Although women fill 47% of U.S. jobs, they only hold 24% of jobs in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.* Despite an increase in awareness regarding gender inequity, women are still underrepresented in STEM careers.
It’s time to bridge the gender gap and open the doors into the scientific and engineering fields for women. Hear from Dr. Catherine Murphy, professor of chemistry at the University of Illinois, co-author of Chemistry – The Central Science,and senior editor of the Journal of Physical Chemistry, about her STEM journey and how to overcome obstacles that women in these fields face.
Why did you choose to study chemistry?
I always liked nature and science from a young age and had great chemistry teachers in junior high and high school, so I became a chemistry major in college.
How have you dealt with competition and the gender gap in the STEM field?
My advice is to do good work and eventually reasonable people will recognize it. I was the first woman hired on the tenure track at my previous university (University of South Carolina in 1993), and the faculty there really were excellent at making sure I had good mentoring.
How has technology changed your life, particularly in STEM education?
Technology makes it possible for me to work anywhere, all the time. That’s both good and bad! I use a little technology when I teach classes, so students can text answers rather than raise their hand.
What advice would you give to women wanting to enter a STEM field?
You can do it! Double down on math and read widely to find your technical interests. Don’t let one not-great instructor in an intro class discourage what could be a lifetime of scientific joy.
This week’s episode of Nevertheless is a bit different. It’s a live conversation that took place at Pearson dealing with the tricky real-world issues of diversity and inclusion. It’s a good reminder that this podcast and these stories don’t take place in a vacuum. These are people who are still growing, learning and reflecting on what it means to create a fairer and better place to work.
Along with this live conversation, we wanted to share the story of one of those people, Vicki Gardner. Vicki joined Pearson in 2015. She now heads the company’s Primary Schools Sales Team providing literacy and numeracy pedagogical schemes. Prior to this, Vicki spent nine years at RM Education in a variety of operational roles supporting strategic managed service contracts with local education authorities.
My first experience of the Nevertheless podcast was back in October when I listened to the episode “Finding Genius” on my commute home one day. By the time I pulled up my driveway, I was dumbfounded and a bit upset, which are both unexpected consequences of listening to a podcast. That particular episode was about lost potential and included a great interview with a female engineer who is passionate about getting kids to invent stuff. Why did this interview upset me? Because my name is Vicki, and I used to be an engineer.
I studied electronic engineering at university and then had a really interesting first job working as an electronics assurance engineer for a global confectionery company in their vending machine division. One of my responsibilities was to research and reverse engineer our competitors’ products to see how they worked, while the other part of my role was to take prototypes of my company’s new products and try to destroy them through any sort of creative means I could think of to prove their quality. I was one of three graduates in the role and as a third aspect to all of our jobs, we each had a research and development project where we got to use our engineering skills creatively to improve the next generation of products.
But fast forward to now. I’m far removed from being an electronics engineer. Now, I work at Pearson in the UK Schools Sales team selling printed and digital resources to primary schools. So how did I get from my first job to here? What happened along the way to change my direction?
I would say that my change in direction began with the promotion panel. To be promoted at my first job, you had to present your research and development project to a panel of senior engineers. Our manager had put my two male peers and I up for a promotion at the same time. The other two graduates were both men my age and we’d all joined the company at the same time, but they were both paid more than me. At the time, I remember being a bit confused about the reasoning behind their higher pay, but I accepted it. They also were both given (I now realise), the really prestigious projects, the ones that were related to the new products that had the most investment and were forecast to bring in the most revenue. My project was interesting and I really enjoyed working on it, but it was on a product that was regarded as a bit of an unknown and not expected to do anything in the market.
“The panel I faced was made up of six male engineers, all much older than me, and an HR officer, also male. I was in that room for nearly an hour, and I was absolutely torn apart. It was horrendous.”
When it came time to speak to the promotions panel, my colleagues went before me, each spending about 30 minutes in his panel and coming back looking confident. When it was my turn, I, a painfully shy 23-year-old, was trembling. The panel I faced was made up of six male engineers, all much older than me, and an HR officer, also male. I was in that room for nearly an hour, and I was absolutely torn apart. It was horrendous. When I returned to the office I shared with the other two recent graduates and my peers asked me how I’d done, I shakily mumbled an answer. Our boss turned up some time later and broke the news to us all together; my colleagues had both been successful and were promoted. And me? He had tried to argue my case and there’d apparently been a long discussion about me, but he was sorry, I would have to try again in six months.
