21 June 2017
Diana Grauer oversees Mechanical Enabling Technology at a leading oil-field services company. With over 10 years’ mechanical engineering experience, she shares some impressive advice about networking and what we need to do to get more women into Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) careers.
When she’s not trailblazing the engineering world, Diana enjoys spending time with her small children, a three-year-old and one year old twins, long walks with her wolfhound, home improvement projects, and going to the beach and zoo. Diana also dedicates time speaking to high school and college students about STEM careers, sharing her amazing work that she is so passionate about!
Tell me about your career trajectory thus far.
I went to Kansas State University; I have a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering and a PhD in Mechanical Engineering. While I was an undergraduate, I had an internship every summer for pipeline companies, and in industrial construction. These were pretty tough jobs as a young woman, but they gave me incredible experience. When I finished my degree, I took a job with a pipeline company here in Houston called El Paso Corporation which is now part of Kinder Morgan. I got a lot of field experience there but decided I wanted to teach at college level. I knew I had to go back to school so I started with a Master’s degree, and then realised that I didn’t need one to finish my PhD. So, I went straight for the PhD. I basically found a way to cut out two years of education that I would have normally had to complete had I obtained a Master’s first.
After finishing my PhD, I realised that I didn’t know enough to teach students. I wanted them to learn about engineering in a real-world context, so I accepted a position at a Department of Energy national laboratory. I worked as a Research Engineer and a Program Manager. My team was working on hybrid energy systems for the Department of Defence, both installations and forward operations.
One day I got a phone call from a former advisor from my PhD, a director of an engineering team here in Houston who needed an expert in large industrial turbocharged engines. Also, he was looking for someone to move into an engineering management job. I said yes, and that's how my husband and I ended up in Houston. After working for a couple of years as a product development engineering manager, there was an opportunity to manage research and development at a joint venture. I took that role, so I managed R&D for a couple of years. Then, my company was taken over by a larger organisation during the last couple years’ oilfield shakeup. After the acquisition, I landed as a technology manager and I’m now responsible for mechanical enabling technology.
How do you balance your career and family life?
I don’t! There is no balance. It’s about day-to-day evaluation and prioritisation. It’s looking at what’s important right now, and what things can wait until tomorrow. I would love to say that I always put my family first, but in truth, there are times when things have to get done at work and the job has to come first. Some days I must leave really early in the morning because I have a conference call with a team that’s across the Atlantic. Other times I have to stay really, really, late to get my work done. Luckily, I have a loving husband who is also in the oil industry and very much understands. He’s very supportive.
You're a much sought after public speaker. How did that come about?
I believe that education is power. It’s not necessarily that knowledge or experience aren’t important, but I believe that education is the catalyst for having personal ownership and self-respect. It helps you to believe in what you do, especially when you’re younger, because you haven’t been around long enough to develop a lot of wisdom. The way you can help empower young individuals is to educate them. I spend a lot of time reaching out to student groups at high schools and colleges, and I try to talk to them about the industry. I see a lot of recruiters who go to schools and just talk about their company, and they don’t explain how to be successful across the industry. That’s one thing I’ve taken on as my focus. I talk to them about what’s going on in the industry, and the skills you need to thrive.
Are you involved in networking groups? Any tips on how to build your network?
I am, though mostly through professional societies. I go to conferences when I can, for example I spent all four days at the Offshore Technology Conference this year (1-4 May 2017, Houston), and a lot of that was networking in our booth. I enjoy meeting new people.
I think that networking is important, but a network is just about having the courage to introduce yourself. It’s important to take the next few steps:
- To maintain those contacts and continuously reengage with them
- And much more important, act like a link-pin. A link-pin is someone who brings disparate networks together. This was a social theory developed in the late Sixties. If you can successfully make introductions of people in separate organisations and industries and create sustained connections across networks, you can start to affect change.
What challenges, if any, do you face working in a very male-dominated industry?
I think I face the same challenges as any woman in any industry – it’s important to keep focused on your priorities. I think every woman walks a fine line between being recognised for being good at her job, and being just aggressive enough to demand respect from her peers. It’s very easy for women to become ‘fixers’ – everyone knows that woman who knows everyone and can get anything done. People come to rely on her and sometimes that can keep her from the real job and from achieving whatever her career goals are. My boss calls these extra activities ‘monkeys’ and he asks me weekly, if not daily, if I am ‘keeping the monkeys off my back’. It’s important for women to determine whether each individual activity is a ‘monkey’ or something that she actually needs to do for her job, her career, and her personal success.
Personally, I think that communication is the most important skill for working successfully in this industry. And that communication must be bi-directional. Everyone is very busy and their work is very important to the success of the organisation; therefore, it's important to be cognizant of their time and communication style so that you can be as effective as possible. Research your audience in advance and adjust your style appropriately. Also, work very hard to listen, understand, and then ensure that they understand. I try to never leave a meeting without confirming that everyone is on the same page in terms of what needs to be done.
What can society do to get more women pursuing STEM careers?
Start earlier. Studies show that you must engage elementary aged girls before they are in 7th grade, or they won’t consider STEM careers. A lot of the programs I see are focused at women in high school or women in college. If they are in high school and they sign up for a robotics class, they’ve already decided they want to work in robotics! There’s a reason that we do the pre-SAT in 7-8th grade where we test students for their competencies and their interests. That’s the threshold. To push more women into STEM, we have to catch them earlier. 7th grade is maybe even too late. I’d like to see more programs focused on 4-7th graders.
There is a lot of elementary STEM development, but it seems to be focused on training elementary school teachers to teach the STEM curriculum. That is incredibly important, but it’s just a small part of the larger education ecosystem.
I encourage all women and men in STEM careers to look for opportunities to present their work to elementary schoolers. Take time off at lunch as elementary school class periods are only 20 minutes long. It’s not that big of a commitment. You’d be amazed at the response you get when you show students videos of subsea oil and gas infrastructure and the robots that operate and service them. I think everyone in STEM careers owe ourselves the incredibly fulfilling experience of inspiring a student!
What can managers, directors and even VP/C-level executives do to create a more inclusive working environment for all groups of people?
Make time for personal mentoring in your schedule. I try to do this, but that doesn’t mean I’m the most successful at it. The hardest thing to do is give your time, but it’s important to engage new and keep mid-career employees interested. One way to do that is to show interest in them. High-level executives don’t have a lot of free time, and I understand that finding time to talk to entry-level employees isn’t easy to do, but it should be a priority. My company has a wonderful women’s organisation focused on mentoring and it does great things for engaging our young women, but not every company has that or an online system where employees can blog and get feedback from their peers. To overcome that, leadership needs to take personal time to create those mentoring opportunities. You can’t just rely on the system that you do or do not have.
The second hardest thing is to find funding for professional development. Courses are not cheap, and a lot of times they are the casualty of training budget cuts (which is always first). They might keep the job-specific training, but the professional development training loses out.
In my industry, we’re in the middle of a downturn. It is hard to find money for anything. Professional development should be prioritised for women and men. Employers should look for ways to prioritise professional development for the good of their organisation. Create opportunities for employees to have training onsite or offsite in those soft skills. That will lead to employees who communicate well, have a chairmanship quality about them, who listen and engage their peers.
It’s a fantastic trickle-down effect if you give your employees the right soft skills.