AIChE presents the most recent post in this series featuring LGBTQ+ engineers and their allies as part of an ongoing effort to share stories of equity, diversity, and inclusion. Other related efforts include the LGBTQ+ Inclusion in Engineering (Workshop & Panel), held at the 2019 Annual Meeting, leadership receptions for LGBTQ+ members and allies, as well as Safe Zone LGBTQ+ Ally Training workshops.
All aforementioned initiatives are supported by the AIChE Foundation's Doing a World of Good Campaign. In this installment of our series, we interviewed Elizabeth Haughton, who shared her story as an LGBTQ+ professional working as a system engineer at Savannah River Nuclear Solutions.
Where did you complete your chemical engineering education?
I did my undergraduate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I have been pursuing an MBA part-time at the University of South Carolina over the past two years with an anticipated graduation date in summer 2020.
How many years have you been a member of AIChE?
I have been a member of AIChE for ten years, and what a decade it has been. I was not very involved with AIChE as an undergraduate, so I am still kind of amazed as to how much I have done. I joined AIChE and the Chicago Local Section after graduation, where I met some amazing young professionals and joined their YP Group.
Soon after, one of the Chicago YP members led me to the Institute’s Young Professional Committee (YPC! YoPro!). I became very involved and was privileged to serve many positions with them, including chair. Being a director on the Chemical Engineering Technology Operating Council (CTOC), a former member of the Societal Impact Operating Council (SIOC), and dabbling in other things has led me to develop an inspiring network of friends and colleagues.
Tell us a bit about your job and your job responsibilities. What’s a typical day at work?
I work as a system engineer in H-Canyon, the only operating, production-scale, radiologically-shielded chemical separations facility in the United States.
I oversee a few systems, so I keep track of things that are going on, analyze system trending information, ensure everything is running as well as it could be, respond to and deal with leadership on issues, and I also proactively identify areas for improvement.
I work with Operations, Maintenance, and many others as an advocate for my systems to make sure projects and improvements for my systems are progressing.
Yes, the name, pronouns, clothes, appearance, happiness levels, and other things have all changed for the better. But most things have stayed the same, including the desire to prove myself as an engineer and in business, the desire to grow and advance in my career, caring for others, and focusing on safety.
Tell us a bit about your experience as an out LGBTQ+ professional working in engineering.
I came out publicly as transgender last year. I was worried about how I would be perceived in a conservative environment in the South. I was terrified when I sent the email about my coming out at work, announcing that I was showing up on Monday a little different.
Only a few people responded – thankfully all positive. I know it came as a shock to some, but it hasn’t been a big deal. Maybe that level of normalcy is a good thing.
At first, I was more reserved than I normally am, but that did not last long. At my core, I’ve always been an engineer who likes getting out in the field, talking with people, and learning about what’s going on in the facility. That tendency helped to counteract any reluctance I had. At the end of the day, I am responsible for my systems, which means visits to the control room, engaging everybody who works on my systems, and driving change.
One of the hardest parts for me has been balancing work, the pursuit of an MBA, and transition all at the same time. As a result, I went through coming out over a long period and with great care.
I didn’t want to get into a situation where I came out at work, which would then require me to both process the experience and, say, keep up with my studies and worry about a midterm. This made finding a good time to come out difficult and I did it slowly.
In hindsight, having this trio happen all at once has, at times, been a blessing in disguise. I always had to keep moving forward. There was always a next step in all three areas.
How can people (peers who are allies, and members of management and leadership who are allies) help foster a more inclusive environment for LGBTQ+ chemical engineers?
Keep things simple. Fundamentally, I like to think that not much has changed. Yes, the name, pronouns, clothes, appearance, happiness levels, and other things have all changed for the better. But most things have stayed the same, including the desire to prove myself as an engineer and in business, the desire to grow and advance in my career, caring for others, and focusing on safety.
I hope others remember that and treat anyone on the LGBTQ+ spectrum with the same level of respect as anyone else and continue to encourage and challenge them with opportunities to grow and improve as engineers, employees, and people as they would anyone else in the workplace.
One of the weirdest changes is that a lot more people remember who you are, both professionally and outside of work. For example, I went to a clothing store recently. The very helpful employee immediately recognized me and remembered what I was shopping for during my single previous visit. I looked at her, astonished, and said, “That was six months ago!”
Experiences like this are a lot more common than I ever would have thought, and it can be uncomfortable. What does this mean at work? Treat me like a professional. I do not want special treatment. I have a lot to offer as an engineer and an employee – engage me on that level.
The mantra I have used is “You will mess up, I will mess up more, but as long as we are trying our best, we will be fine.” I have come to realize that people have known me for an extended period of time, and it is impossible to always get things completely right. All I can ask for is that we are all trying and improving, and that philosophy has generally worked out well.
