“I just don’t take no for an answer. If you don’t give me the right answer, I’ll go to somebody higher than you. I have no problems doing that, if I want to get something done.”
In a 2005 interview for the Society of Women Engineers, Lois Cooper summarized the mindset that carried her through establishing many “firsts” as a Black woman in transportation engineering in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Lois’ willingness to persevere in the face of opposition, and her passion to make things better in her field and for the people around her, fueled a remarkable transportation career and a lasting impact on the next generation of engineers.
In celebration of Black History Month, we’re learning from Lois’ life and legacy, which included leading groundbreaking projects for Caltrans, serving as president of the Los Angeles Council of Black Professional Engineers, and helping hundreds of students see themselves in engineering careers.
Lois’ Journey to Transportation Engineering
Lois Cooper was born in 1931 and spent her childhood in Vicksburg, Mississippi, where she developed an early interest in math. She credited this interest to teachers who drew connections between math and application—something that would stick with her throughout her career—and her willingness to take challenging classes head-on.
“I can recall when I was getting ready to go to high school the kids would say, ‘Don’t take algebra. Take business arithmetic,’” said Lois. “So because I guess they had trouble with algebra, so they were just trying to discourage anyone from taking any algebra if you’re not familiar with it. And so the class was filled, and I took algebra, and I’m glad I did.”
This interest led Lois to study math at Los Angeles City College and Los Angeles State College, where she was often the only Black woman in her class. She quickly developed a reputation for her ability to solve problems, becoming an unofficial tutor to several of her classmates. After graduating, she found a job notice for an engineering aide at the California Department of Architecture—for which the only requirement was high school math—and decided to apply.
“I applied for the job, and I got a call. I went down to the interview for the job. And they told me, ‘Oh, I thought you were a man.’ So of course I didn’t get the job,” said Lois. “Of course, you’re angry. But what do you do?”
Lois pressed on and had her next interview with the Division of Highways (now Caltrans), where she got the job and became the first Black woman hired in the Engineering Department. Lois’ ability to make calculations by hand quickly made her an indispensable member of the team, often handling freeway calculations that stumped other engineers.
“Because I had a math degree, and in math you have to pay attention to numbers, and so it, to me, was fun to calculate the alignments of the road,” said Lois. “So the guys were doing calculations before I got there, and sometimes they’d calculate and the traverse wouldn’t close. So then you have to go back and figure out where you made a mistake.
“After awhile they started giving the problems to me. And I would go through it meticulously and then find out where they made the mistake, and then I’d close the traverse. And it got to the place where they just started giving me all the calculations, so they didn’t even do them anymore,” she recounted with a laugh.
Lois had to work hard to remain competitive with her male coworkers, who had more access to resources that would help them advance. For example, positions at Caltrans were based on exams that relied on experience with construction. Women employees couldn’t go to construction sites, so Lois passed the exam solely by studying old exams.
When it came to taking the engineering license exam, Lois ran into more barriers as she had studied mathematics but not engineering. After taking the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam (the initial test an engineer must take before pursuing a professional engineer license) several times without passing, she once again decided not to take no for an answer, and went back to school for engineering—while working, raising two kids, taking care of a sick husband, and dealing with medical challenges herself—to learn the information. She graduated, passed the EIT, then passed the PE exam on her first try.
“The way the press release read, it said I was the first black woman to be licensed in Civil Engineering at Caltrans,” she remembered. “But we think I was the first one in the state, but we don’t know that for a fact. I tried to call them to find out, and they said they couldn’t tell.”
Lois continued to advance at Caltrans, becoming a transportation engineer and project manager. She worked on several major projects, including the I-105 Century Freeway, the San Diego Freeway, the Long Beach Freeway, and the Riverside Freeway; designed the first bike path off the 91 Freeway; and was a leader in the effort to establish carpool lanes. For a few years, she also headed Caltrans’ Public Information department, helping the organization navigate contentious projects.
“The purpose of being in Public Information was you had to know a little bit about everything. And so any freeway that was in the district, I knew about. No matter where it was, I had to learn a little bit about it. So I enjoyed that part.”
Paving the Way For Others
In the early 1970s, Lois joined the Los Angeles Council of Black Professional Engineers (LACBPE) as the only woman at the time. She worked her way up to treasurer, secretary, vice president, and then the president of the organization.
“And when it came out, some of the guys at Caltrans… would catch me and say, ‘Lois, how does that female organization that you’re president of’—I’d say, ‘I’m the only female in there,’” said Lois with a laugh. “But I guess they assumed that I couldn’t be the president of a male organization, so to speak. But that was fun…and I’m still a member of that organization.”
When asked what she considered to be her most important contribution to the engineering field, Lois said it was being a role model. As part of her involvement with LACBPE, she regularly visited schools to talk with students about careers in engineering.
“Rather than going to my immediate supervisor or to his supervisor, I went to the head of the department, and I told him, I said, ‘I go to talk to schools on career days, and act as a role model for the kids,’” she remembered. “I said, ‘Well, when somebody calls, I’m going.’”
Lois gave up her Saturdays to teach math and science to grades two through twelve, determined to help more students see themselves in math and science. She also worked on the institutional side, advocating for Black students in engineering.
“Even if they qualified to go into engineering, they weren’t being accepted in the college,” she said. “So we got involved with the colleges, the deans of engineering of the colleges, and worked with them to try to find the students who were qualified to major in engineering. So we’d go to the schools to talk to find out. If the kids had the right GPAs and things, we’d try to get them enrolled in the various colleges.”
Advice to Other Women in Engineering
“You have to respect yourself, and respect others.” This was Lois’ first response when asked for her advice for other women in STEM fields.
“Don’t try to shame anybody. I don’t care who it is. You can know all the information in the world, don’t make somebody else feel bad about it—about the fact that they don’t know. There’s a way you can teach somebody something without making them feel ashamed.”
Lois’ generosity in sharing both her time and talents with others is a notable theme from her career. Even when institutional barriers meant she already had to spend extra time and effort to access the same opportunities as her male colleagues, she still gave of her time to lift up the people around her—from helping fellow students in high school and college, to answering questions that were stumping her colleagues, to teaching and mentoring students of all ages. Lois’ resolve to not take no for an answer not only led her through a remarkable career at Caltrans, but positively influenced the careers of hundreds, if not thousands of others.
Lois passed away in 2014, but her impact continues. The Lois Cooper Scholars Program was established at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville to increase the number of underrepresented students in STEM.
As we continue to celebrate Black History Month, we invite you to read the stories of more Black innovators who have moved the transportation forward here on our blog.