Women engineers today: Meet Shauna Hallmark

“Science is not a boy’s game, it’s not a girl’s game. It’s everyone’s game. It’s about where we are and where we’re going,” said Nichelle Nichols, former NASA ambassador and actress.

Science and technology are the tools engineers use to solve real-world problems and improve the world around us. The best part is that you don’t have to be a man to be good at using these tools.

This month’s series is dedicated to women who have faced overt discrimination while working and studying in the engineering profession, and, most importantly, how they persevered under extreme pressure (See our Women engineers of the 20th century series).

But times have changed, right? To find out, I spoke with the Director of the Institute for Transportation (InTrans) at Iowa State University, Dr. Shauna Hallmark. As a woman who has worn many hats throughout her life—an engineer, director, teacher, mother—her experience and hardships show what it is truly like to be a woman engineer today.

A conversation with Shauna Hallmark

When did you first become interested in engineering?

Growing up, I had never even heard the word “engineering.” Because I grew up in a really small town, I didn’t get truly interested in engineering until college. But what I did know was that I was really good at math and science. I knew I wanted to do something using those skills.

Why did you choose the field of civil engineering?

At that time in my life there were just a few engineering fields to choose from: civil, chemical, mechanical, and aerospace engineering. With civil engineering, I could be out in the field. I liked that I could do work in an office and the next day be outside collecting data, testing treatments, or seeing how something we developed in the office worked in the real world.

Did you ever face any pushback from people in high school, college, or your parents when you said you were going to pursue engineering?

My mom, for instance, told me to “get a teaching degree so you can have kids.” During that time, there was still those expectations—that a woman couldn’t be both a wife and mother and still have a career.

There was also some pushback from my male classmates. After I won a fellowship to attend Georgia Tech (Georgia Institute of Technology) for my Ph.D., one of those classmates said to me: “The only reason you got that scholarship is because you’re a woman.” That was a pretty common idea then. Other male students would say things like “Why are you here?” and “What are you doing?” It was hard, especially being the only woman in my class sometimes. It really did make me question if I really belonged.

Did you have an influential mentor during college?

After getting married, I actually transferred to the University of Nevada-Las Vegas from Brigham Young University to be closer to my husband. A professor there, who actually used to work at InTrans, hired me. Under his guidance, I started to become really passionate about transportation and wanted to pursue a Ph.D. He saw that I could be really successful in research and pushed me. That is how I originally became interested in transportation research as a career path.

What made this person a great mentor?

He always treated me like I was really capable, and sometimes as a female it just takes someone believing in you.

Did you ever feel that having a family and being able to work would be too difficult?

After finishing up my bachelor’s degree at Brigham Young, I actually took a year off to stay home and raise my three young children. I thought, “What will I do now?” I thought maybe I’d work part time, but then decided to go back and get my master’s degree.

So while attending Utah State University, my major professor became my mentor. She was a woman and had four kids. I looked to her on how it could be done—how to be both a parent and a researcher. Through her example, I learned how to balance having both a career and a family.

I think a lot of young women get trapped at that point in their lives—where they have a child and don’t know what to do next.

Would you say women having a family is the biggest barrier for them to want to pursue STEM fields?

I don’t think so, at least not anymore. The biggest problem is that young girls tend to second guess themselves. They say, “I don’t know if I can do that,” even when they’re the best student in the class. Because of that, how could they ever see themselves in the role of “scientist?” They have to have good mentors, maintain good self-esteem, and just realize that they can do it.  

Would it help to have more female engineering professors?

Yes, I think that would make a huge difference. Being able to relate to someone just like you can change the way you think.

By Jackie Nester, Go! Staff Writer