Breaking the Glass Ceiling

Published March 25, 2021

Breaking the glass ceiling isn’t just for high-profile political figures. At Georgia Tech, we have women who are making new strides in a wide range of male-dominated fields, at all levels. In celebration of Women’s History Month, we have asked a few of them to share their journeys and achievements, along with their advice for other women who hope to one day lead at Georgia Tech and in the broader community.

Sinet Adous

International Affairs Student and Ms. Georgia Tech

In your own words, how are you breaking the glass ceiling?

I break glass ceilings by emulating the audacious self-assuredness my mom and older sisters have modeled so well for me. The women who came before me have given me guidance to better know myself and my power.

After I was crowned as Ms. Georgia Tech, a mentor told me, “You know what got you here? You committed to being authentic.” That’s the narrative that I try to preach. I believe showing authentic love to yourself and others wins every time.

How does breaking the glass ceiling tie into Georgia Tech’s strategic values?

The first thing I think of is the strategic value of “we thrive on diversity.” That’s undoubtedly true. I think beyond tokenized diversity, any community is better when we’re more colorful — in identities, ideas, beliefs, and passions.

I also think of “we celebrate collaboration.” It takes a village not only to push for the kind of change that you wish to see, but to keep your heart full and mind clear along the way. We ought to be more real about the mental and emotional well-being of our peers, leaders, and community members in between. More truth breeds more empathy breeds more support.

It’s an uphill battle to push for something that’s unprecedented. If I didn’t have my friends from all different backgrounds here, holding me up or working with me, it would be a much greater challenge to keep on keeping on.

What would a younger you think of what you’re accomplishing?

I would be proud of the woman I’ve become. Behind the passion and ambition that people see, there’s a lot of work that goes into nourishing my spirit. A younger me would feel inspired by the ways I’ve stayed true to my values and grateful for the unpredictable personal growth I’ve experienced since entering college.

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Sinet Adous

 

"It’s an uphill battle to push for something that’s unprecedented. If I didn’t have my friends from all different backgrounds here, it would be a much greater challenge to keep on keeping on."
Maria Idalia Dorantes

 

"Women can be any place that we wish to be as long as we have the desire and put in the hard work to get there."

Maria Idalia Dorantes

Chiller Operator

In your own words, how are you breaking the glass ceiling and why aren’t more women in your profession?

I am the only woman working in the chiller shop. I see a lot of women who go to school, but they never work in their career field because they are afraid. Or someone says, “You can’t do this job. It’s too hard for a woman.” In my case I am trying to show that it’s possible. It’s not easy, but it’s possible. Women can be any place that we wish to be as long as we have the desire and put in the hard work to get there.

Did you imagine yourself in this position?

I always dreamed of it, but I was not sure if it was possible. While trying to find the opportunity, I kept studying and learning from the technicians who are willing to share their knowledge. I was prepared and just waiting for an opportunity. As soon as it came up, I took it.

What attracted you to Georgia Tech?

I was really attracted to Georgia Tech because of its reputation as an institute for research. I also knew there were people of various races and ethnicities working here, and there were opportunities for women. The mentality of the people who work here is different. That’s why I came aboard.

What advice would you give someone to help them achieve their dreams?

First, do not get comfortable in the place where you are. Keep working. Keep growing. Change is never-ending. So get as much knowledge as possible. Connect with people who are top-notch and learn from them. Everything you need to learn isn’t in the books. So, pay attention to what people say.

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Audrey Duarte

Professor, School of Psychology; Director, Memory and Aging Lab

Did you ever imagine yourself in this position?

Definitely not. My parents weren’t academics or engineers, they didn’t have the kind of careers that many of my friends in graduate school had. But I always did well in school and got into a scholarship program for first-generation students and students from underrepresented backgrounds. It helped us learn about research opportunities to prepare us for graduate school, which is something I never would have done if I hadn’t done that program.

How are you breaking the glass ceiling?

I’m bringing about change just by being visible. A person who’s Hispanic, who’s a woman, who’s a professor, who’s doing outreach and mentoring students — just doing my daily job is how I do it, even without the conscious intention of “ceiling breaking.”

How does doing your part to break the glass ceiling tie into Georgia Tech’s strategic values?

I think the strategic value of diversity resonates with me the most. Even a lot of the research in psychology has been on largely white populations, so diversifying the samples of people we study is hugely important in my work. And it’s also important to me to mentor students who are from underrepresented backgrounds. That was me 20 years ago.

In what ways do you try to lift other women up?

