By: Jack Roth
The Academy Award-nominated movie Hidden Figures recently shed light on African American women’s STEM roles in the 20th century space race against the Soviet Union. The depiction of women overcoming obstacles to become instrumental players in what was a male-dominated field has resonated with audiences, as the movie has earned approximately $200 million worldwide to date. The three women featured in the film — Dorothy Vaughn (computer scientist), Mary Jackson (engineer) and Katherine Johnson (mathematician) — remained relatively unknown for decades until the release of the film. Other early female pioneers also made significant contributions to STEM-related fields, including Hedy Lamarr (actress/technology inventor), Ada Lovelace (mathematician) and Grace Hopper (computer scientist). But until now, they have been few and far between.
Historically, women of all cultures and ethnicities have been dramatically underrepresented in STEM careers that can be found in a variety of regional industries from transportation and health care to advanced manufacturing, energy and communications. However, thanks to regional and local efforts, the gender gap is shrinking. According to the National Million Women Mentor’s STEM Initiative, American women represent 80 percent of the nation’s teachers, 50 percent of the nation’s workforce and 24 percent of the STEM workforce.
These statistics suggest that in recent years, women are either directly shaping the quality of the nation’s STEM talent pipeline or representing emerging expertise in science and technologies that can help stimulate regional growth.
Opportunities for All
Erica Lemp is the executive director at weVenture at the Florida Institute of Technology’s Bisk College of Business. The organization offers free and low-cost business advice for startup and Stage 2 growth companies. During her career, she has gained a unique perspective on women who venture into high-tech sectors.
“Women ask different questions and approach challenges differently than men. It’s not better, just different, and the synthesis of varying perspectives ultimately leads to greater creativity.” – Janet Petro
“We live in a society that has traditionally not encouraged women to go into STEM fields,” she said. “Even today, for women who take that leap, it’s a hard leap to make. There’s still an assumption that women aren’t as knowledgeable when it comes to science and engineering, so there’s only so much space for them. They have to fight harder for market share.”
Lemp admits that although there may be some old, societal-based biases that linger in science and technology professions, women are gaining traction because they are getting the same early exposure to it that men do. The growth of STEM programs in middle and high schools has exposed both boys and girls how to use science to solve problems. It has also exposed them to the fascinating careers they can have as adults.
“In the old days we were taught only boys could build cars and spaceships, but now girls are creating circuit boards and computers,” she said. “Providing opportunities to all children is the main reason for this.”
Janet Petro, deputy director of Kennedy Space Center (KSC), agrees that opening up a young girl’s mind to everything she can do and achieve plants the seeds necessary to achieve goals and fulfill dreams. Petro, who oversees a $2.5 billion budget, believes she has been given incredible opportunities, and she credits her father, an engineer, with being an inspiration to her.
“Everyone needs exposure, opportunity and mentorship to be successful in any given field,” said Petro, who also noted that women make up half of the senior leadership at KSC. “I work with many female engineers, but there are still those meetings where I’m the only woman in the room. Inclusion has improved, but we need to continue to provide the exposure and support young girls’ need to follow their dreams.”
Petro is also the director of Kennedy Networking of Women (KNOW), an employee resource group that provides focus on issues that affect female employees such as employment, retention, promotion, training, career/personal development and education. KNOW supports recruiting, mentoring, networking and development activities, as well as assisting in the advancement, representation and inclusion of KSC women.
“We want to eliminate the barriers that hinder the advancement of women in the workforce,” said Petro. “NASA has done a great job of providing opportunities for women, but we need to continue to encourage at the high school and college levels.”
Women in Health Care
When Deborah German, M.D., was hired to build the University of Central Florida College of Medicine, her goal was to build one better than anything that currently existed. In order to do that, she knew the college needed to be inclusive to anyone — man or woman — who was qualified to advance the core missions of education, research and patient care.
“When I was a little girl, I was told I could be a secretary, teacher or nurse, but today colleges have opened the doors to women and are giving them the same opportunities men have always had,” she said. “It’s a question of recognizing talent and welcoming the differences that people bring to the table. Women tend to be more nurturing then men, and medicine is a helping profession; having women involved in patient care and clinical studies leads to a better overall health care product.”
At the UCF College of Medicine, the gender numbers are equal for both incoming students and graduation rates. “As doors are opened to women, they will fill the ranks; any disciplines, such as surgery, that do not include women will see a dissipation in the talent pool,” she explained.
The UCF College of Medicine focuses on outreach, as faculty members volunteer to go to classrooms in both public and private schools to expose kids to health care and medicine. The college also hosts summer camps for underserved high school students to expose them to health-related careers and has increased the number of residency programs and fellowships. Other partnerships with Valencia Community College, Orange County Public Schools and HCA Healthcare are providing opportunities to young adults interested in careers in medicine.
“Our message is simple: if we can do it, you can do it,” said German. “By having these kids rub shoulders with professionals in the field, we educate and inspire.”
Diversity Enhances Innovation
When people think of science, technology, engineering and math, they tend not to consider the human factor, which is critical to the advancement of these disciplines. Lemp believes diversity, and the unique perspective women bring to the table, will ultimately enhance the way new technologies are conceived and implemented.
“It’s about human-centered design and creating things that include a dose of humanity,” she explained. “We’re basically adding empathy to and keeping the ‘human’ in technology. The more diversity of thought you bring to a technology, the better that technology will be. It balances the scientific process.”
Petro, who works to ensure diversity at KSC, agrees that a better cross section and larger perspective leads to more innovation. Otherwise, she says, you have an echo chamber that leads to nothing. “Ideas comes from life experiences,” she said. “Women ask different questions and approach challenges differently than men. It’s not better, just different, and the synthesis of varying perspectives ultimately leads to greater creativity.”
German adds that younger generations are better at accepting diversity, which bodes well for the future. “Many heads are better than one,” she said. “The contributions of many are always better than the contributions of one. Diverse thought adds to the ultimate outcome.”
The key to ensuring that women continue to choose STEM careers and make contributions within those disciplines comes down to access and encouragement. Being exposed to science and technology at a young age is critical, and so is encouragement from parents, teachers and STEM professionals. For a young girl with aspirations of becoming a physicist, engineer or brain surgeon, the sky should be the limit.
“Think big and don’t limit yourself,” said Petro. “There are so many applications for math and science. Find what you truly love about something and go for it.”
“Find out what makes you tick and hold onto that,” added Lemp. “Stick with your passion and make it happen. As a region, the more we can do to provide experiential learning for all kids and allow them to find their passions, the better off we will be. Moving forward, we need to celebrate people who are doing it well — men and women — because that person accomplished something good. We need to continue to elevate people based on their accomplishments.”
When it comes to health care, German encourages young girls to enter a career in which they can positively impact the lives of many. “As a society, we need to step back from gender, race, socioeconomic status and nationality and see that every human being has talent,” she said. “We need to allow that talent to thrive. If we do that, everyone will have a place and the world will be a better place.”
“As a region, the more we can do to provide experiential learning for all kids and allow them to find their passions, the better off we will be.” – Erica Lemp