Electrical Engineer Ariana Hargrave Shares Expertise at Del Mar College

Michael Bratten
Innovation Showcase

Ask just about anyone associated with the engineering profession and they'll tell you it's traditionally been a man's field. But times are changing, albeit slowly. Women are increasingly finding a place among those who speak the math- and science-heavy language that may as well be Greek to some of us.

Case in point: Ariana Hargrave, P.E., a 28-year-old electrical engineer who taught a two-day course July 15-16 titled Transformer Protection Relay at Del Mar College's Center for Economic Development. "I've always liked power," she said. "It's important to be able to turn the lights on but keeping them on is really complicated. It's very interesting to see how it happens behind the scenes."

Hargrave, who works for Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories (SEL), specializes in electrical power and related equipment such as relays and transformers. From her office outside of San Antonio, she travels the country teaching electrical engineers, technicians, and other tradespeople about new products and developments in the industry.

She came with a colleague to Del Mar College to teach about SEL's latest relay, a box-like device that protects electrical transformers from harmful conditions. Protection is a key word in Hargrave's field.

A Man's World

At one time, Hargrave was her company's only female protection application engineer in the United States, she said. Five years later, she thinks there is one more. But that's not because female engineers are frowned upon. "Women just don't go into protection or engineering in general," she said. 'It probably seems like it's a man's world, like you have to go to these big plants and work with big equipment. There's no reason women can't do this."

Hargrave credits her father with instilling in her a sense of self-reliance and fearlessness. He taught her how to solder by age seven, how to change the oil in her car, and even how to build her own personal computers. "On the Fourth of July, I disassembled a rear differential on a Ford F-150," she said with a smile.

There are rarely women in the classes Hargrave teaches, she said. Her Del Mar class was comprised of 13 men and one woman. When she walks into a room and the participants see a young woman instructor, she usually feels she has to prove herself.

"If a guy was teaching the class, everybody would assume he knows what he's talking about," she said. "One time a man from another culture came up to me and said, 'This protection stuff is very hard for me, so I can just imagine how hard it is for you.' That's always going to stick with me. Maybe it's a good thing because it keeps me on my toes."

Nontraditional Role

Nevertheless, the majority of people she meets are happy to see a woman in her role, Hargrave added."I was pleasantly surprised that she's the instructor," said Nina Sadighi, an electrical engineer from Houston and the sole woman who attended the class at Del Mar. "I've been to construction sites, and I know females have to establish respect in this industry."

Most engineering disciplines were dominated by men until about 20 years ago, said John Novak, a sales representative with KD Johnson Inc., a company that represents electrical manufacturers. He coordinates courses that Hargrave teaches in South Texas and has known her almost five years. "There was a concerted effort beginning in the 1980s to get more women in the field," Novak said. "There are more ladies doing it now, but it's still pretty uncommon to see them teaching electrical engineering."

Drew Smith, a switch gear technician from Tampa, said Hargrave is the first female teacher he's had since high school. "When you get an instructor who can explain how to do something instead of just the concept, it's easier to understand. This is one of the better classes I've been to."

Rising Numbers

The number of women receiving engineering bachelor's degrees has risen from 17.8 percent in 2009 to 19.1 percent in 2013, according to the American Society for Engineering Education. Females accounted for 23.9 percent of engineering master's degrees in 2013, an all-time high but just a two-percentage-point increase over 2004. Women earned 22.4 percent of engineering doctoral degrees in 2013, a growth of almost 5 percent since 2004. 

Hargrave, a native of San Antonio, holds a bachelor's degree from St. Mary's University and a master's from Texas A&M University, both in electrical engineering.

The future is promising for young electrical engineers, particularly females, said Richard Pittman, P.E., whose firm, Corpus Christi-based Bath Engineering, co-sponsored Hargrave's course with KD Johnson Inc. "Our country is dependent on electrical power. Anyone who can understand power systems and the modern equipment we have today is going to be in high demand. Power companies, refineries, consulting firms, anybody involved with power flow is going to want them."

It's difficult to get kids in general interested in math and science," Pittman added. He believes an interest must be developed and stoked at an early age.

The media is partly responsible for the scarcity of women in the engineering field, Hargrave said. "I think for girls the media focuses on superficial things. Women are dissuaded at a young age from going into math and science. I would tell them, 'It doesn't matter what is popular. You should do what you like.' For me, it's protection and power."

Michael Bratten is a Communications Specialist at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Opinions expressed in Innovation Showcase are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.