Lisette Terry’s path toward becoming a civil engineer was unusual, she said.
“A lot of engineers I met along the way, maybe their dad has been a contractor or one of their parents were an engineer, and they were exposed to it,” she said. “I was never exposed to engineering one minuscule when I was growing up.”
Still, she found herself — even at a young age — being drawn toward figuring out and understanding how buildings were constructed and able to bear their own weight, especially during natural disasters.
Of course, her decision to go into the civil engineering field was many years before STEM (or STEAM, standing for science, technology, engineering, art, and math) was a prime focus in Washington’s high schools.
And if she didn’t already know how male-dominated the field was by the time she started at the University of Washington in 2000, she certainly found out as soon as she stepped into her first class — according to Data USA, more than 86 percent of civil engineers are men, and more than 81 percent are white.
But Terry, a woman of color, didn’t let that bother her.
“I didn’t feel out of place, because I grew up in Spokane, Washington, which is similar demographics — I was one of the only students of color growing up,” she said. “It was kind of a norm for me, being around a majority of Caucasian students.”
But that’s not to say she ran into some difficulties, especially concerning her pay.
“I realized that, after I had already started my career, it was likely that I could have started out making more money than I did, because I wasn’t a strong negotiator when I got out of college, but also I think I could have made more money if I was a white male,” she said.
According to Data USA, the average male salary is around $93,000, while the average female salary is just over $71,000.
It wasn’t just the pay, though — Terry added she believes she would have been given more job offers in general, and her opinions given more weight, if she wasn’t a woman of color.
But she said her extroverted personality and her ability to network helped overcome some of these challenges.
“That’s a pretty important part of where I got to where I am today. A lot of engineers are an introverted type of people who don’t really like to get on the phone and talk to people,” she said. “If I was an introvert and a woman of color, I’d be a step down from where I am today.”
Even before graduating from UW with her Master’s Degree in 2007, Terry was a design engineer with Magnusson Klemencic Associates, and was the lead structural design engineer for the Colman Center project.
In 2009, she moved to work with Tetra Tech, and found herself on the Plateau from December 2015 to May 2017 working on the Mud Mountain Dam Fish Passage Facility. Her role was to help design a new salmon trap and haul site for the river, because the old site is infamously known for killing tens of thousands of salmon during spawning seasons.
Now Terry is with Jensen Hughes as a structural forensic engineer, inspecting structural damage to buildings around the state when they’re gutted by fire or damaged by water.
She recently visited Enumclaw again last week during the Enumclaw School District and Enumclaw Schools Foundation’s STEAM luncheon, to recount her experience in her field of work. The luncheon itself was a promotion for the interactive STEAM Expo coming to the Enumclaw Expo Center Feb. 7, 2019.
And although she loves her work, Terry has plans to continue moving up, specifically to become management to motivate other women to join and do well in the civil engineering field.
“I really enjoy mentoring women engineers and encouraging them to advance in what they want to do, and not to be afraid to ask questions and to feel confident in what they’re saying,” she said. “I think it’s really important for engineers to feel like that, because I didn’t feel like that when I was starting out in my career.”