Tech-Powered Education

Women Scientists: How do We Empower the Next Generation?

Sarah Vedas Editor

Heading into Mother’s Day, we reached out to young and seasoned professionals working inside GE and Intel to learn how they are changing the workplace for women today and those who will be joining in the near future.

At a time when the country is facing a shortage of science and technology professionals, a discrepancy exists between the number of men and women who pursue a career in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. While over 70 million women make up roughly half of the U.S. workforce, they hold less than 25 percent of STEM positions, according to a report by the National Science Foundation.

STEM advocates are encouraging for everyone — from parents and educators to organizations and employers — to consider ways to bridge the gender gap in science by encouraging more women to pursue careers in these fields.

These six women share how they discovered their love for science, and how we can shape a future where STEM fields are an equal gender playing field:

Aicha Evans, vice president of Intel’s Platform and Engineering Group, and general manager the company’s Wireless Platform Research and Development Group

Barbara McAllister, director of strategic initiatives and planning at Intel

Jennifer Schilling, operations research engineer at Intel

Stephanie Berry, engineering manager at Intel

Nicole Tibbetts, lead analytical chemist at GE

Stacey Kennerly, process development engineer at GE

 

When did you discover your passion for science and technology?

Aicha Evans: My dad was a telecommunications engineer and executive, so I was exposed to this business at a young age. Growing up in France with family in West Africa, I could see how telecommunications (especially the emergence of cell phones) had the power to transform our lives and make our world smaller.

Barbara McAllister: Kids are naturally curious, and I was totally that kid. One of my first projects was tearing down my Easy Bake Oven and rebuilding it. My parents encouraged me to take things apart. Well, sometimes, it annoyed them when I couldn’t get things back together 100 percent.

Jennifer Schilling: My parents are both computer scientists/engineers, so I got lots of encouragement at home to pursue STEM. I had an erector set when I was a kid, and I really liked putting the cars and motors together.

Stephanie Berry: As a kid, I was drawn to computers, cars, rockets, Legos, K’Nex, and the like. I hated dolls! I can’t really pinpoint an “aha!” moment, but STEM has always been part of who I am.

Nicole Tibbetts: A lot of people ask, “How do you end up being a geochemist PhD?” It’s a bit of a weird field. From a very young age, my dad was always very passionate about being outdoors and one of my earliest memories is going down to the Hudson River and cracking rocks, looking at geodes, and just having an appreciation for mountains and how they form.

Stacey Kennerly: I grew up in a really small town in Maine — there’s lots of moose, very few people — so one of the things my teacher did to get his physics students engaged, was he taught about rates and unit conversions by having the class calculate the number of moose that would be going by per minute in the river if [moose replaced water]. So, he was able to take physics and make it about something the class could relate to and conceptualize.

Why do you think there is a lack of women in STEM fields?

Barbara: We haven’t done a great job of sharing why women should choose STEM over so many other competing options. Women represent 57 percent of college graduates but less than 20 percent in engineering. This tells me that women aren’t selecting these careers as their first choice. The research also shows that a lack of familiarity with the profession is a significant barrier in getting teens to pursue engineering as a career. STEM continues to have perception issues and especially around how these careers make a difference in the lives of others and how women see themselves in these roles.

Aicha Evans at a recent awards ceremony for Intel technology engineers and developers.

Aicha: I think more people (especially women) would pursue careers in STEM if we did a better job teaching the connection between subject matter and its power to improve lives and solve social problems. I think you broaden the net when you start with a problem — a human problem — and show how technology can solve that.

Stephanie: I think that there isn’t enough insight into what a STEM career entails. As a child, you see what it means to be a doctor, a teacher, a business owner, but not necessarily an engineer. Young men seem more willing to take the risk and seek a career path they don’t know much about.

Nicole: I can easily say in any classroom or research environment I had been in there, I was outnumbered, probably 15 to 1, in terms of male to female ratio. One of the things that’s kind of unique about women to men in this type of field is that many of us are also mothers. I think for many women in other areas of STEM fields or outside of GE, it’s been difficult to balance being a mother, or perhaps a wife, as well as having a rigorous scientific career.

