Black History Month: Highlighting African American Engineers

Meet and learn more about two of the SWEsters in SWE's African American Affinity Group: Linda Thomas and Andrea Taffe

African American Affinity Group

In celebration of Black History Month, SWE will be highlighting African American women engineers and entrepreneurs in a series of blog posts.

Meet and learn more about two of the SWEsters in the African American Affinity Group: Linda Thomas (Retired Technical Fellow with the Boeing Company) and Andrea Taffe (Certification Engineer at Collins Aerospace). Linda and Andrea were also featured in our recent SWE Diverse podcast on breaking barriers on the technical track. Listen to them discuss obstacles they have faced as a female technical fellow in engineering, how industries can create a more diverse environment within their organization and how to find a healthy work/life balance.


Linda Thomas // Retired Technical Fellow with The Boeing Company

Linda Thomas

Linda Thomas is a Society of Women Engineers (SWE) Fellow and was a Technical Fellow with The Boeing Company with over 30 years in the industry and more than 20 years of remarkable SWE engagement promoting membership, supporting advocacy with her employer, and mentoring junior engineers and students. Linda’s encouragement, leadership, and dedication to diversity and inclusion at the local, regional, and Society levels have helped innumerable women aspire, advance, and achieve in STEM professions. She is currently a senator involved in the strategic planning of SWE. Linda is also an avid clarinetist and can be found rehearsing or playing with her choir in various events.

Tell us about your background: Where are you from, and what attracted you to the world of engineering or STEM?

Originally from Washington DC, graduated from the DC public schools, and earned my bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Howard University.  I was attracted to STEM as a child, by reading about inventions, inventors and scientists. By the time I completed elementary school knew I wanted to be a scientist. I recall when I was young, watching my brother receiving a biology kit for Christmas.  for a later Christmas, I asked for and then received a chemistry set, where I spent many afternoons conducting experiments.  Those experiences led me to focus on taking math and science classes, and eventually in college.

Did you have any mentors or role models who helped shape your educational and/or professional path?

Although my parents were not in STEM, they had friends, classmates, and colleagues, and relatives who were in STEM occupations. I had a variety of mentors — but not a one size fits all mentor, but helped me with different topics.

What has been your personal experience as a double minority (black and female) in a male-dominated industry? What surprises (good and bad) have you encountered?

I found that my best success in the industries I worked by demonstrating I was curious and a problem solver.  Good surprises: there are people who want to champion your success. Also, I found people seeking me out for mentoring and guidance. And given that, it made me more committed to paying it forward so others can succeed.

Bad surprises: recognizing the realities of cognitive bias, and how that plays into the impostor syndrome.  I was fortunate to have known “SWEsters” who were influential in making me recognize the value I brought to the engineering profession!

Black History Month: Highlighting African American Engineers

What advice would you offer to girls or young women who are interested in STEM but doubt their capabilities or potential?

Yes, I have been there many times in my career, and I found a way to center myself.

  1. Be goal-oriented, know what you like and want to do. This is a good time to journal these ideas so you can nurture and act on them!
  2. Find people who will support you in studying STEM, goal setting, and planning your future.
  3. Read the biographies of women scientists and engineers for inspiration. Through their stories, you will find out these superheroes were once young women. They also had challenges on their road to success and found ways to overcome them.

Andrea Taffe//Certification Engineer at Collins Aerospace

Andrea

Background

  • Graduated from Prairie View A&M University, 1998
  • Currently a Certification Engineer, Collins Aerospace
  • Various Positions at these previous companies – Boeing, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Associated Air Center, Bell Helicopter
  • Favorite Quote in “Hidden Figures” – “There are quite a few women working in the space program” – Dorothy Vaughan

Career

  • My career was focused on working on what I perceived to be “the coolest thing out there.”  In my career, my movements have been grounded in the fast and fascinating such as military aircraft like the F-16, F-18 and the different models of F-35 at Lockheed Martin, various models of Boeing aircraft such as the 737IGW or VIP/VVIP aircraft interiors of Associated Air Center or Bell Helicopter, now a Certification Engineer at Collins Aerospace.
  • Being a woman of color is a beautiful thing, but I never really considered it much during my career.  If I saw it and wanted to work on it, I’ve normally found a way to do so.

Challenges

  • It’s unfortunate many women of color feel like they have to go out of their way to make peers “comfortable” prior to making points and having conversations.  I have never been that woman and have been branded as “aggressive,” “difficult” and “passionate” (the new term for aggressive).  My approach has adjusted, slightly, however, I cannot help as that as a woman of color, our mere existence and presence in this world will always, always be a distraction to a peer who is just not trying to hear what we have to say.  In that situation, creative solutions can include finding someone who looks like that person to communicate the same information to get an idea across.  It’s a hard truth, but it should be considered and documented, to be an opportunity to problem-solve while expressing great communication and collaborative skills.

Allies, Mentors and Sponsors

  • I did not have mentors, sponsors or anyone who I could go to for career advice.  I relied heavily on paying attention to such organizations as SWE and being a source for other students who were looking to becoming an engineer.  Recently, I have acquired a mentor and it has served me very well.  The information received has been very helpful in changing my perspective on the approach of the customer or project.

Black History Month: Highlighting African American Engineers

 Self-Advocacy

  • Use your voice.  Sit at the table not just in the room.  Do not apologize for being who you are.  Know what you know without a shadow of a doubt (this means asking yourself the hard questions before someone else will).  Double and triple-check everything.  You will make a mistake.  Own that mistake and learn from it.  The more you dwell on an error, the more chances you are going to miss something else making yet another mistake.
  • TAKE TIME AWAY FROM THE TECHNOLOGY!!!  Stop working so hard and reset.  Turn off.  Intentionally reboot yourself in the same way you intentionally use “control-alt-delete”.  Have a deliberate movement to remove yourself from the norm and find your space.  My space is the great outdoors.  Camping, kayaking, dirt, water, sand, air, it all brings a fresh renewal of my mind.  This is key.  Change your scenery.

Community Service

  • I’ve recently started the Woman’s Coalition Employee Resource Group at the Lenexa, KS facility because I see a lot of women who are stuck in the minutia of their day to day life while the men around them continue to rise in the corporate ladder.  I want to give them the support, tools and skillsets they will need to get to where they want to be while hosting events that will encourage this effort.
  • You can’t be what you can’t see, so I try to talk to kids and young adults by telling them what I’ve worked on and what I’ve done in my career and life.  I encourage them to look beyond the flashy and shiny they see and figure out how it’s made and who made it.  My favorite quote is that it’s great to play for the team, but somebody’s name is on that stadium.  Dream bigger and bigger still.
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