I was gutted, and beat myself up, but my main worry was, how was I going to go home and tell my mum and dad that I hadn’t been good enough? I will never know if unconscious bias was playing a part in the promotion panel, or whether I really didn’t make the grade. What the Nevertheless episode did help me see, though, is that I definitely wasn’t given the same opportunities as my male co-workers. I eventually did get promoted, but I never quite got over feeling like a failure while I was with the global confectionery company, and, subsequently, always felt six months behind my colleagues.
The second event that I now realise changed my direction happened when a new senior manager came in and we recent graduates were all “given the opportunity” to move from the assurance role into technical sales. We were told that the assurance role demanded engineers with more experience, so I moved into sales. Over the 20 years between now and then, I’ve worked in technical sales and managed distributors, technical salespeople, technical support desks, delivery teams, technical operations teams, inside sales teams, and field sales. Having a background in engineering has made me a creative problem solver, and I can always work out how things are going to break before they do. I’m also quite good with data and pretty adept at creating processes, which is handy when you’re running an operational team.
But I’m not an engineer any more, something that I had to work very hard for and overcome lots of challenges to achieve. It took my mum a long time to accept this (she was still telling people I was an engineer years after I’d moved to sales).
“Today, only 11% of the British engineering workforce is female, yet women have played and continue to play a significant role in the field. Women’s Engineering Society”
I recently volunteered to be a mentor to sixth-form students in a local secondary school because I want to share my experience with girls and let them know that it’s okay to move away from the path you originally set out for yourself. Just make sure that the decision to make a change is your decision and not because someone’s made you feel “not good enough.” I want to tell girls who like maths and science that sometimes, life (and other people’s biases) can get in the way of your dreams, but it’s important to challenge the status quo.
This is why I’m both the worst and the best example of a woman in STEM, because now I can see how easily you can be taken off course.
This November, Iowa Tech Chicks, an educational nonprofit in Iowa City, held its sixth Girls Tech Career Day. This technology-centric event offers approximately forty school girls (grades 5-8) the opportunity to learn about STEM careers through presentations from women in the field and hands-on activities.
Girls Tech Career Day Co-Chair Michelle Knedler has participated in planning and running the event since 2016. She started volunteering with Iowa Tech Chicks and quickly got involved with the organization’s annual career day, coming up with activities, organizing volunteers, and lining up partnerships and sponsors.
Below, Michelle, who is a product manager at Pearson by day, shares some words of advice for organizations that want to start holding their own tech career events.
Why girls only?
According to “Girls in IT: The Facts,” a report from the National Center for Women & Information Technology, “Each year since 1999, the AP Computer Science exam consistently has had the lowest female percentage of any of the 37 AP exams, hovering at 19% or lower,” and one of the reasons girls are reluctant to take computer science classes is that they’re uncomfortable being the only females in a classroom full of their male peers.
The disproportionately low number of women in computer science trend continues into higher education and the workplace, creating a situation where even though, “Computing jobs are among the fastest-growing and highest-paying…few women are benefiting from these occupations.”
Some girls may need a nudge to consider computer sciences, and will feel more comfortable trying it with friends, so they won’t be the only girl in the class.
The report suggests that girls-only computer science educational opportunities are one way of combating negative peer influence early by providing girls with spaces where they feel supported and able to ask questions, mess-up, and try again.
In order to gauge the success of your tech career day, you’ll need to clearly define your aspirations and expectations. Iowa Tech Chicks’s 2018 tech career day goals include the following:
Give the girls a clear understanding of computer science and computer science careers.
Challenge stereotypes about careers in technology, including that they’re tedious, not “people”/social jobs, really difficult, and not creative.
Build up participants’ resilience and their confidence in their own technological abilities and knowledge.
Computer science is the study of all of the different ways computers can be used to make things easier, faster, or more fun.
– Girls Who Code
Ask a group of middle school girls what they think of when they think of people in technology and they’re going to tell you that it’s a bunch of guys staring at a computer screen all day working on things that they don’t find interesting. To have a successful tech career day, you have to show participants that
Technology careers are creative, social/people facing, meaningful, and diverse;
Lots of roles fall under the banner of tech careers, including developers, project managers, designers, artists, business analysts, data scientists, engineers, testers, product managers, etc;
And that technology can be paired up with their personal interests.
Make it interactive
Interspersing the day with activities will keep participants engaged and will help prevent information overload. At the Iowa Tech Chicks Career Day, we strive to provide the girls with a range of experiences that reflect their interests and are relevant to their lives right now.
