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American Society for Engineering EducationSEPTEMBER 2006Volume 16 | Number 1 PRISM HOMETABLE OF CONTENTSBACK ISSUES
Woman of the World - BY PIERRE HOME-DOUGLAS
Getting in Gear -     BY JEFFREY SELINGO

REFRACTIONS: Engineering and the City - By Henry Petroski
ASEE TODAY: President's Letter - Conference Highlights - 2006 Awards - Calls for Papers
LAST WORD: Closing the Gender Gap - BY RAYMOND SIMON

YEAR OF DIALOGUE: A Focus on Scholarship - BY RONALD E. BARR
BOOK REVIEW: Leonardo's Lost Robots - BY ROBIN TATU
ON CAMPUS: Ready, Get Set, Go!

FEATURE: Woman of the World - As head of the World Bank Institute, engineer Frannie Léautier can make a real difference. - BY PIERRE HOME-DOUGLASFrannie Léautier  

World Bank Institute head FRANNIE LÉAUTIER gives new meaning to the word persistence. She had to overcome incredible obstacles to get an engineering degree in Tanzania.

It wasn’t the kind of protest that Frannie Léautier was used to. Sure, she had had her share of negative reactions to the fact that she was a female engineering student—the only one in the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania—in the early 1980s. Like some disgruntled classmates secretly cutting off the leg of her chair, causing her to collapse on the floor when she sat down, all because no girl could get marks that high. But when she arrived on a job site the summer after her third year in college, the workers on the highway construction project came up with a novel way to convey their displeasure. They stripped off all their clothes. “They said they would never work for a woman,” Léautier recalls from her office at the World Bank in Washington, D.C. “They thought they would shock me into leaving.”

They thought wrong. Léautier stayed on the job, helped by a supervisor who insisted that since she was qualified, she be given the right to work. When it came time for her to return to school, all the men gave her a big farewell party. “I guess they eventually came to accept me,” she says.

Léautier has spent a lifetime marching to the beat of her own drum, carving out a path that has taken her from her rural roots on a coffee farm in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro to the World Bank, where she is a vice president and head of the World Bank Institute. Born to an engineer father and a stay-at-home mother, Léautier knew from a young age where her interests lay. “For a long time, my father didn’t have a son so I went around with him fixing things on our farm, which I really enjoyed. I was never too keen on dolls,” she adds. “I would make my own toys like trucks or tools that did something. I learned a lot living on the farm. My father designed a coffee pulper, and I helped him with the riveting. I watched all the mechanical movements and learned firsthand how it was able to squeeze the skin and not the seed.”

Her marks in primary school were the highest in the Tanga region of Tanzania and earned her a spot in the top high school in the country. But her parents were reluctant to let her go, figuring that being the only girl in a school would be too difficult to handle for a 13-year-old. Instead, she went to the Korogwe School for Girls, where she studied math, biology, chemistry and physics—as well as two classes that were deemed more typical female vocations at the time: cookery and needlework.

After graduation she enrolled in the civil engineering program at the University of Dar es Salaam, where she proved herself such a stellar student that one of her professors hired her to teach one of his undergraduate courses while he was away on sabbatical. Still, adverse pressure from fellow students built up to such a point that she went back home and told her parents that she was leaving school. “They took me right back and said to me, ‘You can do it. We’re here to help.’ I don’t think I could have done it without them.” Surprisingly, the whole experience at Dar es Salaam didn’t leave a bitter taste in Léautier’s mouth. “It made me tough,” she admits. “I also had some professors who were very supportive and realized how hard it was for me. They would often ask how I was doing. It made a real difference to me.”

LÉAUTIER has spent a lifetime marching to the beat of her own drum,  carving out a path that has taken her from her rural roots on a coffee farm in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro to the World Bank,  where she is a vice president and head of the World Bank Institute.

Coming to America

When it came time for graduate school, Léautier had her sights set on Oxford and a couple of other top universities in Europe. A visiting NASA scientist from the United States suggested that she apply to MIT. “Where is that?” she asked. “I had heard of Harvard, but that was about the only American university I knew.” When he returned to the United States, he mailed her an application. Léautier applied and was accepted. The trouble was that her parents, with six other kids to look after by this time, couldn’t afford to contribute any money. Léautier hadn’t applied for financial assistance from MIT—she didn’t realize that she could—so she set about raising the money herself. After eight months she had amassed a grand total of $17. She spent every evening visiting foreign embassies seeing if she could obtain any grants. No luck. Her own country had declined her request, figuring that she would probably never return once she obtained her degree. Eventually someone from the United Nations heard about her plight, and the organization agreed to pay for her first two semesters’ tuition. Swiss Air kicked in with a free flight.

