What I Learned From The 1st Black Woman To Earn An Engineering PhD In Oklahoma

What I Learned From The 1st Black Woman To Earn An Engineering PhD In Oklahoma

As a young Black girl, I fell in love with robotics, manufacturing, and engineering thanks to the movie “Short Circuit.”

In my freshman year at the University of Central Florida (UCF) more than 20 years ago, I was introduced to Dr. Pamela McCauley by my undergraduate advisor in the Industrial Engineering Department. It was amazing to relate to a Black female professor.

Once a teen mom who was told she would become a statistic, Dr. McCauley went on to become  the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in engineering in Oklahoma.

This is the woman who would teach me technical knowledge and insight into life and success throughout my years. Little did I know during my tenure at UCF she would become my mentor. I had the privilege of assisting with research that led to me placing first in the 1999-2000 Undergraduate Studies in Technical Research competition with the National Society of Black Engineers. My love of technology has continued.

Every student gravitated towards Dr. McCauley, and those of us who were women and African American looked up to her. Dr. McCauley’s energy would fill a room. Suddenly, Probability & Statistics for Engineers did not seem so dull.

Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash

Now a tenured professor, Dr. McCauley is not slowing down. She is still inspiring the next group of engineers. She has authored 80-plus technical papers, book chapters, conference proceedings and the best-selling ergonomics textbook, “Ergonomics: Foundational Principles, Applications, and Technologies.”

As director of the Ergonomics Laboratory at UCF’s Department of Industrial Engineering and Management Systems, she leads the Human Factors and Ergonomics in Disaster Management Research Team. Previously she was MIT’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Visiting Associate Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

As if that was not enough, Dr. McCauley was the 2012 U.S. Fulbright Scholar Specialist Program Awardee. She is a sought-after expert witness and ergonomist. The U.S. State Department awarded her the Jefferson Science Fellowship for 2015-2016, and she worked on the Healthcare Delivery System for HIV/AIDS in developing nations.

Along with many other accomplishments — she was a finalist for the NASA Space Shuttle Astronaut Program in 1994 — Dr. McCauley is the founder and owner of an Orlando-based company called Transforming Your STEM Career.

Dr. McCauley spoke to Moguldom about what it’s like to be among the less-than-3-percent of engineering doctoral degree holders in the U.S. who are Black women, as reported by the National Science Foundation.

Moguldom: How has the landscape evolved for women in technology since you earned your doctorate?

Dr. McCauley: It was 26 years ago since I received my doctorate and if you asked me then, I would not have thought we would still be having these conversations about diversity and trying to encourage women to seek careers in STEM. I have seen progress, but I am disappointed we have not seen more.

Moguldom: Black women hold less than 3 percent of engineering doctorate degrees being awarded each year (as of 2104). What do you believe hinders women of color to pursue a Ph.D.?

Dr. McCauley: I believe the hindrance to women of color obtaining Ph.D.s in engineering is like the issues we face in other areas of STEM: lack of role models, mentors, sponsors, and advocates. Also, the experiences they have with bias, isolation, and marginalization as undergraduates or in master of science programs when they pursue their engineering degrees can discourage further study toward a Ph.D.

Another factor is earning opportunities with a bachelor’s degree in engineering. It is difficult for many first-generation graduates to consider pursuing a Ph.D. For example, if you are graduating and can earn $65,000 with a bachelor’s degree and your family may need the money, it is hard to turn that away and pursue a Ph.D. where you will have another five years of struggling.

Moguldom: In your book, “Transforming Your STEM Career Through Leadership and Innovation,” you have a section that stood out to me: “Why More Women Do not Lead and Innovate.” Can you please explain your thoughts on the matter?

Dr. McCauley: There is an absence of role models for women to see — a lack of people who will invest in women. When we are not invited to sit at the tables, we just stop. The perception of a “no” does not mean it will never happen. Plus, there is a struggle with moving past rejection. We are more likely to be passed over for prominent roles, and when this happens, it takes resiliency to keep going. We are not taught to navigate through the rejections that come with working in STEM roles. When women are turned down, they are internalizing the rejection as a signal to stop or quit. We act like we made a gross mistake and we act like any mistake, no matter how small, is the end of our career. The only way to not make a mistake in life is to do nothing. We must move away from fear of messing up. When we as women figure out how to navigate past negativity, we will see more leaders rise.

Moguldom: How can we as minority women do a better job of sponsoring one another in the workplace?

Dr. McCauley: As women of color we could do a much better job of supporting each other in the workplace. We could become each other’s advocates, mentors and supporters. For those that are in similar or lateral positions, we can enhance each other’s careers by becoming allies and “celebrators.” To be a celebrator means we openly share and acknowledge the accomplishments of another woman to bring recognition to her achievements.

At the very least, if we are not willing to help, we must stop working against each other.  Whether we agree on everything or not, we must never be adversaries, small-minded or demonstrating unhealthy competitiveness or divisiveness. There just are not enough of us in the STEM world for that to be acceptable behavior. When we do this, it smears us all and makes it more difficult for the next woman of color to get an opportunity, advance, or be celebrated in our STEM community.

Moguldom: What is “the 48-hour day” that you mention in your talks and in your book, “Winners Do not Quit: Today They Call Me Doctor.” 

Dr. McCauley: It is basically realizing you must do twice as much when you are a woman and particularly a person of color.

Moguldom: What do you say to the person who says, “it is not fair” because their counterparts are not working as hard?

Dr. McCauley: It is what it is. It is a joy to me to do what I do. There have been challenges, but I do not look at it as being a challenge. No, it has not been easy balancing personal life and work, but there is also the engineering side of me that looks for a different way to accomplish things in my life. It is all about your perception. Your perception is the only way you will survive life’s challenges.

Moguldom: What was it like going from being a teen mom on welfare reading textbooks for your education to writing a textbook as a tenured professor?

Dr. McCauley: Who knew right? It’s been fun. I tried to write it from a student’s perspective. I kept in mind to make sure it was relevant and applicable. It has been completely fun seeing it being used around the world and even translated into Chinese. We are working on a second edition of the book now.

Moguldom: What’s next for you?

Dr. McCauley: Since January of this year, I am on loan from UCF to the National Science Foundation Computer Information Science and Engineering Directorate’s I-Corps Program. The I-Corps program prepares scientists and engineers to extend their focus beyond the university laboratory and accelerates the economic and societal benefits of NSF-funded basic-research projects. I will be helping to lead and foster innovation among faculty and students, promote regional coordination and linkages, and develop national networks to encourage commercialization of innovation using the exciting NSF I-Corps Model. This is something I have been doing for awhile and to continue to do so in this capacity for the next three years is pure excitement for me.