Dee Hays quickly realized there was no corporate-ladder path for a woman to become CEO of an engineering firm. So, she established her own, Excellence Engineering, in 2001.
“My company was born off my kitchen table and has grown organically,” she says.
In the 1980s, Hays began her career at Williams Pipeline Co., where she worked as a project engineer and later as a control systems engineer. She started Excellence as a private contractor specializing in electrical and control systems. Today, the company has 40 employees and clients throughout the U.S.
Her interest in engineering came from her father, who worked for NASA. But when she was growing up in the ’70s, her parents and teachers said her math skills wouldn’t be enough for the real world.
Many women who enter the industry leave, but not for lack of ability or knowledge. “Women are not made to feel welcome,” Hays says. “It’s hard to be the only woman in a room of 30 or 100 men.”
Example: She was once told to “just go fluff your hair somewhere,” by a colleague who learned she had laid out the components for a project.
Excellence Engineering employs a handful of women. Hays would welcome more, including women engineers, designers and drafters, but admits, “There aren’t enough qualified applicants.” The ratio of male/female applications is 100-to-1.
“It’s a tough field for women. There aren’t enough role models,” Hays says. “It’s getting better, but not fast enough.”
Hays is doing her part to be one of those role models. “I personally mentor upcoming women engineers, I speak at events that encourage girls and women to entertain working in the energy sector, and my entire staff and I work with schools in the Tulsa area to introduce working in the energy industry,” she says.
She also serves on the advisory board for Tulsa Regional STEM Alliance, and each summer Excellence Engineering sponsors a STEM middle school teacher to help ensure students, including girls, learn math that will prime them for the field. “We pay a teacher to observe us, see the kind of work we do and what math skills students will need,” Hays says.
Take that, 1970s.