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The Insider’s Guide to a Successful Career in STEM: A Woman’s Perspective

Aug. 29, 2019
As gender diversity in STEM again slides downward, there must be a concerted effort to encourage and support those passionate in pursuing such careers—and maintaining their interest.

Series: Addressing the Gender Gap in Engineering

After a small uptick of female interest in STEM fields in 2018, the figures have once again dropped to near-nominal levels in 2019. Unfortunately, this is not new.

Women’s participation in STEM has been in flux for years, and we’ve fought to bring more into the field and succeeded—in part. More women have entered into STEM since 1978 than any other field, but a whopping 84% of those women then later leave their roles. Something is happening here—and it’s widespread.

Industries that heavily rely on diverse talent proficient in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are approaching all-time lows as we witness females continuing to veer away from STEM industries at lightning speed. With females now making up only 17.5% of all civil, architectural, and sanitary STEM positions, and even then being high-risk and likely to leave their jobs, we have to look to the challenges that women face and provide help around the obstacles to foster success.

This is important because diversity is crucial to STEM. In fact, women have historically been key contributors to the success of the industry, such as the resounding success of the first female field-civil engineer completing the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. Then there’s the critical failure of an all-male team producing speech-recognition machines without including women (and, therefore, their voices) in the process. Women bring a new perspective and range of ideas and, with that, they bring long-term success that spans across demographics.

Companies are beginning to understand the value a diverse workforce can bring, and there’s a push for improvement. Still, the gender gap can feel like a roadblock for a career in STEM. We need more supporters and mentors along the way. So, woman to woman, and woman to man (because we’re all part of the equation), here are some of the most common challenges and how we can help females of all ages get around them:

Academic Participation

We’re operating in a world where female students are often pushed away from math and science early on, derailing their interest and perpetuating the stigma across schools that these skillsets are “for boys.”

In fact, female student’s achievement in these topic areas is on par with their male peers, with their participation at similar rates, too, But, even still, a gender gap can start as early as the third grade. Kids as young as nine are being herded into set categories, with boys corralled into STEM pathways while girls are encouraged to read and write.

We’re at a crisis point, where this topic separation has resulted in low figures of girl participation across the American Mathematics Competitions, making up just 18% of the top 500 ninth graders there.

This gap must be closed, and one way that young professions can fight this battle is to proactively push past the barricades and join academic groups and study sessions. These kinds of extracurricular activities often present opportunities for students and young professionals to find like-minded people and flex their skills in a supportive environment. They also often include guest engineers fresh from the field, where we’re shocked to see the inherent interest shown by these young students.

Maintaining Industry Knowledge

One of the biggest barricades for young professionals in this field is the fear. STEM is a fast-moving target and younger generations are lacking confidence in their capabilities.

As countless new technologies and artificial intelligence find their way into what's already perceived to be a difficult industry, we're scaring away the next generation. But as client demand turns the industry toward faster, more efficient modeling, it's a learning curve for all of us, regardless of experience level.

This is why we need to remind ourselves that support is available, whether through formal mentorships or a question to your supervisor. Industry knowledge is key to the success of your team and your mission, and we should foster a culture of collaboration with co-workers. For students, this could take place in internships, work shadowing placements, and informational interviews, but it also includes studying along with the industry veterans.

The proliferation of technology has thankfully brought with it easier access to courses and education on difficult to understand topics. Sites like Lynda, Coursera, and Udemy allow you to take classes at your own pace, and the professionals that dedicate time to staying on top will do just that—stay on top.

Maintaining Interest

On top of the two challenges addressed—women getting involved and becoming up-to-date—they’re then losing interest. And fast.

We can plug homes and encourage participation, but our efforts are futile without maintained interest. As a result, we need women to see themselves in success across the industry.

We all know that STEM is historically male-dominated. And really, it still is—women only account for 14.8% of engineers across the entire country. And now, this lack of female reflection in the workforce is stunting the industry’s growth. 

According to a Microsoft survey of women between 11 and 30, the excitement that’s clear and prevalent at a young age surrounding STEM fades by 15. The most commonly cited reason was the sheer lack of representation they felt.

This is a problem: How can we expect women to succeed in this field if they don’t see themselves in it to begin with? To counteract this catch-22, young professionals must search high and low for a role model and inspiration wherever they can.

For example, take Gwynne Shotwell’s story—now the COO of SpaceX but once a young teen who attended a Women’s Engineering event. She met a strong female mechanical engineer who was on the panel, spoke about her suit—amongst other things—and left with an unquenchable fascination with the industry that holds strong today. Female students often have the curiosity; they simply need that role model to answer their questions and encourage their interest.

Overall, success in STEM, for women or otherwise, takes a lot of work. We all know that. But it takes genuine passion, too, and when that passion is diminished by the barriers built by gender challenges, it’s a loss for the entire STEM world.

Thankfully, the industry is at a pivotal turning point. We’re thankfully realizing that we need more young women to push the boundaries and bridge the gender gap that plagues STEM. Doing so will shape the industry with diverse new ideas and an unprecedented level of success—providing we can keep the momentum moving and maintain the women and diversity that we gain.

Series: Addressing the Gender Gap in Engineering

Angela (Angie) Lilly is a Senior Civil Engineer at Mason & Hanger, a Day & Zimmermann company specializing in the worldwide design of secure, mission-driven facilities. With more than 20 years of experience, she is an integral leader among Mason & Hanger’s architectural and engineering (A/E) teams, providing services to the federal government on thousands of projects in 165 countries.

Angie began her career as a civil engineer for the city of Elmhurst, a suburb of Chicago, and has held several leadership positions in different engineering environments through the years. She has been active with the Society of Women Engineers and holds a degree in civil engineering. Angie is a registered professional engineer and LEED Accredited Professional. She volunteers as a mentor to young girls in STEM development classes, visiting schools to discuss her career. In addition, she volunteers as a committee chair for Boy Scouts of America.

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