Physics helped Payne find the formula for success in a male-dominated industry
Oct 17, 2017 | Atlanta, GA
It took an early 1970s version of girl power to help Sue E. Payne get past a difficult problem in a Georgia Tech lab. The answer to the problem involved, of all things, a Barbie doll.
At the time, Payne was one of approximately 250 women among 7,000 students at Tech. With other undergraduate students in a physics lab, she was trying to create a hologram. The team was having a hard time because it didn’t have the right equipment. They needed something small and three dimensional to hold the material that would produce the holographic image.
Payne’s answer: one of her Barbies. She and her fellow students wrapped the doll’s torso with reflective material before bombarding it with a laser. “That was the first successful hologram that my team made,” she says with a laugh.
Payne cites that memory as an example of how Georgia Tech taught her to outthink her problems. “It’s about how you figure out how to get something done, how you persist in solving a problem or move through a challenge,” she says. “Georgia Tech taught me persistence and perseverance.”
Those lessons served her well in her post-Tech life in one of the most male-dominated business sectors, the oil and gas industry.
Payne, who received her B.S. in physics in 1975, went on to a 37-year career as a geophysicist and executive with ExxonMobil. She retired in 2011 as Manager of Geoscience Resources, responsible for training and deploying about 1,500 geoscientists to oil and gas exploration positions worldwide.
Payne was well-experienced for those responsibilities. Her career started in 1976 with Mobil, which merged with Exxon in 1999. In the beginning, she was processing seismic data from potential drilling sites and making recommendations based on analytics. Later, as an executive, “I was negotiating everything from development projects, to upgraders (facilities that turn heavy-grade oil into higher-value crude oil), to electric power projects in Bolivia, to exploration projects in Peru,” she says, “the full gamut of ExxonMobil’s interests.”
Payne says she never encountered overt sexism while at ExxonMobil. Yes, men working on oil rigs in the 1970s had pictures of nude women in their lockers, she says. “We were dealing with an industry that still advertised drill bits using scantily clad models.”
She decided to fight sexism indirectly. For example, when preparing for a business trip to South America and how to deal with its “very macho, male culture,” she got the best advice from a woman entrepreneur who worked in the region.
“She told me: ‘You walk into the room and demonstrate you know what you’re doing. If you have the confidence, you’ll get the respect that you need,’” Payne recalls. “Confidence was ingrained in me by then. Probably a lot of that was developed at Tech.”
Encouraging Students in STEM
Growing up in Georgia and given her love and good grades in high school math and science, Payne leaned toward Georgia Tech because of its reputation. Her high school guidance counselor, however, tried to steer her parents away from Tech. Payne remembers her counselor saying that a girl as smart as she is should try international studies. The counselor believed “a girl will never be successful in engineering or the sciences,” Payne recalls. “I was hell-bent on coming to Georgia Tech after I heard that.”
While at ExxonMobil, Payne helped create supportive environments for students like her – interested in science, engineering, and technology careers – and served as chief operating officer of the National Math and Science Initiative, from 2011 to 2013. The nonprofit organization aims to expose students, especially girls and youth in underserved communities, to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education. As a result of this and other efforts, the federal government, states, and school districts have increased their STEM efforts in grades K-12 over the past few years.
“The good news is that we’re now talking more about STEM education overall,” Payne says. “But we are nowhere near where we need to be, and the key thing comes down to teacher training – getting teachers who have the content knowledge and the capability to go into a classroom and engage students.”
Advice for Students
As for students already engaged in STEM fields at Georgia Tech, Payne, who sits on the Georgia Tech College of Sciences Advisory Board, has several pieces of advice:
- Don’t limit yourself. Take advantage of the opportunity Georgia Tech gives you to explore science, engineering, everything.
- Take advantage of undergraduate research and multidisciplinary teams that get put into place to solve problems.
- Take a course completely outside of your discipline.
- If you’re a business-minded student, don’t think just of engineering as your only path to business. My degree is in physics, and I’ve spent the last 37 years in business.