I mentor quite a few women in my lab, both undergraduate and graduate. I also give talks whenever I can. Earlier on, when I was in graduate school, “imposter syndrome” started for me. I didn’t share my background because I didn’t want people to see me as someone who didn’t belong there. Now I feel the opposite. I’m really transparent about that now. I made it through and here’s how I did it.

What advice do you have for other women on the way up?

It’s better than it’s ever been for women in science, and that’s wonderful. So, I would say, if this is what you love, just keep doing the hard work. And seek out mentors for yourself — they don’t have to be people in your field. That’s something I’ve done more as I’ve become more senior.

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Audrey Duarte

 

"It’s better than it’s ever been for women in science, and that’s wonderful. So, I would say, if this is what you love, just keep doing the hard work."
Martha Grover

 

"In order to thrive it is essential to surround yourself with people you trust."

Martha Grover

Professor and Associate Chair for Graduate Studies, School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

How did your career path bring you to your current position at Georgia Tech?

I’m from a small town in Illinois, and I decided to go to the University of Illinois to study engineering because I liked math and science. I earned my bachelor’s in mechanical engineering, did undergraduate research, and I also had three semesters of co-op with NASA on Edwards Air Force Base in California. As an undergraduate I discovered that I enjoyed research. I went to graduate school at Caltech and earned my Ph.D., studying feedback control of material synthesis and structure. I also liked the idea of teaching and working with students. So, I applied for faculty positions and started here as an assistant professor in 2003.

You are the first woman who is the associate chair for Graduate Studies in your department. Did you imagine yourself in your position?

No. I didn’t have a particular plan to be a professor. When I was younger, I really wanted to engage in the world to learn and to contribute, and to see what I could do. But exactly how, I leave open to the opportunities that come along. It is more interesting that way.

Name something that you like about the Georgia Tech environment.

I really value the collaborative environment because my research is interdisciplinary. When I started my research program I was working on feedback control of thin film deposition, both modeling and experiments, and we were doing all aspects with my own lab. But the longer I’ve been here, I’ve formed relationships with experts in different areas, particularly on the experimental side. That has allowed my research to move into new applications in control of molecular organization, from nuclear waste cleanup to origins of life chemistry.

What advice do you have for other women who are dreaming big?

In order to thrive it is essential to surround yourself with people you trust. Seek out those friends, collaborators, mentors, and sponsors. Put your energy into achieving your goals, working with people you trust, and building a community of trust.

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Joy Harris

Senior Academic Professional, School of Electrical and Computer Engineering; Associate Director of Create-X LEARN; Faculty Director, Engineering for Social Innovation Center

How did you get to your current positions at Georgia Tech?

The beautiful thing about Georgia Tech is, if you recognize a gap and can create funding for it, you can fill the gap. When I came to electrical and computer engineering, I didn’t see a way for students to do social impact work as engineers. So, I learned to navigate the system, and once you have a foundation, you can do a whole lot of really cool things with students. With CREATE-X, the director needed people in charge of the different platforms (LEARN, MAKE, LAUNCH). I raised my hand. I would love to run the LEARN programs. So, just see a need and fill it.

How are you breaking the glass ceiling?

I am breaking a glass ceiling by being the woman I was created to be. There are so many things I know I do because of my feminine nature, as opposed to trying to lead like a man or do anything that is contrary to my authentic self. Because of my nurturing nature, I just try to anticipate what is needed and then see how I can add value in that way. And by doing that, inevitably, I benefit as well.

What are you doing to help lift other women through?

I’m very strategic about mentoring them even if they don’t know I’m doing it. And just whenever possible try to impart knowledge and wisdom. And also, listen. Sometimes women just need an ear when we’re working it out. And if I can give an opportunity to a deserving female colleague, all else being equal, then I do. Diversity is not going to happen if it’s not intentional.

What advice do you have for other women trying to break through?

Be your authentic whole self and don’t put yourself in some existing framework of limited choices. I constantly reframe my own thinking whenever I recognize that I’ve created a boundary condition that does not actually exist. I can remove the boundary condition and work past it.

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Joy Harris
quote from Joy Harris

History Makers

Women trailblazers making history at Tech

Lettie Pate Whitehead Evans

Born in 1872, Virginia native Lettie Pate Whitehead Evans became a businesswoman by necessity when her husband, Joseph B. Whitehead, died unexpectedly. The business? Bottling Coca-Cola. She remarried (Arthur Kelly Evans), and in 1934 sold the family’s bottling operation to the Coca-Cola Company in exchange for stock. That same year, Lettie Pate Whitehead Evans became the first female board member at Coca-Cola, a position she held for two decades. She also became a prolific philanthropist, establishing three charitable foundations and directing a gift of Coca-Cola stock to Georgia Tech. Today, it generates around $12 million of funding for the Institute each year, and the building we all know as Tech Tower bears her name: the Lettie Pate Whitehead Evans Administration Building.