Keep the activity session sizes small by rotating groups.
Determine if any of the sessions can be led by girls close to participants’ age groups. For example, we’ve had high school and college girls lead the Protect the Pringle activity (see below).
Most of all, don’t be afraid to challenge participants. You may be surprised by how capable they are.
Distracted driving simulation: Volunteers from the National Advanced Driving Simulator show the girls how technology can save lives. Tech Career Day participants get to drive simulators and learn firsthand about the dangers of distracted driving.
Protect the Pringle: This problem-solving activity asks the girls to create packaging for a single Pringle potato chip from simple, everyday materials. Their contraptions must protect the Pringle from damage during three secret tests: a fall, heavy weight, and submersion. The girls are given a chance to try again once they know the challenges their chips will face.
Robotics: Girls use Lego WeDo robotic kits to build and code a robot to perform a simple task.
Development life cycle: Participants work in groups to select a problem they want to solve. They then brainstorm potential engineering solutions to their problems, create wireframes to layout functionality, and develop pitches to explain their ideas to their peers. This activity is great for demonstrating how STEM careers require creativity.
This year’s ideas included “EZVote,” an app that allows citizens to vote online using facial recognition, and an online school platform that made learning more fun.
Take advantage of the resources in your community to provide a unique experience for Career Day participants.
Partnerships: Iowa Tech Chick partnerships have led to field trips to local businesses and nonprofits (such as the Iowa City FabLab), a welding program at a local community college, a robotics workshop with a woman-owned business, and a mini med school session with students from the University of Iowa.
School districts: Coordinating efforts with your local school district can aid with Career Day preparation and execution. For example, the Iowa City Community School District has helped Iowa Tech Chicks by identifying girls to participate in Career Day and securing parent permission. This has enabled us to invite a diverse group of girls who have had limited exposure to the Career Day topics and technology. The School District has also helped us by providing free bus transportation on the day of the event.
Sponsors: Look for local business sponsors to help with the cost of the event. Iowa Tech Chick expenses were food (snacks and lunches), t-shirts, and items donated for goody bags. Additional money helped buy materials and gadgets like Spheros and Kindles.
Volunteers/Mentors:Connect with volunteers through work, professional organizations, friends, etc. Invite women who are working in technology to give presentations and lead activities. Try to show as wide a range of industries and roles as you can.
Resources: Introduce Career Day participants to resources in their school and community, so that once you pique their interest in technology they have the means to keep exploring.
Get feedback & make improvements
Get the girls feedback on the activities so you can hone in on what worked well and what can be improved upon next time. We solicit feedback through surveys that we ask the girls to fill out and through conversations between participants and volunteers.
To prepare for the future of work, we could do much worse than learning from Geoffrey Owens.
Remember Geoffrey Owens? He’s the former Cosby Show actor who was thrust into our timelines after a “look where he is now” image of him bagging groceries at Trader Joe’s went viral. The tabloids’ attempt was to shame, but the public saw his example as something to be praised, not ridiculed.
His story is something to be celebrated, a role model to emulate, but it should also make us think about not just what it means to work, but how employers can better support and prepare people for a world of work that is changing and seems to require more than one career in a lifetime.
Successful workplaces will be places where the best people can thrive regardless of bias about gender, age or background.
This is something I think about in my job at Pearson — how to not just prepare for the future of work, but to also ensure that this future is one which benefits all people. We know that the world of work is undergoing seismic changes. Trends like automation, climate change and political changes will impact jobs and careers. The idea of a traditional career or “job for life” is changing.
We need to ensure that education and employment is fit for the needs of our changing world.
While the research pointed to a coming disruption in employment (one in five jobs will likely decline), that will be accompanied by increased demand for other jobs. Skills which will be important are qualities like the ability to teach other people, solve problems, read social situations, analyse systems and develop unusual or clever ideas about new topics.
Increasingly, as automation and artificial intelligence plays a greater role in our lives, what makes us human is what will make us employable. Employers must find ways to sustainably support and get the best out of those human qualities. Three ways they can do that are:
1. Support flexible pathways
Living in London, I am reliant on the web of the Underground. As I wrote in a recent report with Jobs for the Future, the changing world of work will look less like the linear highways of America, and more like the Tube. Pathways to employment may not follow traditional routes. It might look like the gig economy. There may be stops and starts. Whether it’s apprenticeships, degree apprenticeships, flexible working, new models of work-place learning or credentialing, employers should embrace ways to make it easier for people to progress throughout their career, even if it’s not in a straight line.
