 pm, Doug closed his office door so he could take care of personal work such as writing checks and paying bills, all the while leaving the impression he was hard at work for Mother Exxon.  Frustrated, aware, yet unwavering, I decided I was not going to dress like a man or make false appearances of working longer.  I still held out hope and a worldview that the same rules which applied in academia would eventually win out at Exxon.  I had not yet figured out lesson one which is as an individual you cannot fight culture and win.   You either chose to adapt or you need to get out and find “your people.”  However, this was my first real job, and I was learning the hard way about the real world on many levels.

My job as a contact engineer required me to work with many different people and levels within the organization.  I worked alongside unit operators, providing technical support on production, quality, turnaround, safety, and environmental issues.  I worked with the operators’ first line supervisors.  I had dual supervisory reporting structures, which for a first job can be very stressful.  I had my administrative boss, Paul, who provided general direction and did my performance appraisals, and had a dotted-line boss to the operations manager, Alan, because I supported his production units.  Paul was a young chemical engineer, who was very comfortable with female colleagues.  Alan was an older chemical engineer, near retirement, and known to be a “male chauvinist pig” which was a common term used in the 1980’s.  I learned there was a long-standing lawsuit filed by one of my operators, Kurt, who was suing Alan and Exxon for making him crazy.  Yes, crazy!  Kurt claimed that Alan would intentionally assign him jobs/activities that were frivolous and designed as inappropriate busy work to retaliate against Kurt because he did not like him. After knowing and loving Crazy Kurt, as he was affectionately called, I would agree that Kurt was “off”, but the question that loomed was whether Kurt’s craziness was a chicken-or-egg-first with Alan.  We will never know, but with the pending lawsuit, Alan was especially cordial to Kurt on those rare occasions when both would be in the control room.

I developed outstanding relationships with my four operators (Kurt, Victor, Eddy, and Angelo), but not before some trials and tribulations.  I first met Victor a few weeks after starting my job when he finally came on day shift.   My first stop of the day was to visit the control room to inventory the previous night’s events.  I walked over to the NP/NPS/DDP desk, where Victor sat reading a magazine, and I introduced myself.  After a long pause, Victor slowly turned his head towards me, lifted and shook his finger at me and said in a low, measured voice, “You better not get snotty on me.”  After the shock of his introduction, I responded, “I won’t get snotty on you, if you don’t get snotty on me.”  Then a big cheesy smile broke out over Victor’s face, and he said, “I like you.  We’re going to get along just fine.”  Victor and I became fast friends, with him warning me of all the embarrassing pranks the operators liked to pull on the new engineers who did not have any practical experience.  These pranks included asking the engineer to get them a nitrogen blanket or to pull a sample from a vacuum tower.  An experienced engineer will get a chuckle and know why that’s impossible, but the young engineer will try to accommodate the request without success.

Working at the plant also came with its challenges in handling sexual advances.  Despite all the policy and rhetoric about respecting women, many men paid no heed, because there were no repercussions for bad behavior that went against announced policies. Angelo, a short Italian fellow, had the nickname of Goose.  I never gave much thought as to why, because I always called him Angelo.  Well, one day Angelo and I were walking up the alley to unplug some vacuum jets, when I felt him pitch my butt.  I was shocked, turned towards him, and with disbelief asked him whether he just pinched my butt.  He gave me a big smirk and said, “Yeah!”.  I then slapped him across the face and said, “Don’t ever do that again.”  I then turned and kept walking towards the unit.  I never said another word about it, and we picked up right where we left off.  I did not hold it against him, but I firmly established my personal boundaries.   Overall, I had close relationships with all of my operators—partners who troubleshot the units for quality and production rates.  As we were fighting a quality issue one day, I asked Eddy, “What do you think is going on?”  He responded, “Why are you asking me, I’m just the operator?”  I replied, “Because you know these units like the back of your hand.  Why wouldn’t I want to know what you think?”  He said that most of the young engineers think they know better so the operators choose not to share.  Working with the operators provided many valuable lessons.  I learned and reaped the rewards in treating every one as an equal at the table as we worked together, which built a strong foundation of trust.  I loved working in the plant, because I could be my authentic self in relationships and utilize my engineering skills.  Then I had to remove my steel-toed boots and return to the office environment.

