Female engineer shares experiences working in male-dominated field, encourages women to pursue scientific careers

Emily Drinks February 27, 2014 0

“Most of us make our own stories, and I have a story,” Selma Wunderlich stated to open her presentation “Glass Pipettes, Glass Ceilings: Women in the Sciences” on Wednesday, Feb. 26.

Wunderlich began learning at a young age from her parents. “My mother began to teach me at two and a half,” Wunderlich said. Her father also instilled in her and her three siblings the importance of education and a love for learning. At the dinner table, her father would give her arithmetic problems, and he also took her to a mechanical institute. “That was, I think, what got me interested in science,” Wunderlich said.

Her love of science continued throughout her school years as well. “When I was in high school, I took almost every math and science course they had,” she said. During her junior year of high school, Wunderlich was asked to teach her trigonometry class when the teacher was away for three weeks. Wunderlich said that when the teacher came back, all the students performed well on a test given, which covered the material that Wunderlich had taught. The principal also suggested that Wunderlich study physics. “Girls weren’t taught physics in those days,” Wunderlich said, explaining that her all-girls school did not offer a physics course, and she would have to study physics at the all-boys school. When Wunderlich spoke with the principal of the boys’ school, she was rejected. The principal believed she wanted to meet boys rather than study physics.

After high school, Wunderlich first attended Drexel University for accounting. “My father knew that I liked math, so he suggested accounting,” Wunderlich said.  However, after her first year of college, Wunderlich left.  “I found I didn’t like accounting. To me, it was more like arithmetic.” Wunderlich began working at a telephone company but said that she still wanted to study science if the opportunity ever came.

That opportunity presented itself when Wunderlich was told by her dentist about Chestnut Hill College, a college which prepared many students for medical school. Wunderlich said that because the college was a liberal arts college, students were required to take liberal arts courses for the entire four years. However, by doing this, Wunderlich would not be able to take as many math and science courses that she considered to be critical. Wunderlich completed almost all the requirements in her first two years of school.

She was summoned to the dean’s office to be told that she would either have to take liberal arts courses for all four years or come back for a fifth year.  Wunderlich responded, “Are you going to pay for my fifth year? I’m going to do it in the four years and do it the way I want.”  Since then, she has been contacted by faculty of the college stating that students are now encouraged to finish their core courses the way Wunderlich did.

After finishing college, Wunderlich enrolled in a two-year program to become a staff engineer. She was one of eight women in a program and was taught by only male professors. Wunderlich was promoted to executive staff and started attending conferences.

At the first conference, she did most of the talking, and the chief of engineering called her into his office the next day to formally apologize. The men had expected Wunderlich to perform the job of a secretary and take the minutes instead of being more knowledgeable than most of the men. However, she wanted to be promoted. Wunderlich realized, “If I wanted to get ahead and be noticed, I should get more education,” she said.

Wunderlich began studying to earn her master’s degree in applied statistics and quality control at Villanova University. The program initially consisted of 50 people, and Wunderlich was the only woman in the group. She became the first woman to earn a master’s degree in applied statistics and quality control.

She said that the she was respected by the male students, and was one of seven students out of the initial 50 who graduated from the program. Wunderlich was still paid 30 to 40 percent less than the men in the same position. She then attempted to start a committee with the other women in her position to refute the salary difference, but none joined. “I became an activist committee of one. It didn’t work,” Wunderlich said.

After getting married, Wunderlich left her company. However, she still remains active in the alumni association at Villanova University.  She added that every individual is gifted in some way.  “It’s your responsibility to use those gifts, but you’re also responsible to share those gifts,” Wunderlich said.

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