As a society, we learn about the world and advance our well-being through science and engineering. The United States may be known around the world for its higher education, but compared to many other leading and steadily emerging countries we lack a strong focus on educating scientists and engineers. One significant reason that we have fallen behind is that we do not encourage our female students to pursue career paths in Science, Technology, Engineering or Math (STEM). This needs to change, as the lack of women in STEM will continue to plague our country until all students, regardless of sex, have adequate opportunities to explore math and science throughout elementary, middle and high school. If we want to attract the best and brightest minds into the fields that will move us forward, we can no longer look to only half of the population. More women can contribute to our field and we can help make that happen.
While young people today have more opportunities to become exposed to STEM subjects than 20 years ago, more still needs to be done. Out of school programs are gaining popularity, and in order for that to continue, those of us in STEM fields have to support both local and national efforts to foster girls by functioning as mentors.
The value of mentorship is irreplaceable. Finding a mentor early on can do wonders for the amount of satisfaction we find in our jobs, thus leading to a higher retention rate. The people that we choose as mentors need to have the capacity and capability to lead us toward success. A mentor is not only someone who is willing to take the time to teach us techniques and processes but also someone who takes an interest in our long-term advancement. Because this person can see one's potential, he or she is willing to go beyond job duties and put in the extra work to ensure that we gain the understanding that is needed to progress.
One of the most important confidence builders can be found day to day on the job or in school in the form of a mentor. Teaming with a mentor is a career strategy that can bring huge benefits, especially to women in unbalanced work environments like engineering. The majority of successful women time and time again credit their participation in some sort of mentorship for dramatically helping them reach their career goals.
However, even with mentorship, the fact still remains that women in STEM careers have higher attrition rates than do their male co-workers and women in careers outside of the STEM disciplines. In 2005, the Society of Women Engineers conducted a retention study of over 6000 engineering graduates. The survey indicated that one in four women were either unemployed or employed in other fields compared to one in ten men. Addressing the reasons why the attrition rates are drastically higher is important for starting the discussion and correcting the problem. Researchers are exploring other factors that possibly overwhelm women in STEM fields, including extreme work schedules, more frequent disciplinary actions and unclear rules about advancement.
Women are gaining numbers in traditionally male dominated fields, but they are still significantly outnumbered in STEM occupations. Getting talented women into male dominated careers is one struggle, while keeping them is another. The issue is especially apparent in STEM careers, which are extremely important to the global economy. Attracting and retaining more women in STEM careers will help tremendously to improve diversity, maximize creativity and boost competitiveness.
Having people with different mind-sets, capabilities, and imaginations on production teams improves the creative process and helps to minimize avoidable mistakes. Products rooted in science and technology are likely to better meet the needs of both men and women if the products are designed by team comprised of both genders. It is a matter of designing products that are compatible with a broad audience, it is a matter of safety, and it starts with attracting more women into STEM careers.
As women become more prevalent in STEM careers, more and more young girls will begin to recognize the additional career opportunities open to them. With more women in the field, it will become more evident to young girls what they, as engineers, can offer the world. Without being able to see this link, they will continue to have problems envisioning certain positions as viable possibilities, even if they have some intrinsic interest in the subject matter. If girls cannot visualize themselves in STEM careers because they have never seen women in those positions, they will be much less likely to ever use their innate aptitudes and abilities in a math- or science-oriented specialty. That will truly be a loss of gigantic proportion, for our women, our profession and our country.
Karen Purcell, P.E., is the founder and president of PK Electrical, an electrical engineering, design, and consulting firm in Reno, Nevada. She is the author of Unlocking Your Brilliance: Smart Strategies for Women to Thrive in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.