As a youngster growing up under a communist dictatorship in Poland, Ewa Bauer's aspiration to be an engineer was inspired in part by her architect father, who fought the Nazis after they invaded Poland in 1939, then survived as a prisoner of war under Joseph Stalin.
"My father encouraged us to do what we wanted and not to think about what is good for boys or girls," she recollected during a recent tour of the Golden Gate Bridge seismic retrofit work, a multi-phased project now two years from completion. "He also taught me and my sister that we have to be kind to other people, to understand them. That man always carried a feeling of empathy in him."
His story inspired Bauer to see the United States as her destiny. Coming from a communist country, she admired the democratic style of checks and balances and rule of law in the U.S. In America's can-do spirit, she saw her own possibilities. In 1985, her chance to defect came when she was able to travel to Italy on a tourist visa. Later, with a green card and a civil engineering degree in hand, she gained entry to the U.S. as a political refugee from Poland.
After arriving in San Francisco, she landed a job with the California Dept. of Transportation (Caltrans) working to support highway transportation systems in the Bay Area. In Poland, many women work as engineers, so she was surprised to see so few in the U.S. "For me, it was, 'Wow, welcome to the U.S.A. It was good not to know about this [disparity] because I've never been bothered by it."
In 2010, 30 years after working her way up the ranks of Caltrans and then joining the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District, Bauer was named the first female chief engineer of the district, which operates and maintains one of the country's most-beloved icons.
A petite woman of barely a hundred pounds who walks with a bounce in each step, Bauer is often thought to be much younger than her 58 years. Speaking with an unmistakable Polish accent, she talks about the Golden Gate project's phases while standing on the north end of the bridge, which empties into the headlands of Marin County, Calif. At her side is Tony Chung, a senior civil engineer who is part of Bauer's 33-member staff, which includes 19 engineers.
He recalls meeting with her while he was a college student and telling her of his dream of someday working on the bridge that he had spent so much time visiting as a youngster. He saw a similar story in Bauer's journey to the icon. He says, "There are so many elements to the bridge. I learn something new about it every day" while working with Bauer, who once described the project as "a little like brain surgery."
Along her career path, Bauer was mentored by "wonderful, wonderful men" who saw in her a love of engineering and passion for the country she had adopted. She would like to see more women and men join what she calls the satisfaction of engineering work.
She says, "I think we need a cultural shift that says it is cool to be an engineer. I'm a working example to other women [that it's cool] to apply themselves through technical fields."
To see the full list of women in this feature, click here.