Engineers Week ambassador and NASA datanaut Fionnghuala O’Reilly talks navigating the worlds of engineering, modelling and pageantry as a woman of colour.
Fionnghuala O’Reilly was 15 years old when she first learned what it meant to be an engineer. It happened when she began attending a maths and science academy in the US every summer, which catered to students with diverse backgrounds that didn’t have access to role models.
“I knew that I had an interest in maths and science, but I didn’t really know what it meant to be an engineer,” she says. “Like what does the day-to-day look like? What does the career path look like? In my mind, I think my understanding was that engineers make things. I had no idea of the process behind that until the summer programme.”
This experience cemented the importance of STEM outreach and inclusion initiatives in O’Reilly’s mind, which is one of the reasons she became an ambassador for Engineers Ireland’s STEPS Engineers Week and a NASA datanaut. “There were no people in my family that were engineers. I don’t think I’d met a woman or a black person that was an engineer until this programme. So it really was the situation where if you don’t see it, then you don’t think that you could be it.”
Overcoming the engineering gender gap
As a woman in engineering, O’Reilly is well acquainted with the gender gap that exists in the field. And while she agrees that the leaky talent pipeline is a major issue, she emphasises that it’s by no means the only one.
“The issue is that, of college students that study engineering, quite a few women end up switching out of the programme. Or after they graduate, they don’t go and work in engineering fields. They switch to a different industry. And then there’s a large number of women that over time drop out of the pipeline for a wide variety of reasons, including family, feeling like there’s not enough support, feeling that career advancement is hard.”
This is particularly true of engineering, she adds, because continuous learning is critical. “You have to do a lot of upkeep when it comes to your skills and your talents. And I think that if we had more support for women who have all sorts of backgrounds and lifestyles, then I think maybe we could patch up some of the holes in this pipeline. Because women are dropping out at every single level leading up into these upper echelons of the highest engineering careers.”
Addressing this will require businesses to become better allies for women, according to O’Reilly. “A top-down approach is extremely useful because it really changes company culture and it shows that you’re valued, you’re cared about.
“I think we do have better numbers of women in this industry than we’ve ever had. And it’s important, yes, to get more women into the pipeline. But we also need to find ways to offer support for the communities of women that already exist.”
‘Lean in even harder and go for those leadership roles’
Something women still face in the workplace, and an experience that O’Reilly herself has had multiple times, is being undervalued. She recalls taking part in projects during her undergraduate degree in systems engineering at George Washington University and throughout her career, where she was told that she should make the presentation slides and take on the secretarial duties, while her engineering qualifications went ignored.
She says that learning to use her voice was a crucial step in overcoming this. “The way that I got through that was by really going after those leadership roles. If I wasn’t going to be given the microphone, I was going to go in and take it.
“Do not be afraid to speak up and to go after those leadership roles. If you are not given the opportunity, go and find the opportunity.”
There have also been times where being taken less seriously than others in the room have made her doubt herself. “It only takes so many times for someone to repeat something that you said. And it sounds like a great idea, but when you said it, it was a terrible idea.
“It only takes so many times of that happening for you to realise that maybe it’s not necessarily your intelligence and your work. You’re very qualified, but sometimes people are not as receptive because of some subconscious bias.
“So I would say absolutely don’t give up. Sometimes it’s hard if you feel like you’re being overlooked and undervalued, but I would say lean in even harder and go for those leadership roles where you are the voice that is leading others, and where you’re creating space and using your own experiences to drive innovation.”
Bringing your whole self to engineering
O’Reilly is also an advocate for bringing your whole self to your STEM career, though it took some time for her to feel comfortable doing so. She has been modelling since she was 19 and for a long time, worked to keep her interests in engineering, fashion and pageantry separate.
“I kept the fashion and the modelling world on one side and then the studying systems engineering and wanting to be an engineer on the other side. I definitely felt conflicted, and I was like, how do I move these things forward? How long will I be able to do both things at the same time?
“But I eventually started sharing my journey as an engineer and my journey into NASA. And I think people loved the duality of having these varied interests. It encouraged me to share more of myself in an authentic way. And I actually think that I felt more whole because I could do that, as opposed to trying to toe the line and not be characterised by stereotypes that people have of models and then also that people have of women that work in science and technology.”
‘You shouldn’t have to separate your interests just so that they’re more swallowable for others’
– FIONNGHUALA O’REILLY
In fact, O’Reilly feels that pageantry in particular has been a “great unifier” for her across STEM and modelling. “With pageantry, you have a platform and you’re able to do a lot of work within your community. And especially because of my experiences as a woman and a woman of colour, I was passionate about encouraging others.
“Very early on, I knew that I was one of the few women of colour in the places and spaces where I was learning and where I was studying. And so I was passionate about creating more spaces for people like me because I felt the unfortunate feelings of feeling like the odd person out.
“So pageantry was a great way to do that because I got to go back into my community to talk about all of the work that I was doing in STEM. And then also I could go in and teach other young girls about STEM.
“But at the same time, I’m a multidimensional woman, just like anybody else. And I have these other interests; I love beauty and fashion. It sounds so simple, but for so many we think that we can’t have these varied interests because society has told us you can’t go far in these two lanes at the same time. And there are these stereotypes that really hold us back.
“But you shouldn’t have to separate your interests just so that they’re more swallowable for others. And I think that it’s more important to be authentically who you are and show that you can be who you are and you can still work in this industry and make a difference.”
O’Reilly is a correspondent on Mission Unstoppable, a new CBS show that premiered in Ireland recently. You can watch the first five episodes through the Engineers Ireland website here.
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