#77: Succeeding in a Male Dominated Industry with Claudia Bilotti

Succeeding in a Male Dominated Industry with Claudia Bilotti

In this episode I’m very proud to introduce you to my very own Aunt Claudia – someone who paved the path for women entering male dominated industries. 

Now retired, she shares her story and sage advice from a 40+ year career spent fighting to be taken seriously, working to prove herself and having her life and health affected along the way.

You’ll hear about:

  • How Claudia got into engineering in the 70’s and the struggles she faced in school and interviewing for jobs as a woman.
  • What it was like working in male-dominated industries for her entire career, and the fine line of being perceived as argumentative vs. authoritative.
  • How Claudia really hasn’t seen much change in the engineering space in terms of female representation.
  • What it was like carving out a role for herself where she didn’t have any role models.
  • How this experience affected her personal life, what she would have done differently to protect her mental and physical health, and advice for women currently in the workplace.

Mentioned in this episode:

Claudia Bilotti (00:00):
Let's face it, there are men who perceive strong women as argumentative or the B word versus authoritative and strong in their knowledge. So it was a, a very fine line. I had to do a lot of smiling, you know, and really trying to put the charm on versus coming back with anything clever to undo what they were saying. So it, it, it's, it's not easy. And from the earliest job that I had till I retired, I really worked with only a handful of other degreed women through the 40 plus years that I was employed.

Michelle Leotta (00:47):
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Michelle Leotta (02:04):
My Aunt Claudia got a degree in engineering when women really didn't do that. And she worked over 40 years in a male-dominated industry. Now she recently retired and I was just fascinated to talk with her about the trajectory of her career. And I was horrified to hear her say that in 40 years she really didn't see a change in the number of women in the workplace or how women were treated in her workplace. She's got some stories you'll hear. I think our generation assumes that well women can do anything and be anything. But to be honest, I don't know a whole lot of women in engineering. Do you? I mean, I know some, I know a lot of teachers though. I know a lot of nurses kind of makes me wonder if we've advanced in this way at all. Now it's a little different to interview a member of my own family. I'm just gonna say that I am so proud that my Aunt Claudia was there as one of the very first women to major in engineering.

Michelle Leotta (02:57):
She convinced Electrolux in the eighties to adopt their first computer system. And I mean, she just went through a whole career where she was always fighting to be taken seriously. So whether you work in a male dominated industry or you have girls and you wanna make sure that all doors are open to them, I found in Claudia's stories super inspiring. I'm grateful for her and for women like her for leading the way. Now, by the way, my Aunt Claudia is also my godmother. I love her very much and you'll hear her call me D during this interview. That is a family nickname. So now you know, let's get into it. Aunt Claudia, welcome to the show.

Claudia Bilotti (03:42):
Thanks, d I really appreciate you having me. This is great.

Michelle Leotta (03:46):
You know, when I was putting together this season of the podcast and thinking of women who had paved their own path, done something unexpected, done something powerful in the world, your story just jumped to the front of my mind. I mean, I know women who've started organizations and have done all kinds of interesting work in the world and are currently running their own businesses, but quite a long time ago you were doing something pretty brand new for women. Why don't you tell our listeners a little bit about your story?

Claudia Bilotti (04:17):
Sure. Well, I was very, uh, focused on math and science since I was a little kid. I think that's just inherent in my dna, uh, come from a line of engineers. And so when I was in high school, went to my guidance counselor, she said, Well, you should be a nurse or a librarian. And I said, I wanted to be an engineer. And she says, Oh no, that's not a good idea. Now I was at an all girls high school at the time, but I What year

Michelle Leotta (04:47):
Was it?

Claudia Bilotti (04:49):
Uh, that was 1971 when I graduated high school. And I decided to apply to Manhattan College in the Bronx early admission. And I got in and I don't know how or when I actually walked through the school, but I don't think I realized how few women were there until my first day of school. And then I found out that I was the only person, only female enrolled in mechanical engineering and the very first one ever. And that there were only five other young women in the school at all because it was technically an all male school, which meant I had to enroll in the sister school, Mount St. Vincent. But every time I signed up for classes each semester, nobody there knew how to enroll me in engineering school, because that was the other school. So it was a real hassle. Come junior year, it went co-ed, so I had to transfer and then they didn't wanna give me my grades.

