Women in STEM

As an alumni of the Texas Academy of Math and Science and a female technology engineer, I am occasionally asked to speak to Women in STEM for various conventions and publications.  I have been pondering what to say to young women who are excelling in math and science and might consider a STEM career.

In the past I hosted a booth at the Sally Ride Science Festival at SMU that was geared towards 1st to 5th grade girls.  This festival arose because there is a drastic drop-off during that range where young girls list math and science as their favorite subjects, and suddenly that changes as they get into middle school and higher grades.  Why is this?  What is turning these young girls off to careers in STEM despite their interest?  In my experience from a small rural town in Southern Illinois, I was taught that those types of jobs were for men and that women should go into teaching, marketing, nursing, or becoming a housewife.  Those are all admirable careers, but I knew that I loved math and science and I wanted to figure out complicated problems in some way.  IT gave me a taste of it and I never looked back.

IT wasn’t my first choice, I actually wanted to be an astronomer.  I never went to school for IT but I was given the chance to try it when I was a poor student barely scraping by.  The entry-level helpdesk salary I was offered was gigantic at the time so I jumped in.  I learned quickly and jumped ahead of the pack at each IT job with the help of some amazing companies who gave me a chance to work above my station.  Sometimes you have to break things in order to fully understand how they work and I created my fair share of problems along the way.

I’ve had many amazing managers but my success is because of the ‘mean boss’ I had a few jobs ago.  His words stung at times and for a while I resented him, but he pushed me and helped me set higher standards for myself and those around me.  He taught me not to take no for an answer, to fight for things that I knew were right, and to demand a higher level of service from our vendors.  If I had only ever worked for nice people who were supportive and reassuring no matter what, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

For the first 10 years of my IT career, I never stayed at a job for long.  I would dig in, learn everything about the environment and ask questions even though you’re supposed to act like you know everything, and then jump ship for higher pay and higher learning.  I fluffed up my resume at times to get to the next level and always volunteered to support new products.  I didn’t coast along anywhere because I wasn’t happy at a job that I could do with my eyes closed.  IT does a great job of constantly challenging you with new problems, but I wanted more responsibility and more authority and didn’t stop until I had it.

So my advice to women who want to grow in their STEM field is don’t be deterred, fluff your resume when necessary, break things, and learn from the mean boss.