This is just a start, but for the world of work to become a place that values humanity, we will need more than just policy or business actions, we will need better heroes. And we will need to be honest and transparent about the opportunities and challenges.
Linda Bush is the Director of STEM, Nursing, Business Studies and Program Development for Smarthinking, Pearson’s Online Tutoring Service. In this role, she manages hundreds of subject expert tutors for college-level online academic support, provides consultative services to client institutions and faculty on optimal integration of online tutoring into their courses, and works on new programs and business opportunities for Smarthinking.
In anticipation of Educause 2018, we spoke with Linda about discovering her love of science, empowering learners, and imagining the possibilities of mixed reality.
Explain your career path to date. How did you come to work in education?
I got my undergrad degree at Bryn Mawr, and I have a PhD in organic chemistry from Yale. I was fortunate to have a mentor in graduate school who was a preeminent scholar and teacher. I learned so much from him about thinking critically, asking the right questions, and considering multiple solutions to problems.
In my work life I’ve had at least three careers so far! I was a chemistry professor, then a freelance media consultant and contributor for a textbook publisher, which sort of led to my third career as Director of Online Tutoring in STEM for Smarthinking and Pearson. All my work has been education focused. I always had such respect for my teachers, and I’m really a nerd, so education was a natural path for me. I love science and chemistry, and I’m drawn to any opportunity to share more about those subjects with anyone willing to learn.
Pearson supports Nevertheless, a podcast celebrating the women transforming teaching and learning through technology. Who or what inspired you to pursue a STEM career?
When I was growing up, our neighbor was a biology lab instructor at a local college, and she would spend hours with me looking at pond water samples under a microscope or collecting and curating bugs and snakes in our shared yards. Also, my dad had a PhD in chemistry, so although he never pressed it, that sort of thing was always on my radar. As I said earlier, I went to Bryn Mawr College, a women’s college with very strong programs in STEM, and that’s when I really found my own calling in chemistry.
I know you worked with Bryn Mawr College recently! Can you share more about the work you and your team did there?
This was really how I got involved with the Pearson Immersive team. There are features of Windows10 Skype which allow enhanced video calls between HoloLens and other devices. In 2016, the Immersive team reached out to Smarthinking to explore the potential use of this type of virtual connection for academic tutoring. I am an active alumna, so I contacted some faculty at Bryn Mawr College to see if they’d help us run some testing and focus groups with students.
Once they had HoloLens devices on campus, the instructional technology team at Bryn Mawr really made the most of them. Students jumped into the project with enthusiasm. There was tremendous interest in students learning programming and coding for mixed reality. Because of Pearson’s partnership with Microsoft, we were also able to sponsor some on-campus internship experiences. We learned a lot about app design from things the students built into their creations.
It was very empowering for those young women to have a hands-on experience with cutting-edge technology. It meant a lot to them to know that they were among a relatively small number of people worldwide who have used and developed content for HoloLens. It also meant a lot to me and the whole Pearson team to be able to share our work with them.
Explain the HoloLens to a six year old.
HoloLens is like a special set of glasses or goggles through which you can see the world around you, but with two additional features: little cameras on the front that map the contours of objects in your environment and allow you to control the device with hand gestures and transparent screens in front of your eyes on which holograms can be projected. Those holograms seem to actually take up space in your environment. While wearing the HoloLens, the holograms have presence in your world and you interact with them as though they are real physical objects.
I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have endured a career in Information Technology for many years. At university, I decided that I was interested in pursuing a career in technology and haven’t regretted my decision. Since joining Pearson four years ago, I have had the opportunity to experience how technology is leveraged to fuel the education business. It’s remarkable that millions of learners globally depend on Pearson’s technology platforms to acquire knowledge essential in growing their careers. At Pearson, the technology team is at the heart of our digital transformation and we are challenged every day to find innovative ways to learn and exploit new and emerging technology and trends. Examples of these technologies are Big Data & Analytics through Robotic Process Automation, Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence.
As part of my role, I have a highly rewarding and demanding responsibility of nurturing and inspiring talent. This is an essential part of leadership, but as a woman who has experienced many years in the technology field, I understand how critical it is for me to prioritize this as it can’t be tackled by a rule book or process.
We’ve recently seen many headlines regarding the scant number of women pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). There are many reasons why girls aren’t deciding to pursue degrees in technology and when they do choose to enter a technology career, there are many more reasons for why they decide to change course early in their careers.
