Get to know Martha VanGeem
Alumna Martha VanGeem (BS 76) answers a few questions:
What are some of your earliest memories of your time at University of Illinois?
In January 1974, the second semester of my sophomore year, I transferred to Civil Engineering at the University of Illinois from Civil Engineering at the University of Michigan. The transfer was seamless. In those days, the College of Engineering at University of Illinois had openings. The University of Michigan was very radical and the University of Illinois UC was quite conservative. Although this was a change, I felt safer at University of Illinois, which was welcome.
I was a little confused the first week or so because in my civil engineering classes, the professors were teaching in kips (kilopounds) and at University of Michigan everything was taught in SI units.
I had several classes in Engineering Hall and found many men’s restrooms (at least one near the center of every floor) but couldn’t find any women’s restroom on any floor. After a few weeks of this, I finally found a woman to ask (which was a challenge in itself) and she directed me to one hidden away on the 4th floor.
I was the first woman most of my professors had ever had. The first day often started with them looking at me and saying, “This is CE 2XX, is everyone in the right place?” I really wanted to be an engineer, though, so none of this was an issue. I just wanted to blend in, which I never did. But the staff was exceedingly kind and helpful as I went through the usual college machinations.
What was your first job after you graduated?
My first job right after I graduated was as a structural engineer at Sargent & Lundy Engineers in Chicago. There was a big group of us new engineers who all started the same day – June 1, 1976. I actually had a very difficult time getting a job. I graduated with high honors in 4 years, including my time at the University of Michigan. However, it was a recession, and I got married between my junior and senior years. I wore a wedding ring and the interviewers openly said that they saw my ring and “knew I would have children and quit.” I was fortunate to get a job. My five years at Sargent & Lundy provided me a diverse technical background in structural design.
I had my first child in July 1980 while working at Sargent & Lundy. They were quite sure I wasn’t going to come back, but I came back eight weeks after my daughter was born. At that time, the maternity policy was that you could quit any time after you started to “show” (when you looked pregnant). There was no paid maternity leave, and no job guarantee.
In 1981, I left Sargent & Lundy to finish my MBA at the University of Chicago, which I had started in night school. Once again, 1981 was a recession and I had a hard time finding a job. Around the same time I received my professional engineering license (I worked the requisite 4 years as an engineer before I had my first child.)
What are you up to these days?
In April 1982 I started a 30-year career at Construction Technology Laboratories (CTL) in Skokie, Illinois. I was the first woman they had ever hired. I recall them being quite impressed with my University of Illinois transcript! I worked as an engineer in energy efficiency and thermal properties of concrete, especially thermal mass of concrete and mass concrete. In the 1990’s, having a solid background in energy efficiency and civil engineering materials, I became an expert in green buildings.
I had my second daughter in 1984, while at CTL. By then, I was able to take six weeks of paid maternity leave (I am quite jealous of women today who can extend that to three months, although I realize that the last portion is without pay). I had my son in 1987. By this time, I was working part time to balance work and family. I worked 3 to 4 days a week for about 11 years while my children were young. I was a single parent starting in 1992.
In 2012, I started my own company as a self-employed engineer specializing in energy use in buildings, energy codes, and green buildings - doing the same kind of work I had done at CTL. My company has been busy and profitable since the day it started 6 years ago, and I am blessed with five grandchildren ranging in ages from one month to nine years who fill me with joy! My daughters are teachers and my son is in the U.S. Air Force.
I enjoy working on several energy efficiency and green building committees including ASHRAE energy standards (SSPC 90.1 and SSPC 90.2), the ASHRAE/ICC/USGBC/IES High Performance Green Building Standard (SSPC 189.1), ASTM E60, ACI 122, SEI, ISO TC 207, and ISO TC 59 SC 17, among others. I enjoy working with engineers from other countries and occasionally traveling to meetings all over the world for the ISO committees. I have authored more than 100 articles and published reports. I am quite honored to have received the 2013 ASHRAE Standards Achievement Award and the 2018 ACI Concrete Sustainability award.
I didn’t set out to be a trailblazer for other women or for working mothers, but have always enjoyed engineering. This commitment to the technical aspect of engineering has helped me just forge ahead and persevere. The sphere of women in engineering became much easier after Anita Hill became a dinnertime conversation in 1991, although there were, and still are, challenges. Throughout my career, and even now, I welcome the opportunity to speak to women and girls about careers in engineering. It moves me emotionally to see the number of girls that turn out for STEM programs today – how far we have come!
Even today, in professional settings of mostly men, I am sometimes asked if I am really an engineer. When I say yes, they ask me where I went to school, and I proudly say I graduated from the University of Illinois in Civil Engineering. Then, they pause and look impressed! So with 42 years of experience in engineering, it is still the degree from University of Illinois that it takes cement me as an engineer in some people’s mind.
The backstory – why did I become an engineer?
I picked up a pamphlet in my high school guidance counselor’s office that said that if you like solving math word problems you should consider engineering. My guidance counselor and parents did not support this choice, but the rest is history.