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EERC Women in STEM: Persistance Pays Off

Imposter Syndrome. Tightrope Walk. Isolation. These reoccurring themes follow women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. So what keeps women going? How do they persist through obstacles to maintain and advance their careers in fields dominated by men?

The answer to this question isn’t simple, as anecdotal and statistical evidence shows many factors influence the number of women in the STEM workforce. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly one in three adults holds a bachelor’s degree or higher. The National Science Foundation reports that 57.3% of bachelor’s degrees in all fields in 2013 were earned by women. While college degree attainment rates are higher for females, that is not the case within the STEM fields. Women earn only 17.9% of the degrees awarded in computer science, 19.3% in engineering, 39% in physical sciences, and 43.1% in mathematics. 

Data from the Society of Women Engineers state that while 19% of engineering school graduates are female, they represent only 11% of practicing engineers. One in four female engineers leaves the field after age 30, compared to only one in ten male engineers. The plethora of reasons for this difference include family considerations, work environment, and societal bias. 

Female scientists and engineers at the Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) shared their thoughts on this disparity and factors that contribute to their persistence in their male-dominated fields. Approximately 60% of the EERC’s full-time workforce is in a STEM field, 17% of those are female.

I was always told I could be anything I wanted to be, but it wasn’t largely demonstrated in society.

Janelle Hoffarth, Laboratory Analyst

Several of them credit the EERC’s organizational culture and family-like atmosphere as a factor in staying in their fields.

“As an institution, we do a very good job accommodating family and life balance,” says Bethany Kurz, Principal Hydrogeologist and Laboratory Group Lead. “The EERC is great at providing the flexibility that is sometimes needed when juggling kids’ functions and work. That flexibility extends to all employees–male and female.” 

Kerryanne Leroux, Senior Chemical Engineer and Oilfield Operations Team Lead, says, “I was a single parent during college. Other students who weren’t parents didn’t have an understanding or appreciation for that difficulty. I pushed through and had a feeling that once I got into the workforce it would be better. I was right. The majority of my colleagues have families, and I have always heard ‘family comes first’ here.” 

“I started here as a college student,” says Loreal Heebink, Senior Project Management Specialist. “From day one, I was part of the team. I got to go to every meeting, was sent to conferences, and was involved in the lab work. That involvement from the beginning is what keeps me here.” 

Efforts to increase the number of females in STEM fields have largely been focused on workforce pipeline initiatives (such as introducing STEM career options to female elementary students), but some research shows that an overall gender bias in society or organizations is a big culprit that isn’t being addressed appropriately or enough. While this may be a factor in general, these female scientists and engineers say their experiences at the EERC have been positive in this regard. 

“Any experiences I’ve had with regard to feeling discriminated against because of my gender have come from outside of the EERC,” says Leroux. Adds Heebink, “The team I started on at the EERC was led by a woman, as is the current team.”

Janelle Hoffarth, Laboratory Analyst, says, “I was always told I could be anything I wanted to be, but it wasn’t largely demonstrated in society.” 

Supervisors and mentors also get a lot of credit for creating an environment in which females can thrive in their careers. Collectively, these women agreed that their supervisors provide solid mentoring and support. With a diverse workforce, it’s important for supervisors to help their employees relate to each other as teammates. Supervisors at the EERC come out on top in this regard – all with high marks from their female employees on supporting them through issues and educating teammates on the different issues women face in their careers.  

“If we’re supervisors or mentors ourselves, we have to walk a fine line. Because of the disparity between men and women in our fields, there aren’t a lot of female mentors who show the same confidence that the male ones do,” says Leroux. 

Adds Kurz, “We need to be confident, but if we’re too confident, it’s alienating. There’s a lot more pressure on us to be accommodating.” 

To that, Amanda Livers-Douglas, Research Geophysicist, says, “As one of the newer staff members just starting out in my career, I have to say that the women in this room are now the female examples I look up to.” 

All of these experiences, both positive and negative, keep these women going day to day in their fields. In the face of social stigmas and fewer examples of women in STEM fields, they thrive in their careers at the EERC. All of them are now proud to be examples of successful women in STEM careers for girls today.

This article is the second in a series about women in STEM at the EERC.
Read part one: EERC Women in STEM: Overcoming Barriers

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