Are there any STEM women you look up to?

Jennifer: Well, I definitely look up to my mom. She’s a STEM woman and really a pioneer in a way since she pursued computer science when there were hardly any women in the field. But, she never let the lack of other women be an issue. She’s worked hard, and she and my dad run their own consulting business. I admire that my mom hasn’t let anyone stand in her way of achieving her goals and the career and life she wants.

Stephanie: Julia Morgan, the architect and engineer of Hearst Castle, was the inspiration for my Civil Engineering major. I admired that she was able to fulfill that dual role and design/engineer such a phenomenal property.

Nicole: For the last 10 years, GE Aviation has had a female, Jeanne Rosario, as the [head] of engineering. Within GE, aviation is one of the most technological, rigorous in engineering, and difficult disciplines. One of things that I would say, especially for women, is that to be successful in the STEM field, not all of your mentors actually have to be women. That often times, having a strong male role model or mentor in your life can be equally as important.

What are the biggest challenges that you face as a woman in a predominantly male industry?

Aicha: I don’t feel challenged by my gender at Intel. I feel challenged, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not because I’m a woman. At the same time, I would like to look across the table at more women when I’m with customers and partners. It does happen — for example, AT&T’s top network engineer is a woman — but not as often as I’d like.

Nicole: I don’t view it as a challenge because it’s a male dominated field as much as I view it as an opportunity from my perspective to be slightly different because I am a woman. One of the things I would say is that I’ve experienced the feeling of being different in the room, but not necessarily at a disadvantage because I’m different in the room. One of the things I’ve always said, either in my academic career or my professional career, is many times I’d much rather be underestimated and outperform, rather than the opposite.

What challenges do we need to overcome to reach a future where women are equally represented in STEM?

Stephanie: I think it’s a matter of removing some of the ambiguity behind what it means to have a STEM career.

Barbara (pictured above): This shift is similar to any other major change we experienced in our lifetime.  What we know about implementing change that sustains itself over long periods of time is that it requires strong leadership, commitment and a real connection to the benefits of changing as compared with the cost of staying the same. Half of the people in the world are women, and we consume products that are not created by us. We need more women as creators to better design for our needs.

Jennifer: Women can find it harder than men to self-promote and reach for the next job or position, and I think we can do more to help women gain these skills. This can be done through coaching and creating a supportive environment. Equally representing women and men in STEM careers will in turn help bring in more young women into STEM as they see more female role models in the workplace.

Nicole: One aspect of cultural acceptance that we need to get used to is differences of what the norm is in terms of child care vs. career focus. I do have a two-year-old at home, and I’m pregnant with my second, and actually in my household, I work full time and my husband stays home and raises our children. I think as a culture we need to be accepting of the fact that although both roles are equally as important, both in the home and in the work place, they don’t necessarily need to be assigned to one gender or the other.

What would you tell the next generation of young women who are trying to pursue a STEM career?

Nicole: For women specifically who are considering entering an engineering field now, don’t be afraid of what you may perceive as a boy’s club. Many times I look around the room, and I am the only woman there, but I don’t feel that way because I identify myself as a scientist first, and I’m appreciated for my ability to contribute in a technical way, long before they ever notice that I am a woman.

Aicha: If you like helping people, solving practical problems, want to have a positive impact on the world, and have a variety of different opportunities to go after, pursue a career in STEM.

Barbara: I would encourage them to stay the course, get hands-on experience and exposure as early as possible. Find a strong support group and persist beyond those initial moments of doubt. I’d also caution them to lighten up and have fun on the journey. We are often our worst critic. Finally, I’d share what one of my mentors shared with me: “STEM coursework can be hard. Life is hard. But, life is a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t let a bad sprint ruin your marathon.”

 

Image courtesy of Intel Free Press and US Army RDECOM

 

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