A New Tradition: ‘There is absolutely room for women in this industry.’
EDITOR’S NOTE: The News and Press will be running several stories in a series on women who work in male-dominated industries. Sometimes called non-traditional workers, these women found jobs and careers that they love and didn’t let gender stereotypes keep them from pursuing their passions.
By Melissa Rollins, Editor, firstname.lastname@example.org
Taylor Armstead seemed destined to be a graduate of Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), with both a love of science and family ties to the college. Now a 25-year-old Process Engineer at Sonoco, Armstead said that she couldn’t be happier with her choice in school and career.
“I knew I wanted to go to Georgia Tech since I was three, probably earlier, because my whole side of my mom’s family went there; that was a given,” Armstead said. “When I was a kid I really wanted to be an engineer but didn’t know a whole lot about what kind. My freshman year, I picked out Material Science. It was something that was really, really interesting to me and you can do a lot of different things with that too degree too, which I like.”
With the exception of a short internship in France, Armstead said that she lived her whole life in Georgia. An opportunity to work at Sonoco in Hartsville was the perfect time to make a move.
“I haven’t lived anywhere else, really,” Armstead said. “When I graduated I wanted to move away; it was time for a change.”
As a Process Engineer for Stock Prep, Armstead said that her days/weeks can vary a little but also have similar elements to them.
“Basically when we make paper, we are taking 100 percent recycled material and we’re turning it into stock,” Armstead said. “That is a giant pulpy mass that you eventually turn in to paper. I’m involved in the process of everything from unloading it to right before it hits the refiners.”
Though her degree is in Material Science and Engineering, Armstead initially started college with another path in mind. One class changed her mind.
“I started college in Environmental Engineering,” Armstead said. “I purposely took an undecided engineering course, which is just a one-hour course, no homework, where you just watch presentations from different engineers. It was really helpful.”
During that course, presenters laid out what each branch of engineering looked like in college and after graduation.
“You got to see examples of what you do afterward, examples of classes you’d be taking. You get to talk with recruiters from each major. A big major like Mechanical Engineering isn’t going to have a recruiter but Material Science is because it is so small. The Material Science presentation was really cool. They had a blowtorch and dry ice and you can’t beat that,” Armstead said, laughing.
Some of the classes she took were helpful in understanding metals and their compositions.
“I had a really good alloys class, so I was learning about metals and their properties, what you can add to steel to make it stronger and non-corrosive, Armstead said. “Bio-materials was really fun, learning about what materials you can put in the body that the body won’t react to. They have some really groundbreaking research coming out right now, they have an artery made entirely out of polymers that you can put in your heart so it’s not clogged up anymore.”
Currently the only female Process Engineer, Armstead said that she has had to make a way for herself sometimes.
“There is definitely a Boys’ Club mentality sometimes,” Armstead said. “I steamroll over it sometimes and I’m just like ‘Tough, I’m part of this conversation too’, kind of thing. It really depends. There are some groups that I walk up and they act like ‘Why are you here’ but then there are other groups that are totally fine. So, there is some of that but it’s not everyone.”
Armstead that she would encourage other women who are interested in engineering to just so for it.
“There is absolutely room for women in this industry,” Armstead said. “There is going to be a lot of support along the way, you just have to know to reach out and get that for yourself. Ask a lot of questions. That is so important. If a young woman is looking at manufacturing, you have to have a tough skin; people pick on you all day. Most of the time it’s for fun but sometimes it will get under your skin. They will find that one thing eventually. For example, you’re the only girl and you got your eyebrows done the day before; they notice like that and they have to comment on that. It is not just women though; the other guys get picked on too.”
Though a portfolio full of science classes helped prepare for her work at Sonoco, Armstead said that that are a few things she’d change if she could do it over again.
“If I could go back and do it, I would have taken more computer programming classes in high school,” Armstead said. “My high school didn’t have a whole lot of options because it was small but we had a management class and I would have done that more. I don’t know how I would have fit it in though because I took every science class they offered. I was trying to prepare myself but looking back I wish I would have joined the Business Club, something that then I didn’t think would be that important.”
Different opportunities are available now than when she was in high school, Armstead said, and she would encourage anyone interested in engineering to explore their options.
“My sister, who is thirteen now, is in a robotics club and that isn’t something that was around when I was that age but I think it is really cool that she’s in that. Any kind of computer classes or anything like that would really help. Get involved as early as possible.”
After seeing that she had a love for engineering, Armstead said that her parents encouraged her to pursue it, even if it meant she would be one of just a few women, pushing her to keep going when the going got tough.
“My parents were really encouraging,” Armstead said. “They pushed me to get into engineering because I was interested in it when I was young but the first year of college I didn’t want to do it anymore. The first two years of classes are really hard and they are designed to make you think you are a terrible person or something. I am really glad that they made me stick with it because I don’t know that I would have by myself. They were the biggest encouragement that I had.”