Breaking the Engineer Mold Part 1: Interview with Melinda White

Melinda White portraitPie is proud to showcase the talents of its female forensic experts. We begin this series with a one-on-one interview with Pie Consulting & Engineering Employee, Melinda White, P.E.

What is the biggest misconception about female forensic engineers in general?

I think the biggest misconception about female forensic engineers is that they are afraid of getting dirty.  This is simply not the case.  It is monumentally rewarding to get into, on top of, or under a structure and find out what is really going on with the building. 

Do you ever find yourself trying to over-prove your competence/technical aptitude?

No, I always try to give my best effort and performance.  I have no control over how others perceive my competence or technical aptitude.

Do you ever feel unwelcomed at the jobsite? 

I have occasionally felt unwelcomed at jobsites.  However, I’ve never felt this was a result of my gender, but rather the role of my duties on the jobsite.  As a forensic engineer, I am frequently required to ensure that the construction of the project meets the design and specification documents.  If the contractor is found to be deficient, tensions can arise on-site.

More often, I find my gender opens doors and eases tensions on jobsites.  Contractors are typically surprised to see a female forensic engineer.  They are often friendly and typically much more helpful to me than to my male counterparts.  On assignments where I am interviewing homeowners concerning damage to their property, I find that the women tend to be more relaxed and less intimidated, and the men to be more willing to discuss concerns with me than with my male co-workers. 

What are the misconceptions about the physical demands associated with your job?

There are physical demands associated with working in the field as a forensic engineer.  Moderate physical fitness is required to carry, erect, and climb ladders as well as pull oneself up into attic spaces or through crawlspaces.  A typical misconception about the physical demands of the job might be that an individual taller or stronger than myself, would be required to complete the work.  I would say that someone taller and stronger does have an advantage over me in erecting a two-story ladder, but that I have the advantage in small spaces such as winding through an attic or crawling through a crawlspace.

I had a humorous conversation with a male counterpart on this exact topic.  We were trading stories about tight crawlspaces.  We both frequently ran into the situation where there was insufficient clearance between the grade and the floor beams.  He said he would go over the beam between the floor joists to get between areas of the crawlspace.  His ran into problems squeezing shoulders through the joists when spaced less than 18-inches apart.  I typically go beneath the beams, and can get through any clearance greater than 9-inches.  Each of us would occasionally run into a crawlspace we could not observe completely, but as a team we could get into nearly everything.

What do you feel are the advantages of being a woman in the engineering sector?

The two major advantages of being a female engineer that I have experienced have been on the jobsite and in strained meetings.  On the jobsite, contractors are typically helpful and friendly to female engineers.  In meetings, when tensions are high and tempers are short I have found a softer tone and level head often gets compromise and progress started.

Did you experience any difficulty in breaking into your career? Is it hard to get ahead in your career?

I did not know what engineering was before I entered college.  I was an excellent math and science student, but my choice of biology as a major was never questioned by any advisor, and engineering was never suggested.  I fell in love with Civil Engineering and the science and math behind designing and building structures, and changed my major!

Following college graduation, I worked for five years as a structural design engineer.  I believe that it was important to my career to learn the intricacies of structural design prior to analyzing failures as a forensic engineer.

It is difficult to get ahead in my career.  In the 12 years following my graduation from college, I have achieved Professional Engineer status in 11 states and I have also given birth to three daughters.  As I strive to balance my personal and professional life, I realize that my career would be considerably more advanced if I had made different life choices.  I teach my daughters through words and by example that women can lead challenging and exciting professional lives at the same time as providing loving and supportive environments for their families.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Forensic Engineering is a fascinating, challenging, and enjoyable field.  Every project is different.  Each job presents unique damage and opportunities for new and innovative repair recommendations.  Why should the boys have all the fun?

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