In This Issue
  • Jill Tietjen
Winter Issue of The Bridge on Complex Unifiable Systems
December 15, 2020 Volume 50 Issue 4
The articles in this issue are a first step toward exploring the notion of unifiability, not merely as an engineering ethos but also as a broader cultural responsibility.

An Interview with . . . Jill Tietjen

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Author: Jill Tietjen

Tietjen 1.jpgRON LATANISION (RML): We’re delighted that you’re available to talk with us about your experience as both an electrical engineer and as a writer and speaker and mentor, encouraging young women in science and engineering—all these things are so important.

MS. TIETJEN: Thank you. It is very fun. I’m also former CEO of the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and I’ve written the award-winning and best-selling books Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America and Hollywood: Her Story, An Illustrated History of Women in the Movies.

I’ve spent more than 40 years encouraging young women to be engineers. I don’t think I could be where I am if I hadn’t been an engineer. In fact, when I was inducted into the Colorado Authors’ Hall of Fame I specifically asked and then answered the question, Why did I have to be an engineer first? And what did I learn from that process and what were my reasons?

So many things I had to learn! I had to be a member of the Society of Women Engineers because I had to see the idea for an outreach program for an essay contest about historic women engineers and scientists. I didn’t know any of them! When we started that outreach program, we had to do the research on those women. This was in 1987, when kids had to go to the library and use books. We had to determine what the available resources were and who the women were so that the kids could write essays on great women in engineering and science.

I had to be an engineer because engineers solve problems and I love to solve problems. I started doing jigsaw puzzles when I was 2 years old. I have very strong pattern recognition skills.

RML: That’s a very interesting perspective. I’m an engineer as well and I often get involved in trying to perform what are called root cause analyses: if there’s a failure, you try to understand why something happened. I always tell people this is like working a puzzle: There are a lot of different pieces, and you have to put them together in a way that makes a final product. That’s a root cause analysis. A puzzle is a very good analogue for the process we go through: We collect all the pieces, put them together, and see whether they make sense in terms of understanding why something happened.

MS. TIETJEN: There’s another piece, too, and that’s the word problems. In engineering school one of the things you have to discern is which pieces of information are relevant to the problem you’re solving.

RML: Would it have made a difference if you were an electrical engineer or if you were a civil engineer?

MS. TIETJEN: I don’t think so.

CAMERON FLETCHER (CHF): Why did you choose electrical as opposed to one of the other fields?

MS. TIETJEN: Well, my degree is actually in applied mathematics. I grew up in Virginia and wanted to go to the University of Virginia. I am very fortunate that the university admitted women as undergraduates for the first time in the fall of 1970. I entered in the fall of 1972 as a mathematics major because no one, not even my PhD engineer father who worked at NASA Langley, told me that engineering was probably the right place for me and that I should apply to the engineering school. You’re supposed to start in the engineering school; you don’t generally transfer later. And my guidance counselor had told me not to even bother applying to the University of Virginia because I wouldn’t get accepted.

I applied early decision and was accepted as a mathematics major in the College of Arts and Sciences. Halfway through my first semester, I knew I was in the wrong place: I needed to be in engineering. I made all the arrangements to transfer and I was very excited. There was an applied math major available in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. I had to take a minor, that’s how the applied math program worked. I can’t stand chemistry. I did electrical engineering because it was cool.

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In engineering you have to discern which pieces of information are relevant to the problem you’re solving. 

My first job was with Duke Power Company in Charlotte, NC. I didn’t know until after I took the fundamentals of engineering exam and received the results that my degree was not ABET accredited. That was a very strong influence on me. But I am licensed: I’m a PE in Colorado, and I served for 10 years as an electrical engineering accreditor through IEEE.

RML: Duke Power is also where you began your public speaking career, isn’t it?

MS. TIETJEN: Yes, my boss recognized my abilities and I was trained as a member of the company’s speakers bureau.

CHF: That is so unusual—the fact that Duke hired you for your technical degree, because at that time women were most often hired as secretaries, which may have been a way to get a foot in the door but for many women, that was it, it became their career. So I’m impressed that you started your career in your technical field and were recognized for your abilities.

MS. TIETJEN: Duke was absolutely wonderful. Actually, they wanted my fiancé, my first husband. We weren’t getting married until we had jobs in the same place because we are both engineers and that’s how we thought. And there was a lot of competition. I had seven job offers at the time, and every single one was as an engineer.

