Melissa Matassa-Stone estimates that when she was an undergraduate at Georgia Tech in the engineering school, there were four men enrolled for every woman.
Now that she’s a senior project engineer at WGM Group in Missoula, she’s one of three female engineers of about 20 in the company. Her experience is representative of the United States as a whole. According to the National Science Foundation, women earned only about 19 percent of all bachelor's degrees in engineering in 2010.
“I’ve found that a lot of people, maybe women in particular, are interested in careers where they feel like they’re doing good,” Matassa-Stone said when asked her opinion on why there’s such a relatively low number of women who pursue careers in engineering. “I’m not sure the story is there of how much good you can do in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers.”
As the head of the environmental engineering division at WGM Group, a local planning and engineering firm, Matassa-Stone has worked on major road projects, streambank stabilization issues and other work contracted by the Montana Department of Transportation.
In layman’s terms, Matassa-Stone has to figure out how to mitigate impacts to the environment when new roads, bridges and trails come in. That’s only part of her job as a a civil engineer.
“For anyone considering this type of career, the thing that’s becoming more and more important besides the technical side is being able to communicate,” she said. “Listening and understanding and being able to work with people across the spectrum, from technical people to people who may not know the details of the how and why, is very important.”
Now, Matassa-Stone considers it her duty to make sure young girls know that engineering is not just a man’s game.
“Part of it is maybe just not necessarily recognizing the path, and also it’s hard to aspire to what you don’t see,” she said. “You don’t see a lot of women in engineering. I have a 5-year-old daughter and a 1-year-old son, and with my daughter especially I feel like I have an obligation to be a visible STEM professional. Because I want her and her friends to see that role model out there and feel like there’s that support to do it.”
Matassa-Stone grew up in central Florida and worked as an AmeriCorps volunteer in Washington State before moving to Missoula with her husband 12 years ago. She said her path to becoming an engineer started early on.
“The story is my dad, who is not an engineer, brainwashed me,” she said, laughing. “He would always say, ‘Well, Melissa, you’re going to be an engineer,’ and my mom would always say, ‘Pete, knock it off.’ But I always figured I’d be an engineer.
"I didn’t really know what they do, so I went to the library and checked out a book that talked about the different engineering types. And I liked the one where I get to work outside the most, in the dirt, air and water.”
Matassa-Stone said she hasn’t encountered much resistance because she’s a woman in her field.
“I’ve been pretty fortunate,” she said. “But it may be just through thickness. I am a competitive person. I always want to try pretty hard and win, regardless.”
Matassa-Stone was the chair of the 2014 Report Card for Montana’s Infrastructure, which was compiled by a team of more than 30 civil engineers.
Miranda Ming, one of Matassa-Stone’s coworkers, said she’s an outstanding leader at the company.
“She is passionate about making Missoula a better place and she does this through her involvement on the board of the United Way (of Missoula County) and supports infrastructure and development in the state while balancing the environmental impacts of these projects,” Ming said in an email. “Melissa has a vision for the future of Missoula.”
The company paid for Matassa-Stone to earn a graduate degree from Montana Tech in Butte as well. In her spare time, she teaches fitness classes at the YMCA and hikes, bikes and skis when she’s not relaxing with her family.
Matassa-Stone said that engineers are in high demand, especially in Missoula, and she would encourage any young woman to consider engineering as a career.
“If you’re a woman considering a STEM career, reach out to people who are doing what you’re interested in doing, whether they are male or female, and learn more about it to see if it’s a fit you’re interested in,” she said. “There’s signs pointing to a labor shortage, so civil engineering is a great field to be in. You can live anywhere. It’s like nursing. There’s always a need for civil engineers.”