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Women’s careers change slowly

Few females are following STEM job paths

POSTED: April 12, 2014 11:21 p.m.

Women have made strides in many career areas, but it’s still tough to break into some, including science, technology, engineering and math.

“We have a persistent issue in our country around the STEM fields, which obviously include engineering, which in some respects is the worst off, although mathematics is pretty bad too,” said Gale Starich, Brenau University’s Dean of the School of Health & Science. “I’m a basic scientist, so right off the bat in both my master’s and my doctorate, I never had a female professor. There was not one to be had.”

While Starich said her professors were encouraging, she heard of other teachers who disapproved of women in the sciences.

“You always encountered overt sexism and male professors who didn’t think you should be there because you were taking up the spot of some guy who was actually going to do something,” she said.

It can be easy to forget how recently women achieved so-called equality.

The Equal Pay Act was passed in Congress in 1963, though it still remains an issue of contention with reports that women earn 77 cents per every dollar a man earns.

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama signed an executive order prohibiting contractors from retaliating against employees talking about what they earn. Advocates say secrecy surrounding salaries is what has maintained the wage gap between men and women.

In the meantime, schools encourage all students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. 

In Georgia, the push comes from Complete College Georgia, developed in 2012 by Gov. Nathan Deal to not only increase college completion rates but also to ensure people entering the workforce are prepared for the types of jobs available.

But data show women are still not equally represented in those fields.

Information from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that in 2011, while women were 47 percent of the entire work industry, they were a minority in many of those careers. For example, women only made up 13.6 percent of all architects and engineers, and 4.3 percent of aircraft pilots and flight engineers.

And while some women may enter those careers, they’re not necessarily staying.

“I’ve got friends who I went to college with and we all graduated around the same time within the same field,” said Margie Pozen, a consultant and engineer director with STV Inc. “Many of them have since gone into teaching. That seems to be the fall-back career for a lot of women that I know — three off the top of my head, who just for whatever reasons decided to leave engineering and go into teaching.”

There are a few different reasons for a mid-career exodus. Starich said it’s not so much blatant sexism that frustrates women, but the lack of role models and support for women when they get ready to start a family of their own.

She said she had a baby while getting her master’s and while getting her doctorate.

“Back then, there were a lot of folks who didn’t even like you married so much, let alone pregnant,” Starich said. “So part of the persistent issue has to do with lack of role models and then, in some respects, lack of flexibility in terms of being able to have a family or raise a family.”

There is also society with which to contend, with women saying outside opinions can be more demoralizing than what they experience on the job. 

Natasha Davis, a construction project engineer with the Georgia Department of Transportation, said she thinks she’s treated fairly in her office and by her superiors. But, she said, it’s hard to ignore that she’s in a male-dominated industry.

“I have always been the only female in my office,” she said. “But I’ve been very lucky to work with a group of men who have been very helpful to me, and they’re very fair to me.”

The issues come when she goes out to a project and has to deal with the public.

“Sometimes you run into people who are not used to seeing a female on the job,” she said. “But they are still very welcoming sometimes, once you talk to them and they understand you know what you’re talking about.”

“I don’t think there’s blatant sexism, not in the way that I would define it,” Pozin said. “But as a consultant, part of my job is to go out and network with people and bring in work, like projects to do, to keep my staff busy. I think there’s more sexism out there in the business development and marketing end of engineering than there is within the companies that I’ve been fortunate enough to work for.”

The key to changing attitudes in both men and women is to hit them when they’re young, before children are even beginning to contemplate career paths.

“Some of the research indicates that most of these decisions are made by children in grades 1-6,” Starich said. “When you’re all just trying to get gender identity sort of, maybe, kind of started, and then the longer you go in K-12, the more cultural influences and peer pressure become important.”

And while she’s complimentary of the work schools are doing, she said any meaningful change for more gender equality in the workplace will have to infiltrate society. 

“I know the schools are doing the best they can,” Starich said. “In many respects, they’re doing a wonderful job. Think about that STEM Academy up at (North Hall High School).

“But it’s hard to swim against the cultural tide and the peer pressure. And so some of the best stuff you can do is to hang with women scientists and have those people in your life. And of course, because there aren’t very many of them, they’re hard to find.”

The best way to encourage more women to take advantage of these career opportunities is to reach out to younger girls, both in providing specific support and overall encouragement.

“There’s a lot of people out there willing to mentor younger women coming out of school,” Pozin said. “So that, before they start their family, they can ask questions like ‘Hey, if I have a kid, is this going to kill my career? How do I go about not having that happen?’”

“It’s just so difficult to sort of change the cultural mores, and so one of the things that I think has been sort of a nice movement here in the United States is about being who are you,” Starich said. “Some of that you’re-OK-the-way-you-are kind of stuff and programs that we’re seeing now — because that at least gives students a window where they can be comfortable to explore sciences.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report


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