Diane Michel

Diane Michel, IE 1956, entered Georgia Tech in 1952, along with Elizabeth Herndon — the first women to enroll full-time at the Institute. Four years later, Michel became the first woman to complete an undergraduate degree, from start to finish, at Tech. Two years into her college experience, Michel, along with the four other women enrolled at the time, founded the first sorority at Georgia Tech, Alpha Xi Delta — the first national sorority chapter at an engineering school — and Michel served as the chapter’s first president.

Valerie Montgomery Rice

When Valerie Montgomery Rice, CHEM 1983, was named the sixth president of the Morehouse School of Medicine in 2014, she became the first woman to hold that title there. Montgomery Rice, who earned a medical degree from Harvard and completed her residency in obstetrics and gynecology at Emory, also serves as dean of the Morehouse Medical School. A renowned infertility researcher, she was the founding director of the Center for Women’s Health Research at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee. As she told Georgia Tech’s Alumni Magazine in 2020, she considers her greatest accomplishment “changing the paradigm of who can be trained in medicine.”

Christin Salley

 

"Just dream. Do what you want to do and know that you're always more than capable of doing it. Do not let people label your dream or tell you how to do it."

Christin Salley

Ph.D. Student, School of Civil and Environmental Engineering

What led you to your current position?

In high school I learned that engineers are the “behind the scenes” people of society that keep things moving. There’s nothing you can touch that an engineer wasn’t involved in somehow. I wanted to be in a career where I could help others in some capacity. I also got encouragement from family, friends, and mentors.

How are you breaking the glass ceiling?

One thing to point out is that it’s already been broken by women who came before and they’re the reason I’m able to be in this space. But I can continue to break the glass ceiling by pouring into the next generation and maintaining representation of women and underrepresented minorities in my field. I heard someone once say, "Don't die with a cup that's full, die empty from pouring into others." Once you’ve made it, your question should be, “Who’s coming after me?”

How does doing your part to break the glass ceiling tie into Georgia Tech’s strategic values?

My personal mission statement is to make a positive impact wherever I am led to serve. So, the Georgia Tech values that stand out to me the most pertain to excellence, diversity, and nurturing the well-being of the community. All the strategic values are important, but I feel like you need these three in order to have the others.

What are you doing to help lift other women through?

Aside from doing outreach and mentoring to uplift women, I try to leave my environment better than I found it for whoever comes after me. And then, hopefully, they can go further than I was able to go. I feel like, eventually, women in the field will not represent shattered ceilings. We’ll be the norm.

What advice do you have for other women who are dreaming big?

My first piece of advice is to remove the word “big,” because big is relative. Sometimes we get deterred if our dreams are what people would consider small or “not enough.” Just dream. Do what you want to do and know that you’re always more than capable of doing it. Do not let people label your dream or tell you how to do it.

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Prerna Singh

Fourth Year Ph.D. Student, School of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Did you ever imagine yourself in this position?

Not as a kid. I come from a very small town in India. Even thinking about going outside the town to get educated was a big deal.

How does doing your part to break the glass ceiling tie into Georgia Tech’s strategic values?

I contribute to diversity, not just as a woman, but also as an international student, bringing the mindset of a woman from a different culture.

You were awarded the regional, then national WTS Maggie Walsh Leadership Legacy Scholarship — how has that validated your place as one of the only women in your Ph.D. program?

I never used to think I deserved something like that. And that showed that, maybe I undervalue myself. Even for this interview, I thought about recommending other women who are doing so much more than me. So maybe it’s not just me, but all women who undervalue themselves. This award made me realize that we should be more intentional about recognizing our self-worth.

How do you hope to lift other women through the glass ceiling?

It’s interesting that there’s about a 50-50 split between women and men in undergrad civil engineering at Georgia Tech, then a lot fewer women in grad school, and the percentage is almost negligible at the Ph.D. level. I would like to build an information channel starting in middle school for girls who have an interest in science but don’t pursue it further because of longstanding, preconceived notions against women in STEM. I also believe that both males and females should have a voice in legislation. If something is going to impact everyone, everyone should be in on making the decisions. I will work on bridging this gap in representation as well.

What advice do you have for other women venturing into male-dominated fields?

