The Mythical Woman Engineer
2018 Essay Contest: High School Level Honorable Mention
By: Hannah Messersmith, Shoreland Lutheran High School (Kenosha, Wisconsin)
When my father referred to “working with Nelly”, my first question was: “Nelly is a man?” Of course Nelly was a woman’s name, but I’d never before heard my software-engineer father mention working with a female. I was always aware female engineers existed, but to me they were folklore–a mythical creature hiding in a male dominated field. Intrigued by this “Nelly”, I soon found myself interrogating my father upon his return from work. Is Nelly helping with your project? Will she also be flying to Switzerland for work? Is she good at engineering? At the time, I knew very little about Nelly. However, as I began to learn more about her, I began to respect her more than I could imagine respecting someone I had never met in person.
With an engineer father and mother, Nelly Yusupova grew up surrounded by numbers. Her parents often shared their passion for their work, which further entranced Nelly. Nelly recalls that, even as a young girl, she would read ahead in her mathematics textbook, and work on math homework during recess. Looking back, she admits that she “was kind of a nerd. [But] I didn’t think of it that way at the time, I just enjoyed it.” Not only did Nelly enjoy math, she was extremely talented in the subject. Beginning in her fourth year of school, Nelly participated in math competitions. She won every math competition within her city of 100,000 people, from fourth grade until her high school graduation. Along with math, she also successfully participated in chemistry and programming contests.
Growing up in Bugulma, Soviet Union, Nelly underwent a different methodology of education from the style we are accustomed to as Americans. Each high school specialized in a specific area of study–and it was up to the student to decide on a field. Nelly selected a school specializing in mathematics, electronics and physics. Nelly was then accepted into the Bugulma Physics and Mathematics Lyceum #2–the best school for mathematics in her city. Her weekly education consisted of six hours of math, six hours of physics, and any time left was spent on independent projects. Despite the challenging curriculum, Nelly admits that she “actually liked it”. This prestigious school drove Nelly to challenge herself in mathematics and science, and ultimately graduate with straight As.
After her graduation, Nelly was accepted into the Russian State University of Oil and Gas in Moscow. Here she earned her master’s degree in Science in Control Systems Engineering–a major not offered in the U.S. This degree is a combination of three different engineering fields: electrical, mechanical, and software. Nearing her college graduation, Nelly was informed by her school’s dean, that an American businessman was looking for a recent graduate who could work in process optimization. The dean had a specific student in mind. He only had one question for this businessman. “Is it okay if it’s a girl?” Nelly was offered this position and one day after her graduation, Nelly began her new job. She trained for her position in Iowa, often traveling between Des Moines and Russia. Then, at 24, Nelly was offered a position in Des Moines–which she gratefully accepted. Currently, Nelly is working as a project manager at Rockwell Automation in Milwaukee
Wisconsin. She supervises the development of products that have mechanical and electrical parts with integrated firmware. Nelly is in charge of planning, organizing, and managing. To run a successful project, Nelly does everything from making the schedule to handling project finance. Nelly explains that it is her “job to perform calculations to make sure products have return on investment.” Now, through project managing, Nelly has the opportunity to combine her dedication to mathematics with her outgoing, social nature- and she loves every second.
Throughout all of this, Nelly had delays in building her career. While working a job at a startup company, Nelly found the management difficult. She was contributing to additional aspects of the project, ones not listed in her job description. After explaining to her boss that she felt she was not being paid enough for the time she put in, her boss retorted with: “[because you feel you’re doing three jobs] you want me to triple your salary? Iowa is a goodwill state. Understand that when you walk in here, you’re the employee and I am the employer. If I tell you to wash the dishes, you do it.” Nelly was shocked at his reply and soon left after being treated with such disrespect.
After speaking with other engineer women, Nelly considers herself very fortunate to have never been discriminated against because of her gender. Growing up in Russia, “there weren’t men and women, just citizens working to contribute to the communist country.” It wasn’t strange for a woman in Russia to become an engineer. However, Nelly was surprised, when coming to the U.S. by how few women were in STEM careers and the difficult challenges they faced. Nelly is happy to see organizations like the Society of Women Engineers working to encourage women. Nelly herself serves as an excellent role model to all women working in mathematics.
Nelly encourages students–especially women–looking into a math career to follow their dream. Nelly realized, and wants other girls to understand, that when you decide on a career, you aren’t also deciding to give up other passions and career options. Instead, when you choose a career, you gain new hobbies. Careers should not take away from your life, but add to it. Just as Nelly was able to work with math and with other passions outside of work, she wants girls to know that if they work in a male-dominated field, they can always partake in non-STEM related hobbies. She urges girls to remember that if they want a career in mathematics or science, pursue it because “Math and science aren’t just for boys, they’re for everyone. Math is around us. It’s everywhere. And it’s beautiful.”
About the student:
Hannah Messersmith is a senior at Shoreland Lutheran High School. At her school, she was one of six women in their first offered STEM class. She has taken STEM classes for two years, in addition to biology, chemistry, physics and numerous math courses. Although she does not yet know her intended major, she has considered careers in marine biology, education, and forensic science.