Sandia LabNews

Betty Carrell pioneered path as a female engineer

Now retiring, first woman engineer hired at California site reflects on her career

Betty Carrell of Enduring Bombs and Missile Systems 2263 didn’t want any career other than engineering, even though it meant being the only one of her gender pursuing that field, both in college and when she began work at Sandia’s California site in 1959.

"I knew I didn’t want to be a teacher, though that’s a fine profession," she said in a pre-retirement talk given for the Sandia Women’s Committee, "and I didn’t want to be a nurse, though that’s a fine profession, too. I loved math and science and I didn’t know what else to go into, and I also wanted to go into a field where I could make a little money. I was really kind of an oddity."

She credits her mother’s skills as much as her father’s for her enjoyment of math and science. Her father, like Betty, was a mechanical engineer. Her mother received a degree in home economics and "has the finest mathematical mind — you should play bridge with her."

Betty began her talk by thanking three of her extremely strict but encouraging female high school teachers. In college, instructors gave less personal attention. She mostly studied alone. Her living quarters didn’t have engineering "files" (back copies of old reports and tests) that the men’s quarters had. She had to go to a neighboring department building to find a women’s rest room.

Still, Betty said, "I loved my days at Oregon State — even though my studies seemed awfully tough."

Support from some others

"As I made it through one year at a time, more and more people began to pull for me." Among her supporters were her parents, who almost wholly financed her education, allowing her to hold only summer jobs; her sorority sisters; and some of the older, married Korean war veteran classmates who were less threatened by her presence than the younger men.

Betty was one of five graduates from her campus recruited to work at Sandia — along with Don Bohrer (2203), Mel Brown (2262), Hal Norris (2211), and George Dunbar. Her first assignment was to design vibration test fixtures, her supervisor Joe Sladky told her, because she "hadn’t forgotten how to use a slide rule like us older guys." Says Betty, "It was a wonderful mathematical instrument." She sat with the other engineers in a large room with desks clustered in pairs. Technologists, mostly older men who had learned their jobs through experience, were especially helpful in her learning the ropes and answering her questions.

She met her husband Jim at Sandia and married in 1962. Two years later, she left her job, according to the policy of the time, two months before she was due to deliver her first child.

Betty didn’t give a second thought to staying home with her children, as was expected then if families could at all afford it. She doesn’t regret it, in part because her daughter and son both "turned out great" and she believes the time together was a major factor.

However, she said it was a "revelation" how much busier she was as a housewife. Creative aspects, like gardening and designing furniture, were enjoyable, but she hated the washing, ironing, cleaning, and having to come up with three square meals a day.

Volunteering at the schools and on district and city committees while her husband traveled for work led to serving nine years on the school board, which she loved.

As the children left the nest, however, Betty decided she’d like to use her engineering degree again. She took computer classes at junior college and worked in a machine shop, then applied to large local employers. She didn’t receive much interest — making her wonder if her gender and age were working against her. Sandia had a hiring freeze, but she kept applying and was rehired in 1984.

"I thank Sandia management heartily to this day for having the guts to take me back," she said. "My second engineering career was by far more productive. I was more mature, not burned out, and ready to go."

Betty worked in solar thermal technology at Solar One in Barstow, followed by "exhausting but fascinating" arctic testing, then served two years in Germantown, Md., on an environmental management assignment with DOE. As she approached retirement, she used her organizational skills to sort through B83 paperwork, sending 60 cartons of files into archives.

‘Darn glass ceiling is there’

When she first left Sandia in 1964, she was still the California site’s only female member of the technical staff — a category reserved at that time for engineers. When she returned, she said, she was delighted at the progress women had made, adding, "I still believe deep down that the women had to work harder to get here."

Her break in service to care for her children probably doused any chances of becoming a manager, she added, "But seeing how hard managers work, that may not have been such a bad compromise. And I still believe that darn glass ceiling is there."

Positive changes include being able to wear lower heels, pant suits, and professional-looking slacks; as a student, she had been the only young woman allowed to wear jeans on campus and only when she attended forging and welding or machine shop classes.

Her daughter Nancy, 34, is now a mechanical engineer, as is her 33-year-old son David. Betty believes in encouraging children of both genders to learn nontraditional skills, especially since daughters may have to support themselves at some point in their lives.

For younger women, she advises, "Know you can do anything you set your mind to — don’t ever think you can’t do something because you’re a woman — if a job seems insurmountable, tackle it a little bit at a time. One day you will reach your goal."