During the journey, many women continue to be affected by explicit and implicit biases that impact their decision to continue with a degree or a career in technology. Sometimes these biases are the catalyst to barriers of success, and more often than not, it’s women who become the casualties of this. It’s important that we intervene prior to this resulting in a loss of confidence and a feeling of not being “good enough” to excel in the field of technology — ultimately a tremendous loss of talent.
I am inspired by the growing number of initiatives out there to reach young people who have the odds stacked against them. I advocate for men and women to lift as they climb. Zerin Azun Karim, senior portfolio analyst in tech operations at Pearson, found her way into technology after working at the Genius Bar in an Apple store. Today, Zerin mentors other Bangladeshi women as they navigate STEM careers. It’s hugely encouraging to see talent like Zerin at Pearson, and she’s also made a point to help others facing the same odds she did. I really encourage you to listen to Nevertheless, a podcast celebrating the women transforming teaching and learning through technology, to learn more about Zerin’s story.
Embracing innovation is also a critical part of success. Overcoming barriers — with or without the help of others — to get your foot in the door is only the start of the battle. Technology is changing and the world at large is changing at an unprecedented speed. In this climate it’s critical that our thinking changes too so that we can keep pace and succeed in an aggressively competitive environment. Technology is not going to wait for us to catch up and I’ve adapted my own style throughout my career. I applaud individuals that push against the status quo, positively disrupting business as usual. Speaking out and trying new things can be daunting, especially at companies that have existed for over a hundred years, but that makes thinking differently all the more urgent and necessary. The stakes are higher, but so are the rewards.
As a leader, the job of creating an environment where people feel safe and challenging norms rests on my shoulders. It’s simply impossible to tap into the creativity of seasoned professionals if they’re constantly desk-bound, number crunching, fire-fighting or in fear of breaking protocol. There’s equally no incentive for creativity if we solely reward or recognize people for immediate, tangible results. I’m proud to work for a company that recognizes that it’s our differences that make the difference.
I urge everyone reading this to join me in opening doors for others when and where they can. I encourage you to think big and take calculated risks — everyone will be better for it. After all, innovation has no barriers, except those put up by people.
Nevertheless, a series produced with Storythings, celebrates women both inside and outside of Pearson who are using technology to transform teaching and learning and improve outcomes for students.
Pearson’s Emily Lai on trust, children, and information literacy
A little-known fact about me is that I was once a librarian. Before I entered the world of educational measurement, I completed a degree in Library and Information Science and worked in an archive. This fact is ironic because there was a time in my life when I actually suffered from library anxiety.
This occurred during my sophomore year of high school, when I had an English assignment to write a research paper summarizing and critically evaluating evidence of some paranormal topic of my choice (my topic: people who claim to recover memories of “past lives” through hypnosis.) Our class made several visits to the library of a local university so we could carry out research. At that time, there were no full-text electronic databases to consult, just stacks and stacks of books, hard-cover periodical indices, and a computer-based card catalog. Even this was intimidating to me.
I remember spending way too much time trying to figure out how to search the collection and then retrieve the results — only to find that they weren’t all that relevant to my topic. I should have approached the reference librarian (the most under-utilized resource in the library!) but I was too shy. I felt this was something I should figure out on my own.
Eventually, I overcame my paralysis in the library and learned to see it as a treasure trove. The tools to support information retrieval projects like this have vastly improved, thanks in no small part to technology. But technology has also made it even more important that students develop information literacy: the ability to diagnose an information need, identify what kind of information is needed, search and retrieve information, evaluate its relevance and quality, and use it responsibly to answer a question or solve a problem. It’s more important today simply because the internet and mobile technology enable ridiculous amounts of information to be instantly accessible to us, anytime and anywhere.
Recently watching my 9-year old daughter try to research rights and responsibilities of citizens for a school assignment brought me full circle. Although she was sitting at home (not in a library) and using her computer (not bound books) to look for sources, she ended up with about the same result as my fruitless search from years before — a small collection of marginally relevant information sources of dubious credibility for the topic. She didn’t know what question she was trying to answer or how to describe what type of information would be best suited to answering it. She was simply googling her way through the assignment.
If ever there was a teachable moment for information literacy, this was it. So we talked about how to search for information and how to judge whether that information is valuable for a given question. We talked about mis-information and the need to critically interrogate information sources to figure out if they are trustable.
If you’re a parent like me who is concerned that your kids aren’t picking up these skills at school, or you’re just interested to hear more perspectives on the topic of trust and technology, make sure you check out the next episode of the Nevertheless podcast, entitled The First Click.