Lightner on Leadership: Mentors, education crucial for women in the workplace

La Jolla Woman’s Club kicked off its “Women in Leadership” speaker series April 3 with a presentation by San Diego City Council president and La Jolla Shores resident Sherri Lightner. Approximately 50 people attended to hear about Lightner’s life and career path.

“The purpose of these forums is to highlight various women in leadership positions and their experiences — what it took to get them into that position, what kind of challenges they endured, what kind of triumphs they’ve had and why they are committed to being leaders in the community,” said Mithu Sherin, Woman’s Club president.

“This is about the betterment of all women and how we can be acutely aware of the challenges women face,” Sherin said.

Lightner was elected to the San Diego City Council in 2008 and 2012, after serving on local boards such as La Jolla Shores Association, La Jolla Town Council and La Jolla Community Planning Association. In December 2014, she was elected City Council president.

A mechanical engineer by training, she is a self-proclaimed “proud” graduate of UC San Diego Revelle College, class of 1972, with degrees in mathematics and sociology. She met her now-husband, Bruce, while they were working in the school cafeteria.

Soon after graduation, she got a job at General Atomics, where she passed her engineer-in-training exam, prompting her to get a master’s degree in applied mechanics and engineering sciences. Shortly thereafter, she received her mechanical engineer license.

In her early career, she said she was so thrilled by the opportunities presented that she couldn’t see certain red flags.

“I was so excited that I had my first real job, I didn’t know they were paying me less than everyone else,” she said. “Over at personnel I’m sure they were thinking ‘let’s offer her this (much in salary).’ I said yes! I didn’t even negotiate. I would encourage anyone out looking for a job to think about it before you accept that first offer.”

A mother of three, she recalled that when she applied for maternity leave (at a time maternity leave was not protected by law), her managers tried to have her sign a contract that terminated her employment instead of sending her on leave.

She refused to sign, concluding that her education and training gave her the upper hand, and she was able to keep her position. When she started her 18 year-career at General Atomics, where she worked on the Strategic Defense Initiative in the 1980s known as Star Wars, she was an engineering aid. When she left, she was a staff engineer.

“For much of my career, I was one of the only women in my line of work, and that’s why it is so important to me to mentor and advocate for girls — and boys — especially in underserved communities, to get into engineering,” she said. “It is something that will never steer you wrong, and engineering skills are adaptable toward another future. The skills are important in getting a handle on how the world works.”

Lightner supports EXPO Day held at PETCO Park — an annual festival of science and engineering that hosts thousands of children — and the various Girls in Engineering programs found in San Diego Schools.

“Women make up roughly half the population but they are underrepresented in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) occupations, with only 26 percent of STEM workers being women,” she said, noting that those in STEM careers earn about 33 percent more than those in non-STEM fields. “(Women) hold the low share of undergraduate degrees, especially in engineering, and while it’s getting better, it’s not getting better fast enough. It’s so important to engage young people in these careers.”

Mentors, Lightner said, are crucial to producing the strong and confident young women who pursue STEM careers. “As a woman in the workplace I’ve heard the labels ‘head strong’ or ‘sleeping with the boss,’ and those taunts are going to be there, so women have to have a thick skin,” she said. “As a young woman, it’s very important to have someone to talk with, someone who has been where you are and faced the challenges you face. That’s what we can do. Young women need a mentor relationship that grounds them and makes them secure.”

Lightner said her early mentors were female teachers because “my male teachers weren’t quite so dynamic,” she said. She excitedly mentioned a French teacher she considered a “dynamo,” and Mrs. Perry, her chemistry teacher at Crawford High School. “I used to have nightmares about her lessons, but she was from the Midwest and one of the first women to get a collegiate scientific degree. She was fabulous and really passionate about her work,” she said.

Lightner’s passion, in addition to “being a community voice at city hall,” is her family. She said she learned to listen by listening to her children, and her path to leadership started when she had a family. When sons Mack and John and daughter Evie were in school, she became active in PTA, and then it was sports, Scouting and Sunday School. Next, she got involved with community groups as she tried to make La Jolla a better place for her family.

When asked if she plans to continue her career in politics, Lightner said no. “The last campaign was really nasty and hurt my family,” she said. “The ads were really terrible, one or two really affected my daughter and her friends, because they showed our house. My supporters thought she should move because they feared for her safety,” she said.

With just under two years left of her term, Lightner said she is focusing on economic development and the city’s water policy.