Shivali Kadam is a chemical engineer working for a consulting firm centering around the semiconductor industry. She is also an accomplished pageant winner, and won the Miss Oregon title under the Miss America competition umbrella in 2019.
Were you always interested in science? What made you decide to pursue chemical engineering?
Growing up, I was a bookworm, always reading, always writing, and that persisted throughout my primary education. However, while I was a very good student, I had always struggled in math — and that became very apparent in late middle school and early high school. Instead of thinking that math was a skill to be learned, I had a very fixed mindset that I couldn’t do it because I just wasn’t smart enough.
Sadly, that’s a very common and very unfortunate mindset that students have, especially in terms of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). They think that if you’re smart, you get — if you’re not smart, you don’t. It wasn’t until I got to college that I started learning more about STEM and actually meeting women who were pursuing STEM careers. As I learned more about engineering, I thought to myself, “I can do this.”
Now, I love going to appearances and being asked what I do. I never know what they expect me to say, but they almost never expect chemical engineer.
What made you decide to get into pageantry?
I entered my first local pageant in 2016 because of friends. Like so many people, I had very negative perceptions about pageantry and I thought, oh, you just wear a gown and walk across stage and then the prettiest girl wins! It wasn’t something I necessarily wanted to be involved in, but then I learned it was so much more than a beauty contest. Miss America is about academics and is first and foremost a scholarship program, and then there’s a huge service component, as well.
I was convinced that my first pageant would be a one-time, bucket-list item and I was going to lose miserably. I didn’t even invite anyone to come watch me — but then, I don’t know how, I ended up winning. By the end of my first year as local title holder, I was completely hooked and I competed for the three following years until I earned the title of Miss Oregon in 2019.
What is it like being Miss Oregon and being an engineer?
One of the reasons I didn’t see myself as an engineer is because I’ve always been a very conventionally feminine person. Once I started doing pageantry, I definitely struggled even more with what I thought was the engineer identity and my own identity. It was difficult for me to reconcile the two, and it really took me time to understand that engineering is a profession, it’s something you do — not necessarily who you are. You can be anything and anyone and be an engineer on top of that.
Now, I love going to appearances and being asked what I do. I never know what they expect me to say, but they almost never expect chemical engineer. It’s always an opportunity to break down stereotypes. It’s frustrating that we don’t allow women to be multifaceted. I think that’s what it comes down to. From a very early age, I feel like women are pressured to pick a stereotype to follow. There’s really no reason for that, as women are very capable of diversity within themselves— it’s society that struggles with knowing where to place them.
Why is it important to advocate STEM education as a possible path for young women?
I see education as a really powerful pathway to economic freedom for women. We talk about female empowerment so much in our society today, but I think a lot of that relates back to making sure that women are economically empowered. For better or for worse, there are certain career paths that are going to ensure job stability and economic opportunity. That’s what motivates me. I want women to be able live their lives independently.
Read the full profile in the April 2021 issue of CEP. Members have access online to complete issues, including a vast, searchable archive of back-issues found at aiche.org/cep.