Claudia Bilotti (05:48):
Uh, so I had a big fight on my hands over that and managed to graduate finally with, you know, less to do about nothing. So that's, that's the history of how I got my degree bachelor in mechanical engineering. But then the first job, I went on a bunch of interviews. I was engaged at this point, met as, you know, your uncle first Monday of my freshman year. So that was another, uh, interesting saga. But when I went on interviews wearing an engagement ring, I didn't get any offers. And I was third in my class. So that was kind of a surprise. And then one interview, I left my ring at home and I got an offer.

Michelle Leotta (06:31):
Did you do that on purpose or was it

Claudia Bilotti (06:33):
Like, Oh yes, I oh yes. .

Michelle Leotta (06:37):

Claudia Bilotti (06:38):
And that was the only offer I got. I'm not sure. I guess once I got that offer, I just gave up and took it because it was such a hassle up to that point. And I didn't know what I really wanted to do as an engineer, so I just took it and it was fairly local and, you know, whatever. So

Michelle Leotta (06:55):
It works. Okay, so let's pause there. Mm-hmm. . So you're the only woman in mechanical engineering. You were on a five in the school. What was that dynamic like? Did the five of you hang out together? Did you sit at, I don't know, in college? So I don't know where you're having lunch, but did you sit with the guys? Did you make friends with them? Did you feel like you were on the outs?

Claudia Bilotti (07:15):
Yeah, well that was interesting because the other two women in my grade were chemical engineering students. And so they were in different classes than I was. So, you know, our lunches weren't the same time. And the older, I mean, just like typical, uh, in, in any school, you rarely hang out with upperclassmen, even though we were all women, we, there was no real banding together. I really only got to know the other women when I lived at the dorm in my junior year. But first two years I was commuting. So my first Monday I was eating in the cafeteria and that's when Joe, my husband, sat down with his buddies and started talking to me. Before that, I was just sitting there eating french fries, reading my math book because I didn't wanna look up and look at the sea of men .

Michelle Leotta (08:08):
And so they sat down and befriended you. And did I, I actually don't know this part of this story. Oh, well how long before you were dating?

Claudia Bilotti (08:18):
Oh, well, the interesting thing, again, being from an all girls high school, , I didn't date a lot in high school. And so then this one guy of from this group that sat down asked me right away, um, like the next day to go out on Saturday and I accepted. And then Joe didn't know my last name or how to call me, and he knew which high school I went to cuz I had said, so he went to the local amp where, or one of the supermarkets local where one of his friends, uh, he knew this young woman who had been to school with me in high school. So he went to her and said, Oh, I met your friend Claudia. And then she said, Biro my maiden name. And so there were only six in the phone book. So he looked me up and called me and, and he continues to tease me about this till today because he said, Hi, I'm Joe. And I said, Joe, who? , because there were a lot of Joe's. Oh,

Michelle Leotta (09:24):
It's a common name. Yes.

Claudia Bilotti (09:26):
Anyway, so he asked me out for Saturday, but I already had the date. So we went on Friday, which I had never had a date on Friday and Saturday with two different guys before

Michelle Leotta (09:40):

Claudia Bilotti (09:40):
The other guy was kind of, um, a strange dude. So Joe and I continued to date and we dated four years, and then I got, we got married

Michelle Leotta (09:49):
And it's been how many years?

Claudia Bilotti (09:51):
Uh, since 75.

Michelle Leotta (09:54):
A good number. Holy moly. Okay, so it worked out alright, at least a few of the men when you were in school. So now when you're interviewing for jobs, my assumption when you were talking about your engagement ring is that employers are looking at you saying, Oh, she's gonna get married and have a baby and leave, so we're not gonna invest in her.

Claudia Bilotti (10:14):
And that's exactly what my boss said on my first day of the job, because then I put the ring back on when I went to work. And that's what he said.

Michelle Leotta (10:23):
How exactly did he say that? He just called you out on it?

Claudia Bilotti (10:27):
Oh yeah, he, he, I'm sitting there and he goes, Oh, you're engaged. Oh, great. You're gonna get married, get pregnant and leave. That's exactly what he said.

Michelle Leotta (10:36):

Claudia Bilotti (10:36):
I out outlasted, I outlasted him in the job, by the way. They moved him to a do nothing job in New Jersey. .

