For women in STEM, laying the groundwork starts much earlier

Jessica Perry//March 30, 2022

For women in STEM, laying the groundwork starts much earlier

Jessica Perry//March 30, 2022

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, her company 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.

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.

Replay: Women in STEM, a NJBIZ panel discussion

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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. “I always was drawn to math and science in school, as well as art classes,” she said, which led to her taking some architecture classes in high school that then led to 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.”

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.”

As the makeup of workers in STEM continues to evolve, and time passes, appreciating and keeping those young 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.”