Shelley Gretlein, yesterday

Interview: Shelley Gretlein, ‘Lady Labview’, National Instruments

Image credit: National Instruments

Shelley Gretlein is sometimes known as ‘Lady Labview’ at National Instruments, where she is vice-president of corporate marketing, but she is also active in Girlstart, FIRST Robotics and the Women’s Leadership Forum. E&T talked to her during NI Week in Austin, Texas, about diversity in American engineering.

Q: Last year’s Leadership Forum was really vibrant and on the spur of the moment you set an unusual goal for NI Week, didn’t you?

SG: My frustration about this event is there’s never a line at the women’s bathroom. Years ago, they even put it on a T-shirt. I’m like, that’s not a good thing, guys, this is a problem. So, last year, there was this big old line coming out of that room and we all took photos. It was a social media deal because it was like, oh wow, we actually achieved that.

Q: What’s your goal this year?

SG: It’s about inclusion of all the different perspectives... It’s not a gender thing really. That’s a nice lightning rod to get folks to come ... but we need women of colour in engineering, we need men of colour in engineering and we have a lot of challenges... The real engineering problems ahead of us are very difficult and we need every great mind to solve these problems. We can’t keep solving it the way we have with traditional teams or it will take too long.

Q: What got you into engineering?

SG: When things would break around the house, we were encouraged to take them apart and learn about how they work. So, I think that was formative. That was early. I didn’t know I wanted to be an engineer then. I was just fortunate that my father was a civil engineer. On long road trips we would talk about how things worked, because you didn’t have iPads and all these things. So, we’d talk about the vehicle dynamics. How does this car even work? Or how bridges were built from an architecture standpoint. It was just part of our world. We didn’t have a lot of distractions frankly and we got to think more and see more. And I was inspired when I wrote my first program in high school. I wrote a computer science program and it worked and I programmed it to do this thing and that was a really cool feeling. It was almost a hit of adrenaline, if you will.

Q: Have you experienced discrimination yourself?

SG: When I started 18 years ago, I was an applications engineer. We would all go and teach customer classes on how to program and I remember in my first class there was a gentleman who had been in aerospace for probably 30 years, domain expert, brilliant fellow, would not make eye contact with me, did not want to learn from me in that class... He’s struggling and I’m trying to help him and it was just a very strange experience. I had to earn his credibility. It took four days to build the credibility; my colleagues didn’t have the same challenge.

Q: Could industry do more? How about quotas?

SG: There’s this nice awareness now of unconscious bias. So, simple things: take the names off the resume when you’re reviewing resumes. I believe a lot of it is unconscious, the way we’re raised. All the photos of engineers happen to be mid-40s white male, because they took a picture and that’s who was there, but it’s reinforcing it.

Personally, this whole quota idea, we must have x number of diverse hires, that doesn’t make sense to me ... I don’t want to get a job or a promotion or a role because of my gender, or because of what school I went to or some other thing. I want to because I’m adding value to that business. I understand the motivation behind the idea of a quota, which all comes from good intent, but I think you want to earn your role, rather than just be handed it. That’s not fair and not right for the other folks.

Q: How can engineering interest more girls?

SG: We have a local STEM organisation called Girl Start and I’m on the board of that. It works with underprivileged girls to get them interested in engineering, and what they’re finding is, hands-on engineering really resonates with younger girls [better than] the academic approach of ‘math is cool’. So, we’re trying to work with the hands-on piece to say ‘cool, you like princesses’ or whatever, but guess what? She can fly if you put her on this string and we’re going to learn about aerodynamics. So, you can still make it relatable and learn physics and learn math and learn really cool engineering concepts. But make it applicable to the audience.

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