Léautier flew to Boston with her $17. By the time she had paid the cab from the airport, she was down to $5. “For the first week I lived on chocolates the Swiss had given me,” she says with a laugh. Fortunately, a professor who was working on research for the Federal Highway Authority (FHWA) in construction and maintenance soon offered her a research position based on the knowledge she had gained back in Tanzania. “Our training back home was very practical,” she notes. “We learned how to manage construction labor camps, what well-mixed concrete should look like, things like that. The theory we studied was theory you could immediately translate into practice.”

Life in the United States was a huge culture shock. “I couldn’t have imagined the difference in wealth,” Léautier recalls. “But the biggest shock was the freedom to learn. I could take any subject I wanted. And the books! In the University of Dar es Salaam I would queue for one book shared by 60 students. In the library at MIT there were multiple copies of the same book. Books everywhere.” And then there was her slide rule that she had used in her courses back home. “I came to MIT and they had one in a museum. It was like entering the space age.”

After completing a Master of Science in Transportation, Léautier had planned to return to her homeland to teach a new generation of engineers, but her adviser urged her to stay at MIT and earn a Ph.D. She completed the degree in Infrastructure Systems, the first woman from Tanzania to earn a Ph.D. at the university. Her degree combined economics, civil engineering and remote sensing from electrical engineering. After graduating she taught at the university. The World Bank came recruiting and hired her on a consultant basis, then as a full-time employee in 1992, specializing in infrastructure, a vast and varied field that includes everything from energy and water systems to transportation and dams. From 1997 to 2000 she served as the sector director for infrastructure in South Asia and also as director for infrastructure for the World Bank Group. In December 2001, she was chosen to head the World Bank Institute, the branch of the World Bank that deals with capacity development: helping provide the knowledge, skills and expertise to improve the conditions in developing countries, which, after all, represent 5 billion of the 6 billion people on the planet.

Léautier is aware, more than most, that simply plying a country with lots of money offers no long-term solution to its economic and social problems. “If the money goes ahead and the skills and knowledge are lagging, we don’t get sustainable results. You can bring foreign companies to create the infrastructure and leave nothing behind, and then maintenance and other issues become problems.” This is a particularly pressing problem in her home continent, which she admits is never far from her mind. Africa has the least number of scientists and engineers in the world—80 per million as compared with 1,200 per million in advanced countries.

“The type of scientific knowledge and technology that can transform life immediately in areas like Africa tends to be very high science,” she explains. “People assume that simple problems need simple solutions, but that’s not true in places like Africa; it’s the opposite. You need complex science to deal with problems like growing food in arid areas, getting drinkable water and preserving food for long periods without refrigeration.” The World Bank brings a wealth of expertise to addressing these issues, with 1,200 Ph.D.s among its staff of 10,000, including economists, geologists, anthropologists, sociologists, medical doctors and engineers. She lauds efforts by the World Bank to create the African Virtual University, which offers undergraduate courses through more than 57 learning centers in 27 African countries, linking them with universities in Australia, Canada and the United States.

With her ultrabusy schedule, Léautier, at the age of 47, faces the challenges of many modern married couples—balancing the demands of work and home. “I’m very lucky. I have a very supportive family,” she says. Léautier says that her husband, who works as a risk management analyst for an aluminum-producing company, takes a big role in the raising of their two children, a son, 11, and a daughter, 9. Léautier says she also benefits from technology. “When your business is global, where you are doesn’t really make much difference any more. I can have a video conference from home or my office connecting to people in other countries.”

In her spare time, Léautier likes to hike and mountain climb, although she admits, a little sheepishly, that she is the only one of her siblings who hasn’t scaled Africa’s highest peak, Mt. Kilimanjaro. She also writes stories for her children, carrying on a tradition that her father started when she was a child. “Every birthday, he would compose songs for us. He was a very talented musician, nationally known, so we grew up with a fantastic array of original songs.”

She has also turned her talents to nonfiction writing, having recently co-edited the book “Cities in a Globalizing World: Governance, Performance and Sustainability.” And when James Wolfensohn retired after 10 years at the helm of the World Bank, Léautier surprised him with a book that she had written on the concept of time in different cultures. The book is typical of the type of person Léautier is, says Wolfensohn from his vacation home in Jackson Hole, Wyo. “She is someone who spans many cultures, not only Western and Eastern, but Southern as well. She has overcome many obstacles but doesn’t see them.”

“The bank succeeds or fails by its ability to empower people in developing countries,” Wolfensohn adds. “Therefore, it needs to have a multinational, multicultural workforce that can understand and support and strengthen the cultures in those countries. Frannie is a person with the capacity to compete with the very best in the West but someone who has not lost her sensitivities to the place she came from.”

Pierre Home-Douglas is a freelance writer based in Montreal.


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American Society for Engineering Education