Kristen Rios: Breaking Barriers One Bikini at a Time

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( ENSPIRE She Did That ) Engineer and Beauty Queen Kristen Rios Stands up for Women in STEM

ENSPIRE Contributor: Abby Ladner

The fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, commonly known as STEM, have been at the forefront of encouraging innovation and progress. However, these fields are still struggling to improve their treatment of women in the workforce. In the United States, women make up only 28% of those working in STEM. Women who do work in STEM are paid significantly less than their male counterparts and oftentimes experience harassment and discrimination. Despite these barriers, many women persist and continue to pursue careers in STEM. Kristen Rios is one of those women.

Kristen Rios is a civil engineer working in the male-dominated construction industry. She is also a beauty queen and swimsuit model. In both of her careers, Rios is breaking stereotypes while encouraging other women to do the same. Read the interview below to learn more about Rios’s life as an engineer and model and her advice for other women entering the STEM field.

Could you tell me a bit about your background? How did you develop your interests in engineering and modeling, and what has it been like combining the two?

I am a civil engineer and construction manager in the NYC construction industry. I am also an international swimsuit model, beauty queen, and I am the current Miss NYC. 

I am from the Bronx, originally, and I grew up old school Italian. Neither of my parents had an opportunity to go to college, so education was the most crucial part of my upbringing (with athleticism coming in second). I went to a private catholic school for most of my life, excelling academically but struggled with the strict culture. I did well in math and science, but honestly, I’ve always just liked to build things! When I was a little girl, it was my Barbie Dream House that I took apart and built over and over. I took an architecture elective in high school, and today as an adult, I always have a DIY project to work on. I recently built a mirror, a small project, but a few years ago, I used epoxy to resurface my kitchen counters completely. 

I got into engineering, specifically, because when I was 17, I participated in the Manhattan College summer engineering program for high school students, which introduces teenagers to STEM careers. I enjoyed the program so much that I decided to major in civil engineering. 

After graduating from Manhattan College, my first job was as a structural engineer with a design firm in NYC. I designed moveable bridges for the first six years of my career before entering the exciting and fast-paced construction world. I found that building bridges was much more fun and rewarding than planning them on paper. 

As for modeling . . . Style, fashion, health, and fitness have always been a part of my lifestyle. I was captain of the track and cross-country teams in high school, and I was even honored with an MVP award my senior year. After college, Guy Del Corso, a legendary coach in the bodybuilding industry, approached me about competing as a bikini model. I was going through a toxic breakup at the time, and his training made me feel good about myself. The guy was a wonderful mentor, and by getting me up on that stage (even though I was terrified), I learned a lot about my self-worth. During my first competition, I was afraid to go on stage, and I wasn’t confident about strutting my stuff in front of a camera, but I came in second! I continued to work on my self-confidence and won the next one. I did about eight bikini competitions total before I went on to do pageants. 

Before Swimsuit USA International scouted me, I thought that pageants were outdated and misogynistic. Then I did one! Pageants are an excellent way to meet friends, encourage self-discipline, build public speaking skills and build self-confidence. I wanted to become Miss NYC because I knew it could provide a platform to set an example and be recognized.  

Combining engineering and modeling has been a challenge! The engineering/construction industry is conservative and male-dominated, so when colleagues see my modeling work, they make assumptions about my professional capabilities. There is still a stereotype out there that women can’t be both intelligent AND sexy. 

What difficulties have you faced as a woman in STEM, and how have you overcome them? Has your work in engineering impacted your career as a model? Do the challenges go both ways? 

All women are facing difficulties in STEM, and it’s no surprise. I have been a project engineer on the George Washington Bridge, a construction manager on the Goethals Bridge, and even a superintendent in the NYC building industry. I have been underpaid, harassed, demeaned, set up for failure, and wrongfully terminated. I could write a book and a juicy one at that. In my industry, women will tell you that our successes are discounted and our expertise questioned even though we prove ourselves repeatedly. Besides, few women are supporting one another in this industry. I have met with women (ahem, mean girls) who treated me like a threat rather than a teammate. I once told a female HR representative about the harassment I received from a male colleague, and she did nothing. Another female HR representative used to stalk my social media obsessively, and after I did a photoshoot wearing designer clothes, she tried to cut my salary. You see, a man may talk down to you, but a woman will take the food from your mouth. See the distinction in the level of ruthlessness? 

Overcoming these challenges is a daily work in progress. The industry isn’t going to change suddenly, so these things still happen, and of course, they get me down. When I become upset, I think about five things: 

  1. How far I have come.
  2. My five-year plan.
  3. I remember that it’s not me and that I am not alone.    
  4. I reach out for support.
  5. Most importantly – I focus on the positive. 

As a model and pageant queen, you’ve created a platform for yourself where you have the opportunity to speak out about what’s important to you. How do you hope to use that platform, and who do you want to reach?

I want to bring positive awareness to women in STEM, and I would like to speak out about my personal experiences in the industry. 

I believe passionately that the STEM field needs promotion as a viable option for young women entering the workforce. Introducing young ladies to the engineering/construction industry is important to me because we need more of them entering the field for the industry to become more conducive to women. We need to level out the playing field, so to speak. 

In addition, I continue to be an advocate for women supporting fellow women. It’s important to instill confidence, support, and conviction in each other. At the heart of the mean girl syndrome, in my view, is a culture that perpetuates girls’ feelings of insecurity and insignificance — so much so that their desire for acceptance overrides their innate feelings of self-worth. The meanness is simply a mask for insecurity, even as women have grown into adulthood.  

What advice do you have for other women going into STEM? 

I think that the younger generation will have a much better experience than I did. More millennials are coming into authoritative roles now, so young ladies won’t have to face some of the stereotypes that I did. It is partly because the baby-boomers are retiring and thankfully, taking with them their old school mentality. There are more women now than ever before in the STEM field, so my advice is to go for it!

How do you feel STEM and other male-dominated fields can change to be more welcoming to women? 

We can’t make changes alone as individuals, and we need to work as allies (men and women). Instead of ignoring the problems, we need to promote gender equality by calling out overt discrimination and microaggressions and communicate directly with our colleagues on how they can be better allies. Speak up and stand up for each other!  

Kristen Rios has pushed past all the barriers in front of her to establish her successful career as an engineer, a field in which women account for only 15% of the workforce. In combining her interests in engineering and modeling, Rios is advocating for multi-faceted women and paving an easier path for those coming behind her.

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