Michelle Leotta (10:44):
That feels good. Huh? That feels real good. Okay. So you had a very, um, in, you've had an interesting career. Well, you didn't just stay in one very specific field. You took your engineering degree. You've done lots of different things. And before we hit record, we were kind of talking about how even these days, the vast majority of women that I talked to are teachers, nurses. You said they told you to become a librarian, you sort of typical female jobs. And that's obviously changing through the years. We're not quite there yet, but tell us the, the whole timeline. Give us a timeline of now that you've retired, you spent your whole career in a male dominated industry in many different ways.

Claudia Bilotti (11:27):
Yes. So I went from a garbage recycling to toy design, to vacuum cleaner design, uh, surgical instrument design. And then I, along the way, I got involved with computers, computers really started hitting, uh, companies in 1984. And that's when I convinced the company I was at at that time, Electrolux, to invest in this computer system. And I became the administrator of that computer. And then throughout the rest of my career, that's kind of the left turn that I took. So it was a very, my mechanical engineering degree gave me a real good foundation for that. But it was no easy path at all in any of the companies. It was always a challenge because I was, I'd be, we'd be in a conference room and having a discussion and somebody would say a four letter word and they'd look at me, you know, like as though I'd never heard it before. And it, it, it just continuously, there was awkwardness. Uh, they didn't know how to relate to me. Sometimes they tried to teach me like their treat me like their daughter. This one guy kept trying to, every time he saw me pick up a tool, he would come out of his office, come over and grab the tool out of my hand to do. And I, this is my job.

Michelle Leotta (12:51):
I bet you saw all manner of nonsense. I mean, these days I think men are starting to get the idea, but it still happens. I know there are lots of techniques for when you're interrupted, when you are trying to speak in front of a group of men. Did you have any go-tos, comebacks, things that you would say or do when they were disrespectful in these ways? Um, mm.

Claudia Bilotti (13:15):
That's a really tough question to answer because I'd have to admit that most times I would bite my tongue more than coming out with a clever answer because I realized over time that the end goal is for me to keep my job and hopefully progress in my job. And if I became too, well, let's face it, there are men who perceive strong women as argumentative or the B word versus authoritative and strong in their knowledge. So it was a, a very fine line. I had to do a lot of smiling, you know, and really trying to put the charm on versus coming back with anything clever to undo what they were saying. So it's, it's, it's not easy. And from the earliest job that I had till I retired, I really worked with only a handful of other degreed women through the 40 plus years that I was employed.

Michelle Leotta (14:25):
That's what I was wondering if over the course of your career you saw things change at all?

Claudia Bilotti (14:31):
Not really, no. Oh

Michelle Leotta (14:32):

Claudia Bilotti (14:32):
God, no. I, you know, the, the last company I worked for was a very large organization and international and yes, there were more women in like software engineering. So there were pockets of other women in, in more volume, but mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, which were kind of joined in most of the fields or most of the companies. I usually had both Electric, I'm not sure I ever worked with another female electrical engineer. And there were only a handful of mechanicals through the years.

Michelle Leotta (15:11):
Wow. And here we are thinking how far we've come. I know these days there's STEM toys for specifically for girls and sure the kids are taking classes much earlier and they're pushing math and science. But I wonder how much it'll change in the next 40 years.

Claudia Bilotti (15:27):
Well, you know, when, when I started Society Women Engineers was, I think they began in the fifties. So I had joined it in college and am still a member. Their goal was in the beginning was to be able to dissolve itself because it's succeeded in making women engineers normal, you know, and encourage

Claudia Bilotti (15:51):
Engineers. Exactly. They're still going strong and the, and the statistics, they're always publishing. Statistics have really not changed a heck of a lot even in school. You know, I'm just, I'm amazed, but you know what I went through in school, I was heckled freshman year, I was heckled and just had a heck of a time ex just existing, you know, I don't think it's quite that bad or overt, but I think there's still a lot of perceptions that are like any prejudice that people have and it's under the covers. So all the laws in the world can't make you decide to hire somebody if you don't really wanna hire them for what you can make up any reason.

Michelle Leotta (16:37):
. Right, exactly. Oh my gosh, I, I don't even wanna ask, and I don't know if you would know what percentage of those engineers in the, what did you call it, The female, the Women's Association

Claudia Bilotti (16:48):
Society of Women Engineers?

