Dr. Valle, an academic professional in the G.W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering, received her Master’s and Ph.D. degrees from Georgia Tech in mechanical engineering. She also holds a Master’s degree in aerospace engineering from France’s Grande Ecole (EPF), the first engineering school in France to admit only women. Dr. Valle has taught at Georgia Tech since 2004 both in civil and environmental engineering and mechanical engineering. She has also been on the faculty of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and the University of Maine.

How did you end up on the path to an engineering career?

My story is a little unusual in that I grew up in France and came to Georgia Tech for graduate school. Both my parents were engineers — my dad was a mechanical engineer and my mom was a civil engineer — and it was very much a foregone conclusion that I would be an engineer. Culturally in France, it’s very different than here. If you’re a middle-class kid and you’re reasonably good at math and science, it’s either engineering or medicine because the country has always had fairly high unemployment compared to the US. There’s no “follow your passion.” Once I got launched onto that path, I found that I enjoyed it. I finished high school in New York because of my dad’s job and ended up in graduate school at Georgia Tech.

In France, was gender a big influence as far as career path?

Yes. If you look at engineering schools in France, the gender makeup is actually even worse than in the US. It would be nice if the people designing products actually reflect the society that the products are going to serve. A few years ago, there were discussions about how French schools should look at diversity and be more inclusive of people from working class backgrounds and the head of the most prominent engineering school said, “We have one entrance exam every year. You either make it or you don’t. I don't care if you’re white, black, blue, green, or purple.”

Do you have the sense that there are many kids — both male and female — who don’t really know what engineering is or what careers are available in engineering?

Yes, absolutely. Take the average American child in the K-12 system and they probably won’t know what an engineer does. This is another interesting cultural difference. I read a statistic that said about 4% of the working-age population in the US are engineers, which is obviously a very low number. So, if you’re not exposed to engineers growing up, it’s hard to understand what that is. When we talk to kids in the K-12 system, almost all our programs are geared towards girls but we do have one program where we go to visit schools to talk to all of the kids. We basically try to demystify engineering and talk about what engineers do. It’s a field that touches almost everything. It’s so vast that it’s hard sometimes for children to grasp. I very much feel like if you don’t know what an engineer does, then you definitely cannot envision yourself as one, assuming that you have the interest and the ability.

Georgia Tech’s College of Engineering graduates more women than any other college or university in the US. What are you doing there that other universities should be doing?

I would say it’s a number of factors. We’re a very good school academically. Many of our students come here knowing they want to study math and science or engineering but they’re not exactly sure what field. Women don’t feel isolated here — they know they won’t have trouble finding other women like them pursuing similar degrees. Most of the large engineering programs in state schools will have a women in engineering program.

What do you think we can be doing as a society for our kids to help the education system encourage young women to pursue the sciences?

It’s a huge problem. France has had a long tradition of engineering prowess but it tends to focus on the military or nuclear engineering. I very distinctly remember growing up that all of my friends in school knew what an engineer did. I found it very shocking when I came to the US that many of my high school peers had no idea. That’s a huge hurdle because again, if you don’t understand what engineering is, you can’t imagine yourself possibly having a fulfilling career doing that.

I think engineering still suffers from this image of just not being an exciting career. I read that when the TV series “CSI” was created, criminal justice programs in the US were overwhelmingly male and once “CSI” became popular, the gender makeup in criminal justice programs changed completely. Let’s face it, we’re a society in which kids are on social media pretty much all the time. I think we have to reach kids where they’re getting information from. It’s not where you and I got information from when we were kids. We went to the library and we didn’t have the Internet.

One of the biggest hurdles to getting women to consider engineering when they’re in middle and high school is that they think they need to be absolute rock stars in math and science to be successful engineers. I really want to demystify this. Obviously, if you get Cs and Ds in math and science in high school, that doesn’t bode too well but as long as you have As and Bs, there will be an engineering program in which you’ll feel comfortable and happy.

You have many successful programs for young girls. Are you seeing that some of the girls who attend these events end up enrolling at Georgia Tech?

Yes, we do but it’s anecdotal. We can’t really do a controlled study because you can’t track the girls who participated in outreach programs once they’re out of those programs. But we do have students who keep in touch. Actually, there is a student who is entering her third year here as an environmental engineer. I’ve known her since she was 12 years old when she first came to our tech camp — our summer camp for middle school girls. I just remember how shy she was and how she really blossomed here.

I’ll be very honest, if we have girls in our camps who end up at other universities, I’m just happy they’re pursuing engineering. For me, it’s a win. As long as they end up with a solid engineering degree and they’re happy, it’s all good.

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This article first appeared in the March, 2020 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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