My office struggles mainly focused on my relationship with Alan.  How does the youngest female engineer handle an older male chauvinistic pig who is her boss?  Not sure where or who started the reference to Joan, Diana, and me as Bogie’s Angels, but I did hear Alan gloat about it when we were brought up in conversation as his angels. You see, three of the four women engineers reported through Alan Bogard’s operations chain of command.  With Charlie’s Angels one of the most popular TV shows at the time, Alan enjoyed his label of having three female engineers under his direction.  It gave me some comfort that I was not the only person, male or female, who did not like this overweight, cigar-smoking, and arrogant man.   My beloved Crazy Kurt had his lawsuit against Alan, and no one else talked favorably about him.  My “Alan story,” which changed our relationship, started with a product quality issue on the NP unit.  For several days, this continuous manufacturing process was not converting the raw materials into product. With all hands on deck and through a process of elimination, the team suspected that some contaminant was interfering with the catalyst but could not determine the root source.  Water was a known killer of this catalyst, because it reacted with the BF3 to form HF.  Prior to my hire, it was a well-known belief, that you could not measure water content in the reactor.  If you had a water leak in the coil, the only way to determine such was to shut down the unit, clean out the reactor, and pressure test the coil.  The cost and lost production was significant and a choice of last resort.  Against specific protocol, I had an operator take a reactor sample to the lab for water analysis.  As Alan, the supervisors, an operator, and I all discussed the problem in the control room before making the decision to inspect the coil, I volunteered that I had a water analysis running in the lab which would be available within a half hour.  Well, did I get a reprimanding up and down by Alan, in front of all my colleagues.  He publicly humiliated me, telling me I was stupid for wasting time on a foolish approach, basically implying that I was incompetent, because everyone knows water will be reacted into HF and not delectable.  I bit my tongue and held back the tears of anger, frustration, and humiliation.   With no further ideas from the group-think, the team disbanded.  With tail between my legs, I left the control room for the lab.   Surprise, the gas chromatograph revealed several percentage points of water in the reactor.  I was vindicated.  Oh, how I dreamed of what I wanted to do next, all of which were not constructive.

What I did do was walk into Alan’s office and close the door so no one would hear our conversation.  I told him in no uncertain terms that how he addressed me in the control room in front of my coworkers was uncalled for, unprofessional, inappropriate, and embarrassing.  I put him on notice that I would never tolerate him treating me that way again.  I continued by saying that if he wanted to reprimand me in the future, he had every right to do so, but he would do it behind closed doors.  After I finished defining my boundaries, Alan just stared at me.  I truly believe he was speechless.  Before he could say anything else, I then informed him of the high-water analysis that could only be from a leak in the reactor coil and that we needed to shut down the unit immediately for a repair.  He was dumbfounded.  I never remembered getting any apology for his bad behavior, but I do know that he tip-toed around me moving forward, treated me politely, but he got me on my next performance appraisal.

The lesson learned is you can embarrass someone into compliance and better behavior, but you cannot change their attitude or heart.  I may have won some battles, but I certainly did not win the war.  I was proud in how I handled Alan by standing up to him behind closed doors, but realized I was just treading water where I worked.  This company was a great training ground but would never embrace diversity enough to accommodate my style that builds success.  They were operating on a different model, which rewarded conformity in all areas, including having the right sexual anatomy.   A woman could have modest advancement within Exxon, but to do so, it required her to morph hersesandi-exxon-going-away-lunchlf more into a man and his behaviors.  I’m flexible, but not that flexible.  After three years of lessons learned, I decided to take my experience to another company called Mobil Chemical. My good friends Henry, Jofran, and Joan hosted a going-away lunch, with an invitation that suggested I would be climbing the corporate ladder at Mobil.  What’s wrong with this photo, which was pulled from a trade magazine?  In the 1980’s women engineers were stereo-typed climbing storage tank ladders, wearing 3-inch heels and slit skirts?  At least we have on hard hats for our personal safety.  Believe me, I cannot make this stuff up and am thankful to have a paper relic from the past to prove what I say is true.  I do not know what this photo was originally trying to advertise, but I cannot think of one appropriate product or service where this image would be practically appropriate.  Remember, this was the 1980’s, when women’s roles as engineers were still being shaped, and men, who were in decision-making positions affecting their careers, did not quite know how to assimilate them.  The engineering road for women was not yet paved, at best most of the timber was cleared so you could see the path.  Both men and women engineers were uncomfortable with some aspects of their workplace as genders mixed.  I cannot speak for men, but I do know that many women chose not to speak out for fear of being pigeon-holed or labelled a troublemaker.  Better to suck it up, play nice, and hope for a reward.

Regardless of the black comedy stories I am privileged to share as a female engineer of the times, I would not trade one of them or this career path I chose.   Chemical engineering has served me well in how it trained me to think strategically and solve problems, and as well it has afforded me job opportunities that were stimulating and rewarding.  I have traveled the road less-traveled and for that I am grateful.  If you think all my interesting stories have been told, they have not.  Stay tuned for more adventure stories of this female engineer as she navigates Mobil Chemical next….


Jackall, R. (1988).  Moral mazes: The world of corporate managers. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. ISBN: 0-19-503825-8.

Wikipedia (2016). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_women_in_engineering#Statistics

About the Author: Sandra Dillon is a business, life, and marital coach with an extensive background in business development and leadership.  She coaches others in how to develop and execute life plans, develop successful businesses, and build better relationships by identifying and living their personal values, enhancing skills and competencies, and being held accountable for executing their defined goals.