CHF: That’s very impressive, Jill.

MS. TIETJEN: Thank you. I didn’t really know there was an alternative.

After Three Mile Island in 1979, Duke established a speaker’s bureau and my boss’s boss recommended that I be trained as a speaker. I went to one of the best training experiences I’ve had in my entire life and started my speaking career.

RML: It seems to me that engineers are typically reluctant to speak in public. They are very good at what they do, but not all that comfortable, not all that forthcoming when asked to speak in public. It’s just not typical. I’m wondering, how did the folks at Duke Power capture or gauge your capacity to become a company spokesman, given your technical skills? What was it about your interaction that led them to think that preparing you as a speaker would be in their interest?

MS. TIETJEN: Well, I was very involved. I’ve always been very involved, in high school, in college, in everything. At the University of Virginia, I was an officer of the Engineering School, which then made me a member of the honor committee. I played the violin for many years. Maybe that was it. I’ve been performing since I was 8.

RML: I understand you were testifying before federal and state regulatory commissions. Did you speak to lay audiences as well?

MS. TIETJEN: Oh, yes. When I was trained by Duke Power, it was to go talk to lay groups—the Garden Club, the Rotary Club, the Optimist Club, 39 and Holding…. I didn’t start testifying until 1987, when I was at Stone & Webster, and the best training that I got there for expert witness prep was in Maine in 1993.

After Three Mile Island, companies had to have what were then called crisis management drills (they have nicer names now). My role was as a technical briefer. The vice president of engineering would get up and give some technical explanation of what incident was being simulated in these drills, then it was my job to talk to the reporters and say, ‘When the vice president said this, this is what he was talking about and this is what he meant,’ so the reporters could write their articles “in English” for their readers.

RML: I’m very interested in things related to nuclear systems, so I’m curious: if you were speaking to a lay audience and someone said, ‘What are we going to do about nuclear waste?,’ how would you have answered that?

MS. TIETJEN: France knows how to deal with nuclear waste. Here in the United States we don’t have the political will to deal with it. Right now, the only thing we’re doing is trying to figure out how to bury it in the ground forever, which is what Yucca Mountain was supposed to be, and of course the Yucca Mountain proposal is dead because it got so politicized. You chemically convert it and put it into a glass form so that it is immobilized, or after you’ve recycled the parts that can be reused. But that got stopped way back when. We just don’t have the political will to deal with it.

Maybe some of it is the fact that the only country that has ever used the nuclear bomb happens to be us. It did stop the war, but it was catastrophic.

When you talk about nuclear, it’s very difficult to get the American public to understand the difference between a bomb and a nuclear power plant.

RML: Yes, political will and public will just don’t seem to come together on this. And I don’t think it’s sensible for us to be building nuclear electric generating capacity when we don’t have the means of handling the waste.

You have a great interest in educating young women and encouraging them in science and technology. Could you tell us about the motivation for that and how you came to interact on those topics?

MS. TIETJEN: Some of it I’ve mentioned. Nobody encouraged me, my guidance teacher discouraged me, and I graduated without an ABET-accredited degree. All three of those were significant motivators for me to say to myself, ‘There is a young woman out there and she has talents and abilities that need to be encouraged and it is incumbent on me to figure out a way for her to not have the experiences I’ve had and for her to be encouraged.’

RML: How do you encourage them?

MS. TIETJEN: Through the Society of Women Engineers and other ways as well. I found SWE in 1979 at a card table at a career fair in a gymnasium at North Carolina State University where Duke Power had sent me to do on-campus recruiting. There was a table for the Society of Women Engineers, and I walked up to them because I had never heard of them and I said, ‘What do you do?’ They said, ‘We encourage young women to think about pursuing engineering as a career and we provide professional development for women who are in the field.’ I signed up.

I told you I was always pretty active. I started the Charlotte-Metrolina section of SWE. Then I moved to Colorado. At the time, the SWE Magazine listed the presidents of the sections. A week after I got to Denver, I called the woman who was president, who is now a very dear friend of mine, Alexis Swoboda, and I said, ‘Alexis, I’m here, put me to work.’

Jill Tietjen accepting the National Medal of Technology from President George H.W. Bush for Admiral Grace M. Hopper, September 1991.

