The face of STEM careers continues to evolve

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Panelists for the NJBIZ discussion, clockwise from top left, Patricia Morreale, Kean University; Pamela Dudish, LANXESS; Michelle Butler, Burns and McDonell; Melissa Orsen, South Jersey Industries; and Anne Ullestad, HDR Lighting.

The scene has changed for women working in STEM careers, which historically had a reputation for “men’s work”. In fact, the scene has changed on the ground, in general. According to a 2021 Pew Research Center report, women made up half of those working in STEM jobs; and at 50%, this figure is even slightly higher than their share in the total workforce (47%).

When LANXESS plant manager Pamela Dudish started, she says she was asked by several people if she was sure she wanted to be part of a male-dominated career. “[At] Rutgers, I think my class had 250 graduates and there were maybe four women who graduated in mechanical engineering that year,” she said. “But for me, it was kind of a challenge…I don’t want to hear that I can’t do something that interests me.” Today, the company she works for runs four factories in New Jersey, and they’re all run by women. Beyond that, Dudish said it wasn’t the same experience she had with her own children.

As the face of STEM careers continues to evolve, it is useful to keep in mind how these advances have been made and what work can be done to ensure that they persist.

Dudish offered her insights as a woman working in science, technology, engineering and math March 29 during an NJBIZ virtual roundtable on the topic also featuring Michelle Butler, Burns & McDonnell Project Manager, Services transmission and distribution; Patricia Morreale, Executive Director of Kean University’s School of Computing and Technology; Melissa Orsen, president of SJI Utilities, South Jersey Industries; and HDR lighting designer Anne Ullestad.

Although some women, like Dudish who said she started studying engineering schools at the age of 14, know early on that they want to get involved in STEM, this is not always the case. Which makes it even more important to lay a solid foundation early on that encourages interest in his subjects.

“[T]It’s earlier the better you can start and definitely make it fun,” Butler said, equating early start with laying the groundwork for building blocks to add throughout a child’s life. And blocks aren’t just a great metaphor for those childhood experiences, they can be literal. Butler explained that playing Legos with his 5-year-old son, for example, activates problem-solving skills. “That way of thinking, a kind of training your mind, is something that’s transferable throughout your life,” she said, and important for a STEM orientation.

Ullestad, whose father was an engineer, was opposed to the growth of industry. “It was kind of reverse-engineered,” she said of how she felt watching people in her office work from their cubicles, stuck in front of computers. “It seems like[ed] so boring, for me, so I was kind of always like I didn’t want to do this. But Ullestad’s interest in mathematics was accompanied by an aptitude for the subject at school age, which she says prompted her teachers to tell her parents to encourage her prowess in the subject. . This led to a lifelong interest in math, as well as the sciences and the arts, which led her to take architecture classes in high school and then pursue architectural engineering in college.

According to Morreale, having a parent — especially a father — who is an engineer is one of the biggest predictors for women entering STEM fields. In fact, Dudish said his father was also an engineer.

Examples of people working in STEM fields and, more so, that encouragement, panelists agreed throughout the discussion, is really important for cultivating a long-term interest in STEM. Another touchstone for cultivating success: creative thinking.

“[W]We had to practice a lot and I think sometimes we lose sight of the fact that these…problem-solving skills, we have to practice,” Morreale said.

And practice and positive feedback to the learner is really, really important to encourage them to persevere and try harder.
— Patricia Morreale, Kean University

From an infrastructure perspective, Orsen used renewable energy as an example. “That’s problem solving, isn’t it?” ” she says. “STEM and STEAM [which incorporates an “a” for arts] is that perfect example, so we need young people to come in and solve problems on how we can get there. What are these solutions that we can offer? And it’s fascinating to watch these young minds at work.

To go up

This emphasis on support, initially from educators, parents, troop leaders or other role models, does not cease when the girls become adults. It is also important to inspire confidence in women when they enter the workplace, especially in spaces still dominated by men. For Orsen, part of that confidence comes from being “unapologetic” herself. “I didn’t bend over backwards trying to be a man, did I? Fit in as they are,” she said. “I had my knowledge, it was mine; and I built relationships, and [tried to] be who I was. This tenacity is something she strives to pass on to others now. “I think it’s important that we train other women? So we always hire the right person for the job, but it’s so important to reach out and build those relationships,” she said.

Part of edifying women is allowing them to use their voice. A point that Ullestad brought home with site-visiting experience early in his career. As a young woman in a group of older men, who were also senior executives at her company, Ullestad said while speaking with the client, they repeatedly directed questions relevant to her area of ​​expertise to her male colleagues. “Whenever he asked a question based on what I… needed to do, he would speak directly to my colleague, who was an older man,” she said. But this colleague didn’t choose the easy way – talking over Anne, or simply responding without recognizing her. “He was like, oh this is Anne’s section…you have to tell him about it.”

Supporting women in STEM by enabling them to use their voice is particularly important early in their careers, when they are laying the foundations for their professional future. “At that time in my career – as I said, I was around 24 – I probably wouldn’t have tried to speak at that time, because I was new and really didn’t trust in me at that time, but the fact that he gave me the opportunity to really do my job made a big difference.

Finding a defender – and a male defender, at that – in your career is “really, really important”, according to Morreale. “[P]the people who cheered us on, or offered to talk to us, or whatever kind of collegiate behaviors we experienced… And male defenders are one of the biggest things we can do to grow in our team , to encourage in our families and other colleagues, and “bring up fewer senior executives,” she said.

Finding a mentor – male or female – who will recognize your talents and help you develop them helps continue to add to that foundation of encouragement that was laid as a child interested in STEM subjects. And this relationship can be beneficial throughout your professional life. “I’m still growing in my career and in my life, so I don’t think you ever get past the idea of ​​a mentor,” Butler said. But, she added, it’s important to remember that mentoring is a two-way street: Be proactive in the relationship as a mentee, she said. Regarding the search for a mentor –

Butler suggested making connections through LinkedIn. Morreale said if there’s something you want to learn, find an expert and try to pick their brains. “I hope you can give me some information, I would like to help other people, or I would like to do my job better, or I would like to be more efficient, or I admire what you do”, are all the approaches she suggested that might help start that conversation.” And that might make it a little bit easier for you to find a mentor and start a good conversation,” she said.

Once you are established in your career, you can also switch roles. “One of the real powers we have now as women in STEM is that we can now become mentors,” Dudish said. And with half of the STEM workforce made up of women, the impact for the future is exponential. Starting with this solid foundation of encouragement that grows into a culture of trust, while appreciating and keeping promising spirits at work, will make all the difference.

“As adults, we have to be careful not to project our biases, if you will, onto children,” Morreale said. “They may be preparing now for jobs that we can’t even conceive of, so we have to keep them in the game and looking for those future opportunities.”


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