When Daniela Cortes went back to school to study mechanical engineering, she heard a rumor that her male classmates had established a bet that she would be the first to drop out of their program. Her response? To kick her studying into high gear and prove them wrong.
As the only female in her program, Daniela quickly got used to encountering gender bias on a regular basis. “When I walked into the classroom the first day, my male classmates made sure to ask if I was actually there for engineering,” she said. Studying engineering was, after all, a career change for her. Her first degree, in business, sales, and marketing, had left her at a career crossroads where she felt she could be doing more.
Pursuing mechanical engineering was a decision made after consulting her sister and father, both graduates from ME programs themselves. “It was more of a personal challenge to me because there was a lot of time where I was looked at differently,” Cortes said.
Organizational Involvement Provides Encouragement
Through her involvement in Women in Tech (based in Ontario) as well as the Ontario Association of Certified Engineering Technicians and Technologists (OACETT), Cortes has had the opportunity to facilitate events furthering STEM careers to previously unreached audiences, namely youth ranging in age from Kindergarten to High School. “In order to reduce that gender gap [in STEM],” Cortes said, “young women need to learn about those career paths at a very early age.” She emphasized the importance of youth robotics programs and connecting the applications of engineering to daily activities in order to expose a new, younger generation to the possibilities that lie in the field of engineering. The goal, Cortes says, is “to change perceptions, that they understand a mechanical engineer isn’t a vehicle mechanic, and to educate them that choosing a career in engineering means choosing a career that will help shape and change the world.”
In addition, Cortes assists in running events for beginning or established women in engineering. The goal behind these networking and learning events is to “get women to come out and work and learn with like-minded women,” she said. She emphasized the role of these networking and socializing events in helping women in the industry learn “there’s other women that have experienced hurdles in their careers.”
A Message to the Next Engineer
“If you encountered a nine-year-old girl who was unsure if she should pursue an engineering career, what would you say to her?”
When the AWE team posed this question to Daniela Cortes, she had a unique answer: begin by asking the child a few questions. First she suggested “ask them what their interests are. What do they like to play with? If you like to build, then you can get into construction engineering. If you like to play with dolls, somebody had to design and engineer the playhouse you use. If you like to play outside, somebody had to design and engineer swingsets.”
Cortes explained her approach by saying that this would “break down components that are relative to young women. It would connect what they know, and what could be.”
This approach to connecting the next generation of women in engineering has positioned Daniela Cortes as an up-and-coming engineer who keeps the journey to her current position in mind as she furthers her own career, while bringing the next generation of female engineers with her.