In 1987 I thought I had agreed to serve on SWE’s National Awards and Recognition Committee. Apparently, I had agreed without knowing it to chair the committee.

Then in 1988 they put me on the ballot for vice president. I did agree to that. I saw the slate and thought, ‘whew, good, there are six candidates and only three slots, I’ll never get elected.’ I got elected. And in 1991–92 I was national president.

After I moved to Denver in ’81, I started nominating women to be SWE fellows. Then my first big nomination for a national award was Admiral Grace Murray Hopper for the National Medal of Technology, which I received for her in September of ’91. She was the only woman there to get the National Medal of Technology. I just thought that was not right. Where were the women?

I started nominating women for all kinds of awards, and I also began to realize that women’s stories were not told, women were not written into history. When Charlotte Waisman and I met in 2003, we decided we were going to write the book that became Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America.

The problem was across all the fields, not just engineering and science. I learned that when I was director of the Women in Engineering Program at CU Boulder. I was assigned to the Status of Women Committee, and I just assumed that women were full professors in English and history and Spanish and all the liberal arts fields, but they weren’t. How could that be?

I realized that women had to be advocated for across all fields of endeavor. Writing the book with Charlotte helped me understand more about the women in US history.

I told my friend Barbara Bridges in 2016 that I was planning another book in the Her Story series and I was thinking it would be Her Story: Africa. She said ‘No, we need to do women in the movies.’ That resulted in Hollywood: Her Story (2019), my ninth book. My tenth book just came out in the Springer series on Women in Engineering and Science, and now I’m doing the Her Story: Africa series.

If women aren’t valued in society—and one of the ways that women are not valued is that they are not written in the history—one of the ways to fix that is by writing women into history and documenting what they’ve done.

For the first story in the Africa series, I was in Tanzania in 2017, interviewing women. The draft of the Tanzania volume was distributed there in 2018. We’re looking for a publisher.

The Zambia volume was distributed there as a draft in 2019 and it looks like we have a Kenyan publisher. I’m working very hard on identifying all the women for the Kenyan volume because they say they’ll publish that first and then help us find publishers in other African countries.

RML: I have a particular interest in all of this. I have four granddaughters, all early teenagers. If I were to recommend one of your books for them to read—and hopefully to put some perspective on how women become involved and change America and so on—which one should I start with?

Jill Tietjen with Yvonne Brill after the National Medal of Technology and Innovation award ceremony, October 21, 2011.

MS. TIETJEN: Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America is a beautiful book that demonstrates women’s capabilities across a very wide breadth of endeavor. There are more than 850 women from 1587 to 2011. And there’s an index in the back by profession—engineers, scientists, governors, singers, Nobel Laureates, politicians, doctors, attorneys, fashion designers, athletes…every kind of person.

CHF: You’ve made some headway among countries in Africa. Do you have your sights set on other continents and countries?

MS. TIETJEN: It’s very interesting that you would ask that. I have a coauthor to do a book on women in the food industry. We would do North America first, then—I don’t know in what order—Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America.

I’m also working on three other books. One is the history of women in magic, with an international focus—at least every country where we can find a woman magician. My coauthor is a magician here in Denver; we met when she performed at a SWE conference. We’ve identified almost 900 women all over the world.

As male-dominated and as sexist as any other field is, magic is worse. And one thing that’s interesting is what women magicians wear when they perform. If you’re wearing a strapless, sleeveless gown, where are you going to put the stuff?

And then another woman who is an attorney who writes children’s books has ideas about Her Story children’s books.

RML: I’m interested in the concept of writing on women’s issues of the kind you’re describing in a global sense. Do you think the problems that women have, for example, in North America are similar to those of women in Japan or China? I have a little experience in those two countries. There seems to be a tremendous cultural difference between the opportunities that women have in, for example, China and those they have in Japan. Do you sense that?

MS. TIETJEN: I don’t have enough knowledge to answer that question.

RML: You mentioned that you’ve taken the initiative to nominate women for awards. How do you go about identifying the people you nominate?

MS. TIETJEN: Well, when I started with Admiral Hopper and the National Medal of Technology, it was women I had identified through research for the SWE essay contest. Once I know about the women, sometimes I find awards. Sometimes it’s the other way around. I nominated Stephanie Kwolek to the Hall of Fame of Delaware Women. I’ve known about her for a long time. She invented Kevlar and I knew she was from Delaware, so I took it upon myself to nominate her.

