Jennifer Rumsey is one of the most senior employees in Cummins’ technical organization and just three management levels removed from the company’s chief executive officer.
As executive director of heavy duty engineering, Rumsey is in charge of design, development and technical support of 10- through 15-liter engines for the Fortune 500 company.
She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering and has climbed steadily through the company’s ranks since joining Cummins in 2000.
Despite her credentials, Rumsey still encounters some people who can’t believe that a woman would be leading in what traditionally has been considered a man’s field.
A few years ago, she was at a media event where a male journalist from one of the trade publications began talking to her. When Rumsey introduced herself and told him that she led Cummins’ heavy duty engineering organization, the journalist seemed perplexed. He asked her again what she did. When she repeated that she led the heavy duty engineering group, he asked if that was in marketing.
“I tried to explain, ‘No, I am a technical person. I do work in engineering,’” Rumsey said. “Then he made some snide comment about some study that had been done that said the only reason women were in technical positions was because employers were trying to promote women, not because women would actually earn those positions.”
She couldn’t believe the conversation she was having.
Chauvinistic opinions die hard, sometimes, even 40 years after the signing of Title IX, the federal legislation that prohibited discrimination based on one’s sex in education, and gave women greater opportunities in higher education.
Fortunately for Rumsey, who was born one year after the signing of Title IX and benefited from the power of the law, she received support from her parents, teachers and mentors to pursue what she wanted: a career in engineering.
“They told me I could be anything I wanted to be. I had a great support system, and I’ve always been pretty self motivated,” Rumsey said.
Rumsey’s mother, Suellen Gillespie, first noticed her daughter’s proclivity for math in the sixth grade. Gillepsie was a sixth-grade teacher who taught academically gifted students.
“From then on she excelled in mathematics. She was a natural student in it. She has always been a problem solver,” Gillespie said.
Rumsey was encouraged to take all the math classes she could but more importantly to give her best effort in whatever activity she tried, Gillespie said. Rumsey participated in academic competitions but also in choir and speech.
That encouragement gave Rumsey confidence, even to pursue a degree in a field with few women.
“I don’t think she thought of it as an all-male thing,” Gillespie said.
But she was in the minority when she sought her mechanical engineering degrees at Purdue University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Rumsey estimated that 10 to 15 percent of all mechanical engineering students at Purdue were women when she attended there. And of the 50 students in a graduate-level control system course at MIT, she was one of two women.
It could be hard if you don’t see people like you when you’re in a meeting or interviewing for a job, Rumsey said.
“It can be intimidating, right, to think, ‘I’m going to be the only woman in that organization.’ Or to think, ‘Will a woman be successful in that organization?’” she said.
“I hear a lot from other women. They want to see role models.”
Women want to see other women who have been successful, who have had children, who have balanced work and life and who have been successful in technical fields and in technical leadership positions, Rumsey said.
“It’s getting better but that has been a challenge,” she said.
That success starts with education, and women entering technical fields such as engineering, Rumsey said. It progresses with women climbing the corporate ladder and holding senior management positions.
Purdue has made significant strides recruiting women into the engineering field since it started its Women in Engineering program in 1969, the first of its kind in the country. Many faculty members were concerned that less than 1 percent of the freshmen in the engineering program were women and the field wasn’t being enriched by their participation, program director Beth Holloway said.
Efforts to recruit more women into engineering have paid off for Purdue. It’s first-year engineering class was 22 percent female by the fall of 1990, and it’s held relatively steady. The fall 2010 class was 21 percent female.
The number of women in engineering has increased in part by showing them that engineering is a broad field with many opportunities.
“You can tailor an engineering degree to your interests,” Holloway said.
Those interests could include amusement parks, sports equipment, music sounds, customer service, sales, electronics, construction, automobiles. An engineering degree also is a good springboard for patent law, Holloway said. She knows of a student who even applied an engineering degree toward medical school and a specialty in orthopedics.
Rumsey said a devotion to supporting diversity and attitude changes at Cummins have made it a place where women have an opportunity to reach senior management positions.
She recalled hearing a few negative comments at Cummins when she was an intern.
“Some people wouldn’t believe as a woman that you could understand technical concepts or have the knowledge to do your job,” she said.
But that environment is gone, as are the inappropriate calendars or pictures people used to pin up, she said.
Now she is one of four women who are executive directors at Cummins. The others lead the electronics organization within the engine business, midrange customer engineering, and engineering and quality for the distribution business. Five women are on Cummins’ leadership team, working with CEO Tom Linebarger. The company also has a Women’s Affinity Group, which provides mentoring and advice on career paths.
Rumsey said she encourages women to consider technical fields like engineering, in part through her involvement in the Society of Women Engineers.
She also tries to provide the same kind of support at home for her two daughters that she received from her parents as a child.
“I take the same philosophy of be the best you can be. They are 8 and 10, so there are conversations about what they want to be when they grow up,” she said.
Rumsey bought Legos for the girls so they could use their imaginations and build things. She also seizes on opportunities to educate, such as explaining what an axle is on a push toy. But most of all, she wants her daughters to pursue their passions.
“I definitely want them to set high goals for themselves,” Rumsey said.
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