I work in a very male-dominated field as an engineer. Science. Technology. Engineering. Math. STEM. Although it is much more common to see more women around the table at meetings now than it was a decade ago, I still am often the only woman in the room.
Why aren’t more women in STEM careers?
I will own up to being stubborn, and tenacious, but not to being particularly bright. In fact, one of my high school teachers said I wasn’t smart enough to be an engineer.
My rural school (I graduated with forty-four other students) did little to promote higher education. My guidance counselor told me not to bother applying to Notre Dame because I’d never get in.
There were no engineers in my family. Honestly, I didn’t even know anyone who was an engineer, except for train engineers when I worked at a local tourist attraction featuring a steam engine ride through the Black Hills.
So, what in the world made me pursue a STEM field career?
My parents believed in me.
I always knew that my parents believed that I could do anything I set my mind to. They reinforced I could be anything I wanted to be. They never laughed at my desire to save the world. In fact, it was my dad who helped me discover a practical way to help save the world: To become an environmental engineer or environmental attorney.
Education was important to my family. My mom was encouraged to go to college, but she felt like her only choices were teaching or nursing. She let her daughters know they could be anything they wanted to be.
I wasn’t prepared.
College was incredibly difficult for me. I chose to go to a private college with a fantastic engineering program – and a student body made up of prep school students. Whereas the majority of my engineering classmates had taken AP calculus in high school, the highest math offered at my school was an elective pre-calc class that met before school. They thought freshman year was easy because calculus was a review. Physics was, too.
I had to take all three levels of calculus twice. I barely passed physics I and II. It wasn’t until my junior and senior years that I finally felt like I had fighting chance of graduating. And that was because I sought out tutoring, studied with brilliant people, and took advantage of professors’ office hours.
It was brutal.
But when I would get stressed about even passing, my dad would remind me “’A’ students work for ‘C’ students.” Sure, it was important to pass classes. But it was even more important to have the people skills that extended beyond solving equations.
I’m not naturally gifted in math and science.
My tiny public school did the best it could for its students, but didn’t have the resources to prepare us for much more than state school education. I wasn’t born with a healthy self-esteem that propelled me through. What I did have, and what mattered most of all were parents who believed that I was capable. Parents who never subscribed to fields of work being classified as “mens” or “womens.”
When I was sure I was going to fail, they reminded me that I had always managed to do hard things before. When others doubted my ability to succeed, my parents pushed me to prove others wrong.
And when I got my Professional Engineers License, there was no one prouder.
I hope through the rest of my career, more and more seats around my conference room tables are filled with women. I hope more girls are enveloped in the belief that they are capable of anything they put their minds to. They should have the courage to pursue careers that have traditionally been pursued by their brothers. I want all of us to believe in women’s abilities in STEM fields.
Our daughter is only three. She’s a few years away from choosing how she will earn a living. Perhaps it’s a bit premature, but I have included books about girls being engineers, women leaders, and science experiments among the books about ABC’s, feelings, and purple purses. I want her to believe she is capable of anything as much as I believe she is capable of anything.
And if she chooses to carry a purple purse to her career in a field traditionally friendly to women, there will be no one prouder.