I’ve nominated women to the National Inventors Hall of Fame for a long time and was on the selection committee.

And I nominated my friend Yvonne Brill for the Fritz Medal of the AAES. When she heard that the Fritz Medal was being awarded to Yvonne Brill she actually called me and said ‘Jill, is there another Yvonne Brill?’ I said, ‘Oh my goodness, Yvonne, that’s ridiculous, it’s you!’ Once she was selected for the Fritz Medal, I decided to nominate her for the National Inventors Hall of Fame. And, since she’s from New Jersey, for the New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame.

When she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, I thought, ‘oh my gosh, now I have to nominate her for the National Medal of Technology, since she’s gotten all these awards.’ So I nominated her for the National Medal. That was in 2010.

But she didn’t get it in 2010. I contacted the guy and he explained that she couldn’t be considered until 2011, that’s the way it works—when you submit in 2010, the first time the nomination can be considered is in 2011. In May of 2011 Yvonne’s daughter Naomi told me her mother had stage IV breast cancer that had metastasized to bone cancer. She said, ‘Jill, you have to do everything you can.’ I said, ‘Naomi, I’ve done everything I can.’

In June of 2011, Yvonne called me and said, ‘Jill, the White House contacted me and they want my Social Security number. Do you have any idea why?’ ‘Yes, Yvonne, I do have an idea why. Why don’t you verify that the person who contacted you is at the White House Office of Science and Technology?’ She did, and received the National Medal of Technology in October 2011. [She died in March 2013.]

And Yvonne was an amazing nominator herself. She nominated many, many women for AIAA Awards and for NAE membership and for all kinds of things. She was very active in SWE as well.

CHF: These are delightful testimonials of your impact. I’m also interested, what feedback do you hear from people about the impacts of your books?

MS. TIETJEN: The most significant feedback from the first one was, ‘This gives women credibility.’ ‘They weren’t written into the history before.’ ‘We didn’t know that they did this.’ ‘We didn’t learn about any of this in school.’ I didn’t learn it in school either. It’s because of the research I’ve done that I know it. There are role models and there are women who have pioneered and it’s important to learn about those stories.

The Hollywood book hasn’t yet had its full impact, but it will. For me the biggest lesson from that book is that women were involved in every facet of the movie industry in the silent film era. They were directors. They were producers. They were making films—Alice Guy-Blaché was making movies in 1896. They were writing films. They were acting in films. They were stunting in films. They were doing everything. That story is very important.

But when the movies started making money in the 1920s the women got pushed out. Women have been trying to produce films and can’t get the money. There have been exceptions, but you can count them on one hand. Women have known how to make movies from the beginning and they should be directing movies now and producing and writing and editing.

CHF: You’re really performing a public service in terms of opening people’s eyes and changing their perceptions about who is capable of what.

MS. TIETJEN: That’s part of my personal mission statement, to inspire and motivate an army to change the perception of women around the world.

RML: I’m so pleased to know that there is someone like you who takes such a determined and dedicated interest in making sure all this happens.

CHF: And you are clearly indefatigable.

RML: From my perspective this requires someone who is really determined and willing to take the initiative, it’s a matter of personal will, maybe more than political or public will. You have demonstrated a capacity here that I think is remarkable. You’re an engineer who cares about our society, our culture, and particularly the -women in our society. As I said, I have four grand-daughters and I’m concerned about them all the time because I just don’t see a very equitable world for them. What you’re doing is a step toward changing that reality and I applaud you for that. I’m delighted we had this opportunity to talk with you, Jill.

CHF: Yes, thank you. In this interview series we look for people who have a technical background in engineering but have made their mark in other ways on society and/or culture. You so clearly are doing that and we can all be grateful for your considerable efforts. Thank you.

MS. TIETJEN: That’s very nice. I really appreciate it.

RML: It’s been a very engaging hour, Jill. I thank you again on behalf of the NAE—and my granddaughters.

MS. TIETJEN: Well, I want a good world for them and I want a world in which women are valued and appreciated. I’m working in every way that I know to help make that happen.

CHF: We can tell you are. Thank you so much.

RML: Yes, thank you. Take care. Stay safe and stay well.

MS. TIETJEN: You’re welcome. You too. Bye.

About the Author:Jill Tietjen is an electrical engineer, women’s advocate, and author.