At the beginning of my career, I often wondered why more women wouldn’t choose to go into the sciences, especially if they had the aptitude for the discipline. In my experience the sciences are such an exciting field where discoveries can have a lasting impact on people, society and even the universe.
The reason why I wasn’t seeing more women choose science as a profession came to me when I started working at companies where I was often the only woman in the room. It’s difficult to see yourself in a role when no one else who looks like you is at the table.
Historically small percentages of women have chosen to study and work in engineering—a field dominated by men. I can count the number of women in my classes on one hand when I was an engineering student at the University of Minnesota-Mankato. Of all the students who graduated with undergraduate engineering degrees in the U.S. back in the early 1980’s, only 12.2 percent were women. For some degrees, like electrical engineering – the percentage was low-single-digits.
There are some theories that elementary school children’s perceptions and attitudes about women going into the sciences has fueled this imbalance of the sexes in engineering. Think back for a moment to your school days and how often social stereotypes about men and women—girls and boys—came up in conversation in the classroom or the school yard. Abbott did a study in partnership with YouGov a few years ago that revealed nearly 5 in 10 girls (ages 11-15) indicated they aren’t encouraged to study STEM.
Much has changed over the last couple of decades, thanks to a concerted effort by academia and industry to make the fields of STEM education—science, technology, engineering and math—not only more accessible to women, but also more appealing: we still have far to go.
Reaching school-age girls at the formative stages of their education and development when they are contemplating what they want to be when they grow up is vital to ensuring more young women choose a career path in STEM. Even when girls choose to study engineering, computer science or mathematics, many do not choose jobs in a related field. We need to figure out why that is—what’s turning them off—and make careers in science a viable and sustainable option.
It may be that if women don’t see themselves reflected in their leaders, they may be less inclined to stick with their career path. In that same Abbott and YouGov study, 93% of women in STEM with a female boss said they plan to remain in STEM. We can retain women in STEM by increasing the number of women who lead their teams. 69% of women in STEM who had mentors early in their careers say they plan to stay in STEM.
That is why I actively participate in Abbott’s high school internship program that creates opportunities—especially for girls—who are curious about careers in STEM.
We’ve developed a blueprint based on how we created our program to make it easier for other companies to replicate a high school internship, because we know that the more companies encourage girls to explore an education in STEM, the more young women will choose a career path in the sciences. And that is a good thing for ALL of us. Encouraging more women to pursue STEM careers means more diversity of thought in our labs and workspaces, which means we can create even better life-changing breakthroughs.
Right now, women make up nearly 40% of Abbott’s U.S. science, technology and engineering workforce. While we’re not perfect, we’re pursuing change, and if we all work together, we can dramatically increase the number of women in the overall U.S. STEM workforce.
But if you asked me why more women working in the sciences is so important for me personally, I would say it’s all about exciting opportunities. Studying the sciences opens so many doors to personal growth and learning. It also means exciting opportunities to lucrative careers that have the potential to break the glass ceiling and have an impact on thousands, if not millions of people’s lives.
Working on medical devices means I have the opportunity to have a positive impact on thousands of people’s lives who rely on Abbott’s medical devices to live. Looking at a career in STEM from that perspective can have a profound effect on the choices we make in life.
I have welcomed the opportunity to mentor young women and share my experiences with them and I will continue to do so because I firmly believe that the more women working in the sciences will benefit society as a whole.