Gayle Roberts did not set out to be president of a multinational company when she was a student at">Iowa State University. In fact, her first major was home economics.

Today, as the president of Stanley Consultants Inc.  in Muscatine, Iowa, Roberts can look back and pinpoint her love of math and science as the guideposts that led her to change her major to chemical engineering.

“In high school, I loved math and science. I don’t know why but I wasn’t really encouraged to go into engineering, even though I asked about it,” Roberts, who has led the global engineering, environmental and construction company since 2007, said.

Nonetheless, her interest never faded.

She continued to take math and science electives and found herself helping chemistry students on her dormitory floor. In her junior year, she made the official switch to chemical engineering, earning a bachelor of science degree in 1981. In 1991, she received her master of business administration from St. Ambrose University, Davenport.

After graduating from Iowa State, she returned to Martelle, Iowa, where she was raised on a dairy farm, and applied at Stanley Consultants in Muscatine.

“Stanley was the only place I interviewed in Iowa. I stayed in Iowa, took the job with Stanley but have traveled tremendously with my job,” Roberts said.

“I tell people that I wouldn’t have thought about it at the time, but when you’re interviewing look for companies whose values are in line with yours. I realize that, looking back.”

Pursuing opportunities

Roberts said she is frequently asked by up-and-coming engineers about how to become company president, but she notes that the challenge of the job was the biggest attraction. Her ascent to president came through years of hard work.

“It was just a progression of having new opportunities available. You have to raise your hand; they don’t always come your way,” she said.

Roberts credits many mentors for encourging her career. In particular, she points to Stanley chairman and CEO Gregs Thomopulos — her predecessor in the president’s chair — for giving her strength and courage to take the position.

Now Roberts visits colleges, high schools and middle schools to encourage students to follow their interests and to look for opportunities to make a difference. She also stresses the importance of confidence to reaching one’s goals.

“I think you just have to look at the opportunity to make a difference,” she said. “It’s really about being out there, you need to be active. You can’t just sit back.”

First woman president

Roberts is the only female president of an international engineering firm and the first woman to head Stanley Consultants. She recently was honored with the Iowa Women’s Foundation 50% Solution Award and was honored in the Large Company Innovation and Leadership category of the 2008 Iowa Women of Innovation.

The obvious interest in her gender role, however, is not her priority.

“I never thought there were any challenges directly related to my gender,” she said. “I acted appropriately, dressed appropriately — always set the bar high for yourself and it doesn’t attract discrimination.”

Women’s representation in engineering continues to lag behind other fields, and Roberts believes increasing the number would help solve the shortage of engineers she foresees in the future.

After being selected for the recent awards, Roberts said she read the profiles of other award-winning women in other fields and categories. She said she was “humbled” to be be included with such a “tremendous group of women.”

“I’ve realized I need to do more. In my position, I can be doing more to promote women,” she said. “I think it’s incumbent on me to do more to promote to get women in our industry. I’m at that point in my life where it’s all about giving back.”

Balancing act

The engineering field sees few women like Roberts in upper management positions. She understands why.

“This is a job you have to live 24 hours a day. And it may not be worth it to everybody. There are some sacrifices along the way,” she said.

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Roberts has two college-age daughters, one majoring in art and the other in pre-med. Although neither chose to study engineering, she is proud to have raised such goal-oriented individuals.

But finding balance between personal and professional life is easier said than done.

“You never really have a balance, even if you say you have a balance. The best thing you can do is be present when you’re present,” she said.

In her free time, Roberts enjoys spending time with her family and husband, Stan, a Davenport physician. Cooking and traveling are among her interests. Her 91-year-old mother recently moved into her home, and Roberts sees her presence as a way to realign her priorities. For stress relief, she enjoys running — although she admits she’s fallen off track.

“I’m not running right now, but I need to carve that time back out.”

Advice for students

Roberts said it’s hard to expect 18-year-olds to know what they want to do with the rest of their lives, but she encourages students to follow their dreams.

“You have to look for those opportunities that are going to take you somewhere. Raise your hand. Have confidence in yourself,” she said. “As far as advice, make a difference. I truly believe everybody has to be out there with an idea that they’re going to do something that makes a difference.”

Keeping gender out of the picture also is important, she said. Roberts encourages young women not to make gender a vital component of their successes or tribulations.

“In my mind, if you don’t make gender an issue it’s not an issue. Just set that bar high. Be willing to make the tough decisions,” she said. “I’m pleased to have all the opportunities that I’ve had with the company and now it’s my time to make those opportunities happen for others.”

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