There’s a quote, “If it doesn’t scare you, you’re not dreaming big enough.” Every time I try to do something that’s not in my comfort zone, I use that to drive me. It’s okay to be scared — as long as that doesn’t stop you from doing it.

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Prerna Singh

 

"I contribute to diversity, not just as a woman, but also as an international student, bringing the mindset of a woman from a different culture."
Marylin Smith

 

"I like to say, look at me — even though I had setbacks, I made it — you can too! Don’t think you’re not good enough and quit. You have to be stubborn."

Marilyn Smith

Professor, Daniel Guggenheim School of Aerospace Engineering; Director, Vertical Lift Research Center of Excellence (VLRCOE)

What led you to your current position?

I worked my way through Georgia Tech undergrad by co-oping; then at Lockheed, I became the first woman flight test engineer. They funded me part-time at Tech for my master’s, after which I moved into R&D, and then they sent me back again part-time for my Ph.D. After more time in industry, I took a job at GTRI. From there, I decided to pursue a career in academia. I’ve earned promotions from assistant professor to full professor to director of the VLRCOE.

How are you breaking the glass ceiling?

Throughout my career in aerospace, I’ve been the first woman in a number of jobs. And I always focused on not pulling the “female card.”

How does doing your part to break the glass ceiling tie into Georgia Tech’s strategic values?

Clearly, by adding diversity. The percentage of women studying aerospace engineering — less than 20% — is approximately the same as when I was an undergraduate. So, it’s important for women to have that role model. The other thing is excellence. When you’re the first or only woman, everybody looks to you — that’s just the way people are — to represent your entire group. For example, if you don’t win a proposal, some will say, well, if we had a man leading it, we would have won it. But then if you win it, you hear, well, you got it because you’re female. It’s a no-win situation that’s slowly changing.

What are you doing to help lift other women through?

When I hire graduate students, I always look to see what kind of passion they have. My group is not all one color, we’re not all one gender. That sends a signal. With a number of professors, their group reflects them, but I want to highlight that everyone has a strength.

What advice do you have for other women on the way up?

I like to tell younger women about times I messed up. One of the problems with women in STEM is that we tend to internalize bad things that happen and blame ourselves. You can’t do that. So, I like to say, look at me — even though I had setbacks, I made it — you can too! Don’t think you’re not good enough and quit. You have to be stubborn.

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Nazia Zakir

Interim Vice President for Sustainability, Facilities, and Safety

How did your career path bring you to your current position at Georgia Tech?

I started as a health physicist, and I’ve been promoted steadily in the 18 years I’ve been here. In December, I was asked to lead this newly formed group after the previous VP retired, and it’s been an incredible growth opportunity for me.

How are you breaking the glass ceiling?

I feel like I am definitely breaking the ceiling for Muslim immigrants to be able to advance to some of these higher levels. And I hope people can look and say, hey, if she did it, we can do it. Hopefully it’ll be easier for them than it was for me, with fewer obstacles and detours. I’ve never been more optimistic about Georgia Tech embracing diversity and showing it through action.

How are you aiming to help lift other women through?

I started a Facilities women’s mentorship group, although since Covid-19 we haven’t met that much. And, you know, I’ve gotten where I am because of my mentors and sponsors which, surprisingly, have been white men. They’re the ones who have given me the confidence to move up. When you trust in somebody and believe in somebody – they had that in me, and that was very helpful for me to stick with it.

How do you plan to leave your mark for women at Tech?

By doing the best I can. And by collecting some more wins and showing that in this environment women can still thrive and reach their goals and be seen as really effective leaders.

What advice do you have for other women who are dreaming big?

Dream bigger than I dreamt when I was young. Don’t let anybody say you’re not good enough. And when opportunity comes, take it. Say, “Yep, I’m ready. I can do it. Give me the reins.” Then take off.

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Nazia Zakir
quote from Nazia Zakir

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Other Inspirational Stories:

Robyn Gatens

Robyn Gatens

First female director of the International Space Station.

Sharae Meredith

Sharaé Meredith

A trailblazer in aerospace engineering.

Sally Ng

Sally Ng

One of the top experts in the world on aerosol science.

Jocelyn Wilson

Joycelyn Wilson

A pioneer of hip-hop education as a practice.

Lisa Cupid and Jerica Richardson

Lisa Cupid and Jerica Richardson

Breaking glass ceilings in local government.

Valerie Edward

Valerie Edward

Only woman working at the Holland Plant.

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CREDITS
Writers: Stacy Braukman, Victor Rogers, Margaret Tate
Design: Mark Ziemer
Photography: Allison Carter


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Glass shards on the ground.