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Raising the Glass Ceiling

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For a self-described introvert, Gayle Roberts certainly seems outgoing. Her bright blue eyes look directly into your own. She leans into the interview and doesn’t hesitate before answering questions.

And people ask her a lot of questions these days, because Roberts, a 1991 mba graduate, has just broken a proverbial glass ceiling by becoming the first female president of Stanley Consultants, the 64th-largest engineering firm in the nation.

It’s a long way from her childhood growing up as the youngest of five children on her family’s dairy farm near Anamosa, Iowa, where Roberts often began and ended each day in a barn, feeding and caring for the calves.

By high school, however, she had discovered a passion for science and math that had her considering whether to pursue engineering at Iowa State University in Ames. She took the question to her high school advisor, who counseled her against doing so. It was one of the few times the 49-year-old Roberts remembers experiencing a gender-based obstacle.

“He told me how hard engineering would be, and predicted that I would probably just get married anyway,” she remembers. “So I majored in home economics. I actually liked it. But I kept helping the guys in my dorm with their math and chemistry… so after a while I switched majors to engineering. And I absolutely loved it.”

After graduation, Roberts signed on as an engineer at Stanley Consultants in Muscatine, Iowa, expecting to stay a couple of years before looking for a better opportunity. The better opportunities kept presenting themselves at Stanley, however, so she stayed. One such opportunity—to earn her master of business administration degree at St. Ambrose—was an important step toward her eventual appointment as president.

“I realized that, while my technical skills were well developed, my business skills were lagging,” she says. “I thought I should round myself out, so I wanted to get my mba. I never aspired to become president. However, as president, I constantly use the management skills I learned.”

Fittingly, Roberts’ vision for the firm under her leadership includes developing more of the opportunities that she herself enjoyed for others. “I want to engage our members (Stanley Consultants employees) in ways that benefit them,” she says. “I want to develop leaders. Encouraging innovation to benefit our clients is important. And collaboration is key.”

Even though the engineering industry still has few female leaders, Roberts says she really never encountered a “glass ceiling” in her rise to president of Stanley Consultants.

“There were times a client wasn’t quite ready to have a woman on the job, but I never held back,” she says. “And Stanley always supported me. I never set out to break any barriers. But if I have—and have made it easier for others—good.”

—S. Flansburg