Michelle Leotta (16:50):
Yeah, sorry, Society of Women Engineers. What percentage are women of color?

Claudia Bilotti (16:55):
Oh, yes. There's actually another organization that has an affiliation with SWE as the, what we call it. But there's one for women of color and yeah, the statistics, I mean, you can find these anywhere between blacks and Hispanics and women. So I, I think the lowest paid person, you know, statistically is, I believe it's Hispanic woman. I think they're even lower than blacks on, I mean, it's, it's

Michelle Leotta (17:25):
Within engineering.

Claudia Bilotti (17:27):
Yeah. Yes, yes.

Michelle Leotta (17:28):
Maybe other industries as well, but

Claudia Bilotti (17:30):
Maybe, Yeah. Yeah, I don't know that, but it's, it's ridiculous because what I found is that as a woman, I had to work harder, I had to work longer, and I had to be better just to stay equal. And so anybody who's doesn't have that footing, you know, if they have more strikes against them, I, I just can't even, I, I know I was underpaid my entire career.

Michelle Leotta (17:58):
How do you know, did men talk about their salaries? How would you know?

Claudia Bilotti (18:02):
Well, part of it, I was married to one. Um, so , he already, his first job, he started with a higher salary than I did. And then, because that first guy who didn't like the fact that I was wearing an engagement ring when I had my first six month review was supposed to get a raise, he said I didn't deserve a raise. So I got shafted on that. And then when they moved him to another, uh, state, they moved me to another department. And then that other department said, Oh, we don't know your work, so we can't give you an increase . So I lost out again, .

Michelle Leotta (18:43):
Right. And so convenient.

Claudia Bilotti (18:44):
Yeah, when you get the next job, you know, it just, they're not going to jump you thousands and thousands of dollars. They're making a deal on you. So.

Michelle Leotta (18:55):
Wow. So I feel like it takes a certain type of person to say, I'm gonna do this. No one else is doing this. Everyone thinks I'm weird or whatever, I'm gonna do it anyway. Certainly within engineering, like there were no role models for you to say, Oh, look how she did it. I wanna be just like her, You know? And, and for women, I think that's happening in lots of different areas. Have there been other aspects of your life where there was no role model, there was no path you had to figure it out yourself?

Claudia Bilotti (19:27):
Well, one of the reasons I went into the computer field is because I didn't feel like I had anything special that I was bringing to the table for design. Everybody has strengths and weaknesses. Design was never my strength organization was, so I was more doing more project management when I went into computers because that was such a new field, it was new to everybody. So I felt that I could kind of create my own job and position and make that really what I wanted it to be. The unfortunate part of that is that the people I worked for had no idea whether I was doing a good job or bad job. So it was kind of a double edged sword.

Michelle Leotta (20:13):
Oh wow. Yeah, no kidding. Because what'd you say, 1984? It's not that you were just like the first woman to be getting into computers. I mean, it was just happening, right? Yes. They probably were not sold on computers as a concept.

Claudia Bilotti (20:26):
Exactly. So at Electrolux, for example, I implemented this system. We actually did, the guy I was working on the computer system with, so I was the administrator, but I was helping this guy create this little stair tool which had four plastic parts in a motor. So he designed that in three dimensions, which was unheard of, no drawings, doubly unheard of. I made the tapes of this went across country to different mold shops who could take our data and actually make these molds. Found one, four weeks later, we had steel mold, 50 parts made from each. They all went together perfectly, which was also unheard of. And this is again, 1984, but I suggested that we do certain things to add to this system, and my management said, Oh, we don't know if you know what you're talking about. So they hired a consultant, paid them oodles of money to interview me and other people, and in the end they said, You should listen to Claudia. She knows what she's talking about.

Michelle Leotta (21:34):
Another very good feeling. . Oh my goodness. So on the personal side, as you've got all these years having to fight tooth and nail for your raises and to be taken seriously and be able to just do your job the way, you know how, I mean, you were doing groundbreaking stuff. This is my aunt Claudia, everybody, I'm proud of her .

Claudia Bilotti (21:57):
Thank you. D

Michelle Leotta (21:59):
How do you think all of this impacted you on the personal side and, and specifically I'm thinking about your health, but maybe in other ways?

