Women In Technology: Overcoming Obstacles to STEM Careers

As an engineer, Karen Purcell knows first-hand the challenges women face working in a STEM field. Her new book offers strategies for women to thrive in science and tech.

Marcia Savage

July 11, 2013

5 Min Read
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For a woman, a career in IT can be an exercise in isolation. According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology, women hold 56% of all professional occupations, but only 11% of executives at Fortune 500 tech companies are women. A report released by the center in 2009 showed that 41% of women leave technology companies after 10 years, compared to only 17% of men.

Women also make less than their male counterparts. InformationWeek's 2013 IT Salary Survey reports the median base salary for women IT staffers is $10,000 lower than for males; the gap also persists at higher levels, with female managers earning a median base salary that's $9,000 less than male managers.

Karen Purcell, an engineer, is very familiar with the challenges women face in IT and other STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers. As author of "Unlocking Your Brilliance: Smart Strategies for Women to Thrive in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math," and founder of a nonprofit organization STEMspire, she's working to help young women pursue STEM careers.

Purcell, founder and president of PK Electrical, recently spoke with Network Computing to share her thoughts on women in technology and how they can overcome the barriers to a lasting career.

NWC: What do you think are the biggest obstacles for a woman pursuing a career in IT?

Purcell: One of the biggest obstacles once they get into IT is the attrition rate. That stands true for all the STEM fields; it's been such a male-dominated culture that it's somewhat uninviting to women. By being more aware of it, companies can make the atmosphere and the company culture more inviting for women. I think that would really help.

Karen Purcell

Karen Purcell

Karen Purcell

NWC: Would mentors help?

I find that mentors are a huge advantage; some statistics have proven if a young woman--or anyone--has a mentor in a particular field, that they're more likely to stay in that field. I know for myself, I had a mentor who was male; the mentor doesn't need to be another female. But having that mentor to guide you and show you the ropes definitely helps and encourages women. Mentorship is a huge factor in getting and keeping women in the STEM field.

NWC: How about professional associations?

There are a ton of professional associations, some of which are geared specifically toward women. There's Women in Technology International and The Society of Women Engineers, which is more engineering-related, but when you have a peer group, you can all relate to one another. It serves as a comfortable group where [members] can share experiences with one another and help and guide the way.

NWC: Can you talk about your own experience in engineering?

I graduated high school in 1985, way back when girls weren't encouraged to go into math and science. I was fortunate that I had a high school teacher who said, 'Consider engineering when you go to college.' I pursued that, but it takes a lot of confidence. Maintaining your confidence through all levels of your education and your career is very important. Once I got into my first job, I felt as if I had to work extra hard to get where I wanted to be; I had to prove myself, maybe more than my male counterparts. Now, I own an engineering firm with 19 employees and two offices [in Reno, Nev., and Denver].

To this day, If I take a younger male employee to a job site and there's a contractor who doesn't know me, they instantly assume my young male employee is the boss and I'm the assistant, until I open my mouth and they realize, 'She's the engineer and knows what she's talking about.' It's a matter of being heard and being accurate. I know my stuff; I communicate that.

Next page: Start Young With STEMNWC: Are girls getting support to follow a STEM career these days??

One of the biggest hurdles we face is a lack of exposure to STEM for young girls. Primarily, the middle-school years are where it becomes critical. Fortunately, now there are programs out there where young girls are becoming more exposed to STEM careers. To get girls to participate in school and extra-curricular activities that are math- and science-based--if those are things they truly like--they should be encouraged to participate.

For example, at the University of Nevada, there's a girls in engineering camp, which is a week-long camp showing them all different kinds of engineering and what it's like to be an engineer. Having parent and teacher support for activities like that is what needs to continue.

Still, there's this underlying bias that exists; unfortunately, it's something we've all grown up with, where boys are led in that direction and girls not so much. Teachers, parents, guidance counselors need to remind themselves that if a girl shows an interest in math or science, that should be encouraged.

Young girls in middle school and high school can seek out mentors as well. If a girl has a mentor and she sees someone in a position that she someday strives to be in, it becomes more of a reality for her. Like [Yahoo CEO] Marissa Mayer--she sees her in that position and thinks, 'If she can do it, I can do it.' There definitely have been improvements, but more needs to happen.

NWC: What is STEMspire?

STEMspire was founded to support young women in STEM. The goal is to provide financial assistance for young women who are studying STEM in college or young women who want to start a STEM-related business. We'll also provide emotional support, someone to talk to, and activities in the community that are STEM-based to encourage girls to enter STEM. We started it last year; it's still very new and we're in the process of getting it organized.

NWC: What's your advice for a young woman starting to pursue an IT career?

I would say pick out a mentor. Become involved in organizations that are based on technology. Don't be intimidated; just get your mindset that you can do this. Don't let anyone tell you, 'You can't do this.'

About the Author(s)

Marcia Savage

Executive Editor, Network Computing

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