The scene has changed for women working in STEM careers, which historically held a reputation as “men’s work.” In fact, the scene has changed in the field, generally. According to a 2021 Pew Research Center report, women accounted for half of people working in STEM jobs; and at 50% that figure is even slightly higher than their share of the overall workforce (47%).
When LANXESS Plant Manager Pamela Dudish was starting out, though, she says she did have quite a few people ask her if she was sure she wanted to be part of a male-dominated career. “[At] Rutgers, I think my graduating class was 250 and there were maybe four women that graduated in mechanical engineering that year,” she said. “But to me, that was kind of a challenge … I don’t want to hear that I can’t do something I am interested in.” Now, the company she works for runs four plants in New Jersey – and they’re all led by women. Beyond that, Dudish said it’s not the same experience she’s had with her own children.
As the face of STEM careers continues to evolve, it helps to keep in mind how that progress was made, and what work can be done to be sure it persists.
Dudish offered her insights as a woman working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics on March 29 during an NJBIZ virtual panel discussion on the subject also featuring Burns & McDonnell Project Manager, Transmission & Distribution Services Michelle Butler; Kean University School of Computer Science and Technology Executive Director Patricia Morreale; SJI Utilities, South Jersey Industries President Melissa Orsen; and HDR Lighting Designer Anne Ullestad.
Though some women, like Dudish who said she started looking at engineering schools when she was 14 years old, know early on that they want to be involved in STEM, that isn’t always the case. Which makes it even more important to lay a strong foundation early on that encourages interest in its subjects.
“[T]he earlier that you can start the better, and definitely making it fun,” Butler said, equating the early start to laying the foundation for building blocks to be added to throughout a child’s lifetime. And blocks aren’t just a great metaphor for these childhood experiences, they can be literal. Butler explained that playing Legos with her 5-year-old son, for example, activates problem-solving skills. “That way of thinking, kind of training your mind, is something that’s transferable throughout your entire life,” she said, and important for a STEM focus.
Ullestad, whose father was an engineer, was averse to the industry growing up. “It was kind of reverse engineering,” she said of the impression she got seeing people in his office working from their cubicle, stuck in front of computers. “It look[ed] so boring, to me, so I was kind of always like I don’t want to do that.” But Ullestad’s interest in math was accompanied by an aptitude for the subject when she was school-aged, which she said prompted her teachers to tell her parents to encourage her prowess in the subject. That led to a continued interest in math, as well as science and art, which led to her taking some architecture classes in high school, and then her pursuing architectural engineering in college.
According to Morreale, having a parent – particularly a father – who is an engineer is one of the biggest predictors for women entering the STEM fields. In fact, Dudish said her father was also an engineer.
Examples of people working in STEM fields and, even more so, that encouragement, the panelists agreed throughout the discussion, is really important to cultivating long-term interest in STEM. Another touchstone for cultivating success: creative thinking.
“[W]e had to practice a lot and I think sometimes we lose sight of the fact that these … problem-solving skills, we need to practice,” Morreale said.
And practice and positive feedback to the learner are really, really important to encourage them to persist and try harder.
— Patricia Morreale, Kean University
From the infrastructure perspective, Orsen used renewable energy as an example. “It’s problem solving, right?” she said. “STEM and STEAM [which incorporates an “a” for arts] is that perfect example, so we need young people coming in and problem solving on how we can get there. What are those solutions that we can come up with? And it’s fascinating to see those young minds at work.”
That emphasis on support, initially from educators, parents, troop leaders or other role models, doesn’t cease when girls become adults. It’s important, as well, to instill confidence in women as they enter the workplace, particularly in spaces that are still male-dominated. For Orsen, part of that confidence comes from being “unapologetically” herself. “I didn’t bend over backwards to try and be a man, right? Fit in as they are,” she said. “I had my knowledge, that was mine; and I built relationships, and [tried to] be who I was.” That tenacity is something that she strives to pass along to others now. “I think it’s important that we build other women up? So we always hire the right person for the job, but it’s so important to put our hand out and build those relationships,” she said.
Part of building women up comes from letting them use their voice. A point Ullestad drove home with a site visit experience from early in her career. As one young woman in a group of older men, who were also senior in tenure at her company, Ullestad said in speaking with the client, they repeatedly directed questions pertinent to her area of expertise to her male colleagues. “Every time he asked a quested based on what I … had to do, he would talk straight to my colleague, who was an older man,” she said. But that colleague did not take the easy route – talking over Anne, or simply responding without acknowledging her. “He was like, oh that’s Anne’s section … you need to talk to her about that.”
Supporting women in STEM by letting them use their voice is particularly important at the start of their careers, when they’re laying the foundation for their futures in work. “At that time in my career – like I said I was about 24 – I probably wouldn’t have tried to speak up at that point, because I was new and I was very, just not confident in myself at that point. But him giving me the opportunity to really do my job made a big difference.”
Finding an advocate – and a male advocate, at that – in your career is “really, really important,” according to Morreale. “[P]eople who encouraged us, or put us forward to speak, or whatever type of collegial behaviors that we experienced … And male advocates are one of the biggest things that we can do to develop in our team, to encourage in our families and other colleagues, and” bring up less senior executives, she said.
Finding a mentor – male or female – who will recognize your talents and help you to develop them helps to keep adding to that foundation of encouragement that was laid as a child interested in STEM subjects. And that relationship can be beneficial throughout your work life. “I am continuing to grow in my career and life, so I don’t think you ever outgrow the mentor idea,” Butler said. But, she added, it’s important to remember that mentorship is a two-way street: be proactive in the relationship as a mentee, she said. As far as finding a mentor goes –
Butler suggested making connections through LinkedIn. Morreale said if there’s something you want to learn, find an expert and try picking their brain. “I’m hoping you can give me some information, I’d like to help some other people, or I’d like to do my job better, or I’d like to be more efficient, or I admire what you’re doing,” are all approaches she suggested could help to start that conversation. “And that can per-haps make it a little easier for you to find a mentor and get a good conversation going,” she said.
Once you’re established in your career, you can also transition roles. “One of the real powers that we have now as women in STEM is that now we get to become mentors,” Dudish said. And with half of the STEM workforce comprised of women, the impact for the future is exponential. Starting with that strong foundation of encouragement that transitions into a cultivation of confidence, all while appreciating and keeping up-and-coming minds at work, will make all the difference.
“We must be careful as adults, not to project our biases, if you will, on to the children,” Morreale said. “They may be preparing now for jobs that we can’t even conceive of, so we need to keep them in the game and in the hunt for those future opportunities.”