Lam: There’s a lot of discussion about how women aren’t encouraged to go into STEM-related fields. Was that the case in your career path?
Velez-Vega: My mom is a teacher, and my dad is a sales representative. So there were no engineers in my family. When I said I wanted to be an engineer, they were extremely proud and excited, but there were no mentors in my family; I had to do it on my own. I just decided I wanted to do that and I didn't give up. Now, there are younger family members that want to be engineers because they’ve seen me.
I have had amazing mentors throughout the way, very successful women have been coaching me since I started working. Female representation in STEM is getting better. In the 1950s when the Society of Women Engineers was founded, they had a lot of work to do. Now, that work is a little bit easier because these women paved that path for us. People still look at you, like, “Are you sure this is what you want to do?” But strong female engineers are not rare anymore; there are a lot more of us out there. Not enough, but there is a good representation.
Lam: Is being a female engineer an important part of your identity?
Velez-Vega: It is. I'm very proud of it. It's funny, this week I went to pick up a permit for a project. I'm the lead engineer, and the lady in the permitting office looked at me and said, "Do you have authorization from the engineer to come and pick this up?" I told her, "Yes, Engineer Velez-Vega, that is me." She was so surprised and her face was like, "You're the engineer, oh my goodness."
Because of what I look like, it's even harder to break stereotypes when I go into a new project, or when I’m meeting a new client. It's motivating, but it is also very exhausting because you've got to prove yourself over and over again until people get it and say, “okay, she can do this.” I can always feel that little bit of hesitation at the beginning. We have to work harder at getting respected by our colleagues and our clients.
Lam: Do you have hope that this dynamic will improve as your career, and perhaps society, progresses?
Velez-Vega: I hope that it does. Diversity in the workplace is a lot better now. It's never going to be perfect, but it will get better. I'm Hispanic and I'm from Puerto Rico, so sometimes that’s even more rare. It's almost like they just can't believe it, and there's a lot of us out here. When I graduated in civil engineering in Puerto Rico, it was not unusual to see a class that was 50 percent women and 50 percent men. In the U.S., it's very rare, but in Puerto Rico, it happens organically.
Lam: What's a typical day at work like for you?
Velez-Vega: It depends on which project I'm working on. This week, I get into the office and we pick up all the equipment. We're doing visual-condition assessments on all the pavements of the airport, so those inspections take up my whole day.