Karen Purcell, founder, owner, and president of PK Electrical, an award-winning electrical engineering, design and consulting firm and author of the book, Unlocking Your Brilliance: Smart Strategies for Women to Thrive in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, has a particular interest in helping young women succeed in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers, if they so choose. But a large part of that success depends on more women receiving information about career paths and mentorship from experienced professionals. Purcell’s non-profit, STEMspire, seeks to inform and support young women in pursuing their strengths and interests, as well as to help parents and educators play positive roles. Purcell, who celebrates her predecessors’ great contributions to STEM, hopes to see current STEM leaders, including herself, continue to close the gender gap. I asked her a few questions about how much progress is being made in this effort in the U.S.
Shaw: Is one of the reasons more females aren’t progressing into STEM careers because they are still not receiving exposure to information about STEM career paths? What do you see as the most effective methods to increase this informative exposure to girls and young women?
Purcell: Yes, I believe that the lack of exposure to the STEM fields is a huge hurdle that still needs to be overcome. Lack of early exposure can be detrimental to achieving gender balance in STEM fields because such degrees typically require students to get on the right path prior to starting college. The studies are intensive and usually begin in the very first semester of college. Young adults are inquisitive and may end up in STEM fields for a variety of reasons, but early exposure to these fields would result in more informed and more precise decisions when selecting a college or university and a particular course of study. More than that, it would help young women understand that their gender shouldn’t determine the career path they choose and that pursuing a STEM career doesn’t make them any less feminine.
While young people today have more opportunities to become exposed to STEM subjects than were available when I was in high school, still more needs to be done. The United States is trailing behind other countries in the STEM fields because fewer young people are pursuing STEM degrees in college. This will continue to plague our country until students have adequate opportunities to explore math and science throughout elementary, middle and high school.
As a country, we stand to gain a lot by exposing young girls to STEM fields and encouraging those who are interested to follow their hearts and minds. Simply focusing attention on one age group cannot cure all societal issues that influence career choices among females. Correcting the negative perceptions that girls develop at a young age can, however, lead them to embrace math and science when they reach high school, rather than avoid the subjects. Administrators and educators must strive to create environments in elementary school, middle school, high school, and college math and science programs that are inviting to females to help prevent the likelihood of their choosing a different direction.
Shaw: What sorts of mentoring activities have you seen create the greatest impact for young women exploring career possibilities in STEM?
Purcell: Participation in STEM-related activities inside or outside of school has had a fundamental impact on young women interested in STEM. More and more workshops and camps are sprouting up nowadays that encourage young girls to think about and maintain their interest in STEM fields. In-school and 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. Without understanding the opportunities that are available to students of math and science, young women may think they have made a mistake when facing the challenges of STEM. The good news is that current programs that focus on increasing young girls’ interest in those fields are tremendous. But without them, there are potential long-term consequences.
Shaw: What sort of guidance is available for women (and men) who would like to offer mentorship but are not experienced and may not know how to go about it effectively?
Purcell: The people that are chosen as mentors need to have the capacity and capability to lead young people toward success. A mentor may not even realize initially that they are serving as a mentor. It may come very naturally to help a young colleague or someone interested in the STEM fields. A mentor is not only someone who is willing to take the time to teach techniques and processes but also someone who takes an interest in long-term advancement. 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.
I would also recommend teaming with national organizations that offer mentoring programs. These organizations are great ways to learn about the process of mentoring and usually the organizations suggest mentoring activities. Those that are in the STEM fields can act as mentor and help show young women the potential they have in STEM.
Shaw: Are there examples of effective training or mentoring or other programs in other countries that the U.S. can emulate?
Purcell: According to a study produced by ACOLA (Australian Council of Learned Academies), mentoring programs in a number of countries have had a positive impact on women’s participation in STEM. Examples of these programs include bringing together professionals (men and women) with young people to help provide a true understanding of STEM and allow access to role models. Connections and support between high school and middle school students around STEM activities has had a positive influence.
One significant reason for our falling behind is that female students are not being encouraged—as they are abroad—to pursue career paths in science, technology, engineering or math. 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.