Paving the Way

Paving the Way

Judith Nitsch '75
President, Nitsch Engineering
Boston, Mass
BSCES President, 1986-87

Judy Nitsch '75, Anni Autio '82, and Terese Kwiatkowski '83 share more than an alma mater. They hold the unique distinction of being the first three women presidents of the oldest engineering society in the United States- the Boston Society of Civil Engineers Section (BSCES) of the American Society of Civil Engineers. In fact, the current and fourth female president, Linda Hager, also has ties to WPI-she took graduate courses here.

Transformations asked these remarkable alumnae to share their thoughts on careers, professional organizations, and the importance of reaching out to other women in a mostly male profession.

Judy Nitsch feels fortunate to have started her career working for a WPI alumnus—she considers Jim Dunn ’61 a great engineering mentor, who helped her navigate the ins and outs of the profession. But despite the early success, she later learned that his firm almost didn’t hire her. 'They wondered if I could use a chain saw,' she says, 'and they wondered if I could handle working with the men on job sites. They didn’t realize that I have five younger brothers.'

Though she has, in fact, never operated a chain saw, Nitsch’s engineering career hasn’t suffered. In 1989, she founded Nitsch Engineering and built a team of 70 employees and nine shareholders. Today the firm provides civil engineering, land surveying, transportation engineering, and planning services, along with GIS (geographic information services) on projects in 15 states and six countries. She has advanced her firm to the forefront of sustainable design by creating and implementing green techniques on projects, which has led to working with world-renowned architects here and abroad. Noteworthy projects include the New England Aquarium, Brooklyn Bridge Park, the Connecticut Science Center, Boston’s Big Dig, Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn, Acadia National Park, and the award-winning MetroWest Water Supply Tunnel project.

'About one third of Nitsch Engineering’s engineers are women—compared with 10 percent nationally,' she says. 'We look for the best qualified candidates of both genders, but I think women seek us out because they see women at all levels of our firm, including three women engineers as shareholders. They realize they would have a good opportunity to get ahead without discrimination.'

In 1975, Nitsch’s name came up as the 'token woman' tapped to serve on the BSCES planning committee for the upcoming ASCE convention in Boston. When she received the list of committee assignments, she was surprised to learn that she had been appointed chair of a subcommittee.

'I went to the first planning meeting and found I was the only woman engineer. The other women there were engineers’ wives, who’d come to plan the ‘women’s program’ for the spouses. I was asked to take minutes. I did. At the second meeting, I was asked again to take minutes. I suggested rotating that responsibility. They did.'

After the convention, Nitsch was asked to join the BSCES Membership Committee, and she became its chair a year later. She was then asked to join the Board of Directors, and she later served as its secretary, followed by vice president, which led to the presidency.

'I gained a lot of credibility through BSCES,' she says. 'And once I started my own business [then called Judith Nitsch Engineering], I realized that name recognition was invaluable.'

The first alumna appointed to the WPI Board of Trustees, Nitsch currently serves on its Facilities Committee, which she considers a highlight of her professional career. In 2006 she was profiled in Changing Our World, an ASCE publication designed to inspire young women considering a future in engineering. Since graduating from WPI, she has actively helped other women through her participation in the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) and BSCES. As well, Nitsch Engineering continues to organize Boston’s Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day.

'I will speak with any woman engineer who calls asking for career advice, because as a young engineer I had no women to talk with professionally,' she says. 'For the first eight years of my career, I was the only woman engineer at my workplace.

'I tell young women engineers to remember: all of the rookies male or female—on the construction site get teased and embarrassed by the old-timers. And usually the newbie is asked to get coffee. That’s just a rite of passage,' she says. 'Being the only woman is sometimes lonely, and often enlightening, but it helps folks remember you.'

Anni Autio ’82
Senior Project Manager, CDM
Cambridge, Mass.
BSCES President, 1997-98

When Anni Autio graduated and entered the job market, entry-level civil engineering job opportunities were scarce. 'I received close to 100 rejection letters,' she recalls. 'This was not uncommon, particularly in the New England area.' What was unusual—perhaps unheard of among male engineering graduates—was her first job offer: a word processor, with the promise that she would advance to full-time engineering assignments soon. 'My foot is in the door, and I’m excited,' she wrote in an optimistic note to WPI’s class notes editor in March 1984. During a company hiring freeze, she was promoted to an entry-level engineering position, and for several years, she was the only woman in her group.

