Roberta Gleiter: A Vanguard for Women Engineers

Roberta Banaszak Gleiter doesn’t scare easily. At the top of her 1956 graduating class in an all-girls high school, she wanted to be challenged in college, so she asked her mother which discipline would be the most difficult. Unsure, Gleiter’s mother suggested they ask their dentist, who looked into it and reported that chemical engineering was the most difficult.

Satisfied that it sounded tough enough, Gleiter asked what school she should attend. After more research, the dentist reported: “The very best school in the country for this is Purdue University.” And, in fact, it was virtually the only place that Gleiter could go. Despite her perfect grades, she learned that unlike Purdue, the University of Michigan, Harvard, and MIT didn’t want her. In 1956, most schools accepted only men into their chemical engineering programs.

After distinguishing herself at Purdue as a top chemical-engineering student, Gleiter was ready to begin a promising career. However, firms visiting campus didn’t share her enthusiasm. Stymied after being completely ignored at on-campus interview opportunities, Gleiter took advice from one of her male classmates, who suggested she remove her first name from her resume and list only her initials and last name.

It worked. Soon she was boarding a plane at the Purdue Airport, bound for her first interview. Upon arriving, she introduced herself to the gentleman waiting for her and was greeted with unveiled hostility. “He shouted, ‘No!’” Gleiter remembers. “He seemed intensely angry, and then he said, ‘You lied,’ and I was horrified. He said, ‘You’re a woman; we aren’t going to be able to talk to you about anything anyhow.’”

Later, after a useless tour of the facility, she was not allowed inside the chemical process area, even though she had dressed appropriately for it. She was firmly told that it was off limits to her. Instead, she was invited to spend time in the women’s restroom, “where the secretaries go,” and was shown the library, where she was told that she could be hired as a technical librarian. “I said, ‘But I’m an engineer. I’m a chemical engineer,’” Gleiter recalls. They weren’t listening.

After marrying fellow Purdue alumnus John Gleiter and happily raising a family from 1960 to 1980, Gleiter returned to professional life, undaunted by the challenge of catching up on 20 years worth of engineering change. Since earning her master’s degree in systems management/technical systems from the University of Southern California, she has been proving herself to be a highly competent engineer and a tireless advocate for women engineers worldwide.

Gleiter still puts in nearly 40 hours a week at Aerospace Corp., a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that provides technical and scientific research, development, and advice to national-security space programs. She has been there for 28 years.

During those years she also served the Society of Women Engineers in many capacities, including national president in 1998–99. A few years later she co-founded and became CEO of the Global Institute for Technology and Engineering (GIFTE), an organization dedicated to elevating the status of women in the technology and engineering workforce. She also served the National Science Foundation, both on a federal advisory committee and as a panelist evaluating engineering research grant proposals.

As GIFTE’s CEO, Gleiter has traveled extensively to promote technical careers to women and has recruited other professionals to get involved in outreach programs that encourage young people, primarily girls, to envision themselves as successful in technical careers.

Her advocacy for bright, ambitious women engineers is a driving passion. “I believe that women need to understand that they can do it,” Gleiter says with great enthusiasm. “I like to reach out and touch them. It’s the one-on-one that changes their lives.”

-Amy Raley