Dr. Jacqueline El-Sayed is the vice president for academic affairs and professor of mechanical engineering at Marygrove College. She has served as a trustee of the Bloomfield Hills Board of Education since 2011, and as commissioner of the Michigan Truck Safety Commission.
I was 18 years old when I started working on the line at General Motors, as a co-op student at General Motors Institute. Even today, engineering is 82 percent male. Back then it was like entering a jail. The men on both sides of the line would rattle their machines and catcall. You could always tell where a woman was in the plant by the roar as she walked through.
There weren’t the laws there are now. That’s the way it was. I remember what I was wearing the first day I went to work because I was looking down. I was wearing my high school track sweatshirt and New Balance tennis shoes.
The security guard called out to me, something like, “Is that your age or your bra size?” That was the security guard who was supposed to protect me in this plant in Pontiac, where there were knifings. It was a dangerous place. I didn’t react. I knew it was uncomfortable, but everything about moving away from my family was uncomfortable.
My dad always said, “Keep your eyes straight ahead and walk as if you know where you’re going, even if you’re just going to the bathroom.”
So, I have my safety glasses on, and my “plant walk”, where I’m walking rapidly to wherever I’m going, looking straight ahead. This thing happens, but I don’t make it personal. I know they’re doing that to every single woman going through the truck plant.
It wasn’t until I was more mature that I realized that was a hostile environment. I was just trying to do what GMI asked me to do. I was on full scholarship, but I needed a satisfactory recommendation from my co-op work. At that time, two-thirds of the class would fail out. You had to make it through.
My dad always said, “If you don’t fall three times, you didn’t try enough stuff.”
If you’re not pushing the limits, you won’t find out where the limits are, where you’re going to fail, or where you need to work. That’s just a part of who I am.
I did every job on the line. I had to do electrical, and put on mud flaps and ceiling strips. I learned all the jobs from the hourly workers. First, I came in casual dress. They know you’re a General Motors Institute student. They kind of knew what that meant, and I kind of knew what that meant.
Once the hourly workers had taught me every job in the plant, the superintendent said, “Okay, now you need to dress up in a suit, because now you’re going to be the foreman (supervisor).”
I didn’t know that was coming. So, after all the hourly workers taught me every job, and they knew I was an 18-year-old kid, then GM made me their boss and I had to work through that. Some of these people had been working there for years and were much older than me.
I had to learn to lead people when they feel betrayed, when it’s not fair. “Who are you?” But at the same time, I’m a likeable person. I’m still the Jackie they knew before.
That’s part of the lesson that GMI taught me.
I was good at GM, with consistent “outstanding evaluations,” but felt, “Is this what I’m going to do with the rest of my life? Build cars?” It was a great job, but not my calling in life.
As soon as I started working in education and teaching engineering, I thought, “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life!”
My husband helped me to frame it by saying, “You don’t build cars anymore. You build people.”
As an advisor for women engineering students, as first I thought, “I can’t tell them how hard it is because then they’ll quit. I can’t tell them that I’ve gone through some really tough stuff because maybe they won’t persist.”
It was 2007, but nationally only one percent of full professors in mechanical engineering were women. I was going through the process for promotion to full professorship. They look at every little thing. When I got it, the students said, “Watching you get beat up while [you were] reaching your dream to become a full professor makes me want to go kick ass.”
I realized then that I didn’t have to gloss over challenges. It’s okay for them to see me struggle. It doesn’t make them quit. It helps them know how to go forward. They’re not necessarily going to do what I did, but they’re going to do. Experiential learning helps you find your path.
I struggled with confidence for a while. A study by the University of Michigan showed the longer a woman stays in engineering, the lower her self-esteem. It has absolutely nothing to do with her ability. She’s actually getting better. But we’re internalizing this impostor syndrome and talking to ourselves as other people talk to us.
After I became a full professor, I was selected as an American Council on Education Fellow and I gave myself permission to ask for a female president as my mentor. I hadn’t had a “mirroring” experience before, talking to a woman, like me, who shared my same profession and passion for education. It changed the way I talked to myself.
Learning through consequences. Learning through failure. I think it’s key.