'Throughout my early career, I handled a number of gender bias issues, including lower pay, lack of advancement, and the denial of training requests to support project work. When I joined CDM in 1989, I found a workforce that had more women than I had ever worked with at previous firms.'

Autio’s involvement in ASCE began at WPI’s student chapter, where she served as secretary during her senior year. 'I had absolutely no idea at that time how my future would change, how my professional contact network would expand, or that I would continue to develop my leadership skills.'

After graduation, she remained in touch with Judy Nitsch, whom she had met through SWE. A few years later, a colleague invited her to become a member of a new BSCES committee on infrastructure. 'From there, my civil engineering career was launched,' she says.

Highlights of Autio’s service as BSCES president included overseeing the society’s 150th anniversary celebration and serving on the local organizing committee for the 1998 ASCE Annual Conference in Boston. 'Professional organizations provide opportunities for members to gain leadership skills,' she says. 'I view my ASCE membership as a commitment to my career. I’m proud to have been elected to serve two consecutive terms on the ASCE National Board.'

'The climate has changed significantly since I graduated,' she says. 'Women now have an equal chance to enter the workforce and are protected by equal opportunity and zero tolerance [anti-harassment] policies in the workplace. New technology—for instance, telecommuting—is also helping to balance the work-family equation, so that one’s professional life can be more flexible and less stressful than it was even 10 years ago.

'The future looks brighter and there are open opportunities for leadership and advancement. This is due in part to the perseverance of the pioneering women who helped open the door to a more diverse and friendly work environment,' Autio says.

'In 1982, when I attended my first SWE convention in Detroit, 600 women attended. In 1995, 1,800 women attended. I don’t know the exact numbers today, but I do know that it is less lonely to be a woman in the workforce now.'

Terese M. Kwiatkowski ’83
Senior Vice President and Principal
GZA GeoEnvironmental Inc.
Norwood, Mass.
BSCES President, 2006–07

It was Terese Kwiatkowski’s father, a hydropower engineer, who inspired her fascination with building underground. At WPI, she excelled in basketball, fieldhockey, and softball. She was the first basketball player ever to reach the 1,000-point mark in just three seasons. She graduated the all-time leading scorer, with 1,441 points,and was inducted into WPI’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 1989.

At GZA GeoEnvironmental, Kwiatkowski rose from field engineer to office project engineer to project manager and then to principal. Today she leads a team of 11 engineers, providing geotechnical design for foundations, tunnels, dams, utilities, marine facilities, transportation, and temporary underground structures. Her major projects include New York City’s Second Avenue Subway, Boston’s Big Dig Central Artery Tunnel, and the former Fleet Center (now TD Banknorth Garden).

'I have always had good support from my colleagues and my company,' she says. 'I generally feel that I was neither held back nor favored because I am a woman.' Only once, on a site visit to a tunnel construction project, did Kwiatkowski encounter resistance, from an elevator operator who was reluctant to take her underground. 'I was informed that tradition holds that it’s unlucky for women to go into tunnels,' she says.'My colleagues quickly intervened. The situation was over in about a second. Since that episode, I have visited many underground projects, none of which had any subsequent disastrous effects.'

Many of the GZA principals were active in BSCES, including founders Don Goldberg and Bill Zoino, and Kwiatkowski was encouraged to join that legacy.

'Being part of BSCES allows me to apply and develop leadership and management skills that I incorporate in my professional work,' she says. As BSCES president, Kwiatkowski worked closely with the Younger Members Group in an effort to improve communication between this group and the board. Other milestones include converting BSCES News from hard copy to electronic distribution, launching a cable TV show called Civil Engineering Today, which airs monthly on the Boston Neighborhood Network, and drafting a strategic action plan for 2009–2014.

Kwiatkowski, a member of WPI’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Advisory Board, continues to provide oversight to a number of BSCES committees, and serves on The Engineering Center board of directors and the board of trustees for The Engineering Center Education Trust.

She points to numbers showing that women are still very much a minority in civil engineering. 'However,' she insists, 'women have been part of the field for quite a while now, and my perception is that if you understand the work and can communicate clearly, there should be no gender issue.

'It’s more of a competence issue, which applies to both women and men,' she says. 'I’m sure it was easier for me to overcome gender issues because of the women who preceded me, and that it’s easier for those who’ve joined the profession after me.'

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Last modified: March 27, 2009 14:57:45