If you aren’t sure and if you’ve done your homework, ask. One of the things I always try to tell friends and colleagues is to let me know if they have any questions. Not many people have, but the option is always there.
I say do your homework because there is a lot of information online. The answers are not true for everyone, but it gives you a good place to start. Nobody’s experience is the same, nor is anyone’s approach to coming out the same.
Education is the best path forward, and I’d rather have a good conversation and clear up misconceptions than have them linger undiscussed. Good conversations have happened with people both in and out of AIChE.
What are the most important issues that LGBTQ+ engineers deal with in the workplace today?
Support is a common thread in my personal experience, but I think discrimination is still there with some people. Female friends had warned me about how different I would be treated as a woman compared to how I had been treated as a man.
They were completely right. It is one thing to hear it, but it is another thing to live it. These negative interactions have not happened to me often, thankfully, but I have noticed a change as to how I've been treated on a few occasions.
Do you know others in the profession who struggle with being out in today's workplace?
Others struggle much more than I do, but I don’t know them personally. I am incredibly lucky to be in the position I am today. I have a good job, salary, health benefits, medical support, education, family, and friends, which has given me the opportunity to get through this process relatively unaffected. Many others do not have the same level of amazing support that I have had.
Tell us a bit about your personal life.
I live in the charming small town of Aiken, South Carolina, but I love big cities and grew up in the Chicago area. In my free time, I like cooking, travel, exercise, and pickup ultimate Frisbee. I love good foods of all types and I don’t care what kind of restaurant it comes from — everything from Michelin-starred tasting menus to Waffle House is fair game.
Curiously, the MBA started an EDM kick that has led me to house and techno. I love listening to sets and podcasts from DJs like Nora en Pure (Purified is required listening Monday mornings), Hot Since 82, Eric Prydz, Tiesto, and, oh yes, oh yes, Carl Cox.
Do you have a coming out story you'd like to share?
A lot of conversations I've had about coming out as trans to friends shared the same beats, and it got to the point that very little surprised me. Thankfully, my friends are incredible. From my time in AIChE, one of the most memorable (of many) YoPro evenings was when a group of us decided to go to the outdoor bar at Disney’s Polynesian Resort in Orlando. It was quiet enough that you could have a small group conversation but loud enough where you couldn’t hear the other conversations.
I was catching up with a YPC member I hadn’t seen in some time. I didn’t lead with the news, as there was much to discuss, but we eventually got there (I had learned by then that it would inevitably take up the next 20–30 minutes of conversation) and, of course, she was amazing. We then flipped a switch and began quizzing a third person who joined our conversation, who had no idea what just transpired, about his MBA ambitions.
The important takeaway is you can discuss it, then you get back to normal and everything is cool, both in the moment and in the future. I would come out to those in the group who I had not yet come out to in time. That evening was a lot of fun, so maybe that story sticks out more than others.
Do you have a story about an effective or inspirational professional ally you’d like to share?
I have a wonderful friend who has been invaluable through this process. We actually met at an AIChE conference while volunteering for YPC. I had just got hired and she impressed me tremendously, so I told her “Send me your resume!” She quickly became my co-worker.
Before I came out publicly, we would meet up, me as ‘myself,’ and just have fun and talk through things and eat good food. Having a caring friend with those little steps was tremendously helpful in getting to the point where I felt comfortable coming out publicly to the rest of the world.
Side tangent: To all you students and people out there, when someone gives you their contact information and says to follow up, please follow up. I have met so many students looking for jobs at annual meetings that I have given my contact information to. You are leaving an impression during conversations, and if I give you my contact info, you probably got to the point where I would be comfortable sending your resume along to HR. You will stand out because so many students fail to follow through. It’s easy, quick, and it might get you a job. Plus, taking initiative is always a good look. There are no guarantees but take a chance. You never know.
What’s your dream getaway?
I love to travel and have been fortunate enough to get around North America and Europe quite well over the past few years. I did a weeklong study abroad in China for my MBA last year, which was an incredible experience. I then went to South Korea for a few days, mainly because I was already in Asia and it seemed like a more fun option than flying home.
Japan, Barcelona (I hear it is fantastic. That said, Hala Madrid y Nada Más!), Vietnam, Cambodia, and South Africa are high on my (very long list of) places I haven’t visited yet. Some island paradise in the South Pacific or Indian Ocean would be a true dream.
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Learn more about AIChE's Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives.
Interested in helping?
Are you an LGBTQ+ chemical engineer and AIChE member interested in sharing your story to help create awareness around diversity and inclusion? Are you an LGBTQ+ ally interested in helping with diversity and inclusion efforts? Send us a note at email@example.com with the subject "Diversity and Inclusion."