As a part of the less than 1 percent of black women engineers in the United States, there is no question Pamela McCauley stands out. McCauley, who serves as director of UCF’s Ergonomics Laboratory in the Department of Industrial Engineering and Management Systems, defies stereotypes and statistics that women in STEM, particularly those of color, cannot achieve the remarkable.
Fourteen years after becoming a teen mom, McCauley became the first black woman to earn an engineering doctorate in Oklahoma, from the University of Oklahoma in 1993. Since then, she has earned numerous research fellowships and awards, become an internationally acclaimed author of more than 80 papers and books, traveled the nation as a distinguished speaker and started her own business.
Drawing from her experiences in male-dominated industries, McCauley uses her role as a UCF engineering professor to encourage women to study engineering by engaging them in the classroom and her research projects, which currently focus on disaster response and addressing the United Nations’ sustainable-development goals. In UCF’s Ergonomics Laboratory she uses state-of-the-art physiological, biomechanical and manual dexterity tests to solve problems related to biomechanics and information-security.
Earlier this month, McCauley and 30 other women were honored with Onyx Magazine’s Woman on the Move Awards during an event that celebrated women who have persevered against all odds to shatter the glass ceiling in their professions.
“I’m particularly touched by the Onyx Award,” McCauley says. “I’ve been blessed to be recognized in a number of environments, but it’s so nice when you feel like the people in your community recognize you. Some of the women that are being recognized are just amazing, so I’m humbled to be among those other honorees.”
We sat down with McCauley to learn more about the woman who is a leading example of what women can accomplish in STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics — or any field.
ND: You are a director, teacher, researcher, speaker, author and entrepreneur. Which role is most challenging to you?
Pamela McCauley: They all have their different aspects from a challenge standpoint. I think sometimes, being an engineer and an entrepreneur, because I am in such a male-dominated field, I still sometimes get a little frustrated when it appears that I have to continue to reassure people that I am the person for the job. That, in some cases, is because they’re still not accustomed to seeing a black woman who is the one with the knowledge, the scientific solutions that they need, or the expert in the field on a nationwide level. Sometimes it gets a little old having to continue to tell people that I’m the one who can solve these problems and having to reassure them, but the older I get, the less I have to do that. There’s a benefit of age.
ND: How do you think the STEM fields can evolve to be more inclusive of women?
PM: Well, I think one thing you can do is take better care of the women who are already there. We don’t do a good job of that, not at all. Many of the women who are currently in STEM fields feel marginalized in their careers. They are not given the opportunities that some of the men are given. That’s very disheartening to me because when we’re saying we want more women in STEM and then we’re not taking care of the ones we have, it’s hard to continue to encourage them to come into the field.
Other things I think we can do is to mentor them, and you don’t have to be a woman in STEM in order to mentor them. Men can mentor them. If you don’t have time to be a full mentor, you can be an advocate for them or a role model for them. There are a number of things that can be done to help to change the situation.
ND: When you were 15 years old, you were told by a public welfare counselor that you would just be another statistic. What did you do to overcome that and have the willpower to go on and pursue your career?
PM: I think the number one thing I did was stop listening to those people. I limited my interaction with them, and I also started to interact with people who were more positive who believed in me. My circle got a whole lot smaller, but I also have a very strong relationship with God. That was foundational for me. That has continued to be the source of my strength, no matter what difficulties I face.
ND: Which of your accomplishments mean the most to you?
PM: It would be when I was 24 years old and I received a National Science Foundation Fellowship to pursue my graduate studies. I talk about that in my book Winners Don’t Quit, and the reason that I think that was most significant is because that created such a turning point in my life. It provided validation to the engineering community and my fellow classmates and faculty members of the quality of engineer that I was or was expected to become because I was receiving this National Science Foundation Creativity Fellowship.
It also helped me feel better, have a greater degree of confidence about my engineering degree. Then it provided funds to get my master’s and start my Ph.D., and then I got another fellowship to finish my Ph.D. I think it was so powerful because it was essentially a seal of approval, and then it provided the resources to really take my education, career and essentially my life to another level technically and professionally.
ND: Is there a specific area in the STEM industry that you would like to see more women working in?
PM: I think we need more women in computer science and in all of the engineering disciplines. We tend to have more women in the biological sciences and medical profession, and that’s great, we need us there.
Part of the reason is because these folks are the innovators. We need the perspective of women within the field, and also the diversity in terms of people working together so that we can create more innovative products and services to meet the needs of the world.
ND: Who is your favorite living woman?
PM: If I pick someone other than my mom, I would have to say Michelle Obama. I’m just so impressed by her character and intellect, and her humility. She just embodies so much excellence in a professional and personal manner.
ND: What advice did you get from your mom and other people to keep you motivated as a young working mother?
PM: My mom is the most optimistic person you will ever meet. She always said that, “You can do anything you set your mind to with God’s help.”
My father [who was in the military] is all about hard work. He always said, “You can do anything with hard work and discipline.” Between his guidance about hard work and discipline and my mother’s total optimism and faith in myself and faith in God, it would’ve been hard not to achieve if I really believed what they said, and I did.
ND: What do you still hope to accomplish?
PM: I hope to be able to inspire others to dream big and then do it. Don’t just dream; be a doer. Actually dream big, greater than you could’ve ever imagined. And then believe that you can do it despite the challenges and the difficulties. So many people when they run into difficult situations, they think, “Hard times means I’m on the wrong path.” Hard times just may be a part of the process to get there.