Interview With Maureen Harris, Water Resources Engineer

Recognizing from the strengths women bring to engineering fields
Jul 29, 2019 8:00 AM ET
Blog

Maureen Harris is a water resources engineer and joined Tetra Tech in 2012. She specializes in modeling, green infrastructure, and stormwater engineering. Maureen received both a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Science in Environmental Engineering from Michigan Technological University. We spoke with Maureen as part of our #INWED19 campaign to not only celebrate our brilliant women engineers but also to raise their profiles and encourage those who aspire to become engineers and work in STEM. Follow #WomenInStem on social media for more stories.

What do you like about working at Tetra Tech?

This is a challenging question to answer because I enjoy the people I work with as much as the work I do! I am privileged to work with some of the most intelligent and dedicated people you could ever meet. Since joining Tetra Tech in 2012, I’ve had opportunities to network with extremely talented people across the company who truly inspire me. Through these relationships, I’ve worked on so many interesting and challenging projects and interacted with clients from around the world. I am passionate about applying engineering to solve complex environmental issues, and Tetra Tech has given me the means to affect change and have a positive impact in ways I never imagined.

What inspired you to pursue a career in engineering?

I knew I wanted to be an engineer from a very young age. My dad was my earliest inspiration—he was an automotive engineer in Metro Detroit where I grew up. My twin sister followed in his footsteps and earned an advanced degree in mechanical engineering. Subjects like physics and math always came easily to me, but my passions extended far beyond that. I was fascinated by environmental science, biology, and chemistry. The questions I wanted to find answers to were things like, “Why can’t I swim in Lake St. Clair today?”, “Why can’t I eat the fish I catch from the Clinton River?”, “Why does this road flood when it rains?”, or “What happens to that polluted rainwater after it enters the storm drain?” Environmental engineering provides the ideal balance between traditional engineering and the sciences that led me to a career where I can solve the complex environmental problems that we face. And as a water resources engineer, I get to work on interesting and challenging projects and learn something new every day. What could be better than that?

How can we encourage female students to pursue a career in engineering?

This is something I think about all the time; not only because my twin sister is also an engineer in a male-dominated field, but because I am a mother of two young daughters. One of the greatest challenges we face is the need to dispel the perception that boys naturally perform better or are more competent at STEM subjects than girls. In fact, recent research by NBC News and others suggests that the opposite may be true. In my experience, succeeding is a matter of confidence; because of the gender stereotype, girls may feel like they are at a disadvantage and their performance is actually impacted by this perception. At a young age, confidence and believing in your abilities are everything. We need to introduce female students to women engineers and show them that not only that it can be done, but also that women are in high demand in our field. By doing so, I think we will be more successful in recruiting women into engineering. Professionals like me should work with local schools to seek or create opportunities for all students, not just female students, to regularly engage with women engineers.

What is the greatest advice you could pass onto girls/female students who aspire to have a career in engineering?

It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it!

Seek out engineering role models and mentors who inspire and motivate you. Don’t be afraid of failure or rejection, because they will only make you stronger and more resilient. Research suggests women, more often than men, struggle with “imposter syndrome,” which is a false perception that your success or position isn’t legitimately earned or that your abilities are inadequate when you compare yourself to your peers. In my very first consulting job after I finished my master’s degree, I had a fantastic boss who recognized this in me and gave me some of the most motivational advice I’ve ever received; it completely changed how I view myself and how I face my job every day. I told him that I felt inadequate and sometimes even questioned how I was hired into such a competitive and prestigious position at a highly regarded consulting firm. He told me, “Take a look at everyone who works here. You have them on a pedestal, but they all started off in the exact same position that you are in now. And you know what? None of them are more intelligent or more deserving than you. They just have more experience. And you will get there. Don’t give up.” That was years ago, and I still carry those words with me every day.

What are the greatest qualities you may find in a female engineer?

I’m speaking from my own experiences, and I don’t want to enforce or encourage any gender stereotypes, but I think some will agree that women and men think differently. This directly relates to the way we communicate, solve problems, and manage conflict. I can safely say that every project, challenge, and decision we face on a daily basis benefits from including multiple perspectives. Multiple perspectives don’t simply come from males and females but from things like different backgrounds, beliefs, professions, life stages, and experience levels. Speaking specifically to women, I think we tend to naturally be multitaskers, conflict resolvers, and promoters of inclusive environments. These qualities make women engineers effective managers and leaders as well as valuable team members. On a related note, I will add that becoming a mother has afforded me some unexpected but very handy skills in project management and conflict resolution!

Another unfortunate reality I’ve faced as a woman engineer is that there will be times when no matter what you do, you will be judged by someone as too confident or too timid, too outspoken or too quiet, and so on. But the more experience I gain in this industry, the more I take each of these negative experiences as not only an opportunity to prove those people wrong, but more importantly, to prove to myself that their opinions of me don’t determine my value. Instead, I let the genuine relationships I’ve developed, my drive, my integrity, the quality of work that I produce, and the difference I make for the clients and communities I serve speak for themselves. This is what defines my success as an engineer.