Claudia Bilotti (22:07):
Well, I think as a mom, when we, uh, adopted our daughter, that was in 1984, also . So the beginning of the year I had birthed the baby that was a computer system. And then at the end of the year we had a, a physical baby. So I wrote up a whole paper on how I was going to take off and how my job was going to be handled by myself part-time and others, and what would be delayed, et cetera. So I had a whole plan of how I would go back into the workplace. And then they posted my job. They didn't, they thought I was lying that I really wanted to be a stay at home mom. And so I came in for a meeting and somebody came home and said, You're leaving. And I go, What? And so they showed me on the bulletin board this ed that had been put in the paper

Michelle Leotta (22:59):
. Oh, wow.

Claudia Bilotti (23:01):
So I think let's add to the fact that, um, my husband went into sales. So he left his technical job as well and went into sales and did a lot of traveling and, and he started sales, I think in the early eighties. So I was juggling being a mom, working and not having a husband home. So for most of the time, I was almost a single mom. It takes its toll. There was, there was no magic bullet. There were only so many hours in the day and you have to sleep for part of the time. So I, I really did burn my candle at both ends a lot. Uh, we tried very hard to spend time as a family, so we would go on vacations together, outings, you know, weekends, we'd do that kind of stuff. So we enjoyed our time. But, um, you know, I, I have suffered through my life for various things.

Claudia Bilotti (23:58):
I had fibromyalgia for years. I had a variety of things. And it, it wasn't until I really decided that health , and maybe this was even, it took until retirement where I actually put myself first. Because unfortunately companies tend to have this one way loyalty. They want your loyalty, but when you need some time off, if it is contradictory to what else, whatever project is hot, you know, if you want the job, you have to do it. So I think for me it was, um, I, you know, trying to put my health to the top of the list, which isn't just health, but it's all about being peaceful inside.

Michelle Leotta (24:49):
Had to wait until retirement

Claudia Bilotti (24:51):
. No, that's unfortunately how I didn't learn early enough because I, you know, I was on the hamster wheel like a lot of people.

Michelle Leotta (25:01):
Yeah. Okay, Well then share your wisdom, pass it down to those who are on the hamster wheel. Now, what would you have done differently? Would you have quit your job and say, Hey, I'm so Joey makes enough money, we can live on that. I don't have to be burning the candle at both ends. What would you have done differently?

Claudia Bilotti (25:17):
Well, I'd say that I think I would put my foot down more often about my own time. And if I lost my job, say I'm not sure I had the self-confidence as much as I can say all these great things I did at the time, I felt like it, they were in power and they were in control, which I let them be. So my advice would be because it's mostly one way. I'm not saying every company, but most companies I would say are still one way of loyalty. And therefore, you know, it's important when, if there's a family member who's ill, it's more important to be with them than working because the jobs are always gonna be there. The time, the projects, they'll always be there. Your love one won't be, and your own health is the same thing. You know, I think with what you've done in your career, looking at health differently than, than you did in your earlier years has made a big difference in you and so many other people. And I think that's kind of what I've been through as well.

Michelle Leotta (26:26):
Thanks so much for being here today, Claudia, and sharing your story with us. I know we have all heard about when there was only one woman engineer, the first woman to do that, but like, here you are one of them. And hearing your story is very, very cool. So many groundbreaking moments. I'm really glad you could share with us today. Me

Speaker 3 (26:46):

Michelle Leotta (26:52):
Well, now you know about my family nickname and the story about my godparents meeting and getting married. But more importantly, I think we'd be smart to listen to what older women have to say. We're not the first ones to talk about the pay gap or sexual harassment in the workplace. I'm so glad that Aunt Claudia shared some of her wisdom around health too. This sort of day in, day out experience of working in a male dominated field. It's stressful. And then of course, stress trickles down into all sorts of health issues. For example, my aunt mentioned her fibromyalgia. It's a big deal. If you're also on the hamster wheel and experiencing symptoms ranging from stubborn weight to chronic pain, to dizzy spells, to autoimmune issues, you may be teetering on the edge of burnout. I want you to go to my website, she's got power.com/free. Take the free quiz to assess your symptoms. It might be normal every day stress that you're under, but it might be your body really telling you that it needs your help. And I can help with that. Go to, She's got power.com/free.


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