The Teflon Duck

By:Michael Connors Issue: Collaborative Women Section:Jewel Of Collaboration teflon-duck

As volunteer and aid organizations have matured over the last decades, they have come to understand that if you truly hope to change the world, you must start with women. For it is feminine tendencies that nurture, create and hold communities together, and it is this instinct that most benefits society. There has been a noticeable trend over the last twenty years of a move away from large infrastructure projects, to small, sustainable and community-based projects, where innovative advances from solar cooking to micro water-purification have, perhaps, made much more of an impact in the lives of the worlds poor. Sadly, women and children tend to bear the brunt of the brutality inherent in poverty. To help address these fundamental needs, Engineers Without Borders – USA (EWB-USA) supports community-driven development programs worldwide through the design and implementation of sustainable engineering projects, while fostering responsible leadership. By empowering women in these communities in a collaborative model, EWB-USA helps insure the future success of the projects they undertake. What becomes apparent when looking more deeply into the EWB-USA organization is that the nature of the work they do helps attract women into the field. Just look more closely at their leadership—Cathy Leslie, the Executive Director, who comes from a distinguished background of professional engineering and philanthropy. During my interview with Leslie, it became apparent that there is a symbiotic relationship between the organization and the community it serves, and as she had pointed out: “What good is leaving out fifty percent of the population?” Here we focus on Leslie and, by extension, the importance of attracting women into engineering by supporting a curriculum and professional environment that values collaboration, resulting in successful projects.


Leslie has an extensive history of community building and collaboration that began with her work in the Peace Corps and has continued with EWB-USA. Being a woman, however, in engineering is a truly daunting task; not to mention leading one of the most preeminent volunteer groups in the country. Leslie was heavily influenced by her father, who was a civil engineer. Early on, her family moved to Australia where he was involved in the development of the iron ore industry. He had a “hands on” approach to engineering and also had clear expectations of Leslie. As a girl she, “was expected to participate.” She was also expected to attend college and when asked about some of the hurdles in school, she notes there was a distinct sexual bias with some of her professors. She remembers that “there were lots of jokes where I went to school about women coming up there to get their Mrs. Degree... the good ol’ boys club was definitely alive and running then. You either got out or developed a thick skin, one of the two. I like to tell people that I became a Teflon duck-- whatever I couldn’t duck, slid off.” It is telling and sad, actually, that women have experienced this kind of gender hazing in male dominated fields and it is this hazing that permeates the “pipeline problem” when it comes to guiding girls to the right educational avenues that will lead to a successful career in engineering.

teflon-duck The “fifty percent” issue raised by Leslie earlier—ignoring half the population of a community which you wish to help—is an apt metaphor for some of the ills plaguing the engineering curriculum today. A recent National Research Council study, Women Scientists and Engineers Employed in Industry: Why So Few? explored the reasons why women comprise only 12.3 percent of the industry workforce. Here is a short summary of their findings.

Limited access is the first hurdle faced by women seeking industrial jobs in science and engineering. While progress has been made in this area in recent years, common recruitment and hiring practices that make extensive use of traditional networks often overlook the available pool of women. Once on the job, many women find paternalism, sexual harassment, allegations of reverse discrimination, different standards for judging the work of men and women, lower salary relative to their male peers, inequitable job assignments, and other aspects of a male-oriented culture that are hostile to women. Women to a greater extent than men find limited opportunities for advancement, particularly for moving into management positions. The number of women who have achieved the top levels in corporations is much lower than would be expected, based on the pipeline model.

As demonstrated, the obstacles are daunting at best and stem from a culture of isolation that is endemic in the field. Leslie terms it as the “silo approach.” What is missing is an emphasis on communication and community outreach. Leslie notes that, “I was missing some skills that I wish they (the University) would have taught me; communication skills, working with people skills. . . . I think those are the things that women really bring to the table. But I don’t think they (the Universities) are there yet.” In order to attract women to the field, in general, is to enhance the community outreach aspects that are important in order to work with communities on engineering projects. Clearly, in order to build female representation in Engineering, there needs to be more of a focus in the discipline that emphasizes “real world” community outreach and not just the math. teflon-duck But what is perhaps most fascinating is that EWB-USA completely bucks the trend of declining female involvement. Noted in a National Research Council Study, women tend to avoid engineering because of its isolationists tendencies. Yet, in an IEEE Spectrum article, Engineers Without Borders’ Prachi Patel comments on the “Higher Purpose” of the EWB-USA volunteers and their desire to make real changes in the poorer communities around the world. He says, “That higher purpose is particularly attractive to women, who make up more than 40 percent of student volunteers, twice the proportion of female engineering graduates.” In Patel’s article, Leslie observes that, “Women identify more with people and humanity. They don’t thrive on creating technology for technology’s sake.” This is not to say that solid engineering and math skills are not important, but that there are some educational and professional gaps in the areas of community outreach and communication that must be addressed. In other words, if you create a culture of collaboration, communication and community outreach, you will attract more women to the field. Ultimately, what we see is a positive feedback loop: as volunteer organizations attract more women, at all levels, they are better able to interact and benefit the women of the communities they are trying to help, as well as the engineering community as a whole. And as a result, both communities prosper.

This positive feedback loop is absolutely crucial in order to mitigate the impact of economic hardship on women and their community. In a recent report published by the Economic and Social Council, it is noted that, “Evidence showed that the loss of women’s income more adversely affected children and caused generations of families to remain in the poverty trap than the loss of men’s earnings.” Thus it is fitting that organizations like EWB-USA have recruited more women and promoted the role of women in their organization. Leslie clearly recognizes that “gender empowerment is huge” and that, “It makes sense that if you have a community--half of which is women--why are you just designing what the men are telling you? What we found at EWB-USA is that oftentimes women own, maintain, have to fix, and have to educate. So to be left out of the decision-making authority, like they historically have been, is a main problem.” And while the awareness of the role of women in their community has not been a determining factor in the projects EWB-USA has undertaken, it has had a huge impact on the outcome.

While the awareness of the role of women in their community has not been a determining factor in the projects EWB-USA has undertaken, it has had a huge impact on the outcome.

Anytime people with different resources collaborate and come together with a common purpose, magnificent things can happen. This is not true if you exclude fifty percent of the population. On a closing note, Leslie hopes to lead EWB-USA into the next decade with a comprehensive approach geared towards sustainable projects and all that entails. She encourages anyone interested in EWB-USA, and all of the great projects supported by the seven chapters, to learn at And for all the young girls out there thinking about becoming an engineer, Leslie has some advice, “In my life I definitely have strayed to the . . . people side of engineering but I am more than thankful for my engineering degree because what that does is give me the technical background and the confidence that I know what I am talking about. My recommendation to all the young women out there would be to get your engineering degree, pick your schools carefully, and pick who you’re working for carefully. It is worth it!”

Michael Connors has an M.A. in literature and an extensive background in teaching. He is a Colorado native and spends his free time in the Rockies skiing and hiking.