Why STEM Companies Need to Work Harder than Ever to Close the Gender Gap

Women EngineersWelcome to my first blog for Women in STEM. I see this group as a resource for information about STEM and a forum for dialogue on topics of interest for women in the workplace. I appreciate your interest and it's my intent to provide periodic updates in the group.

STEM represents an important contribution to the development of diversity. However, diversity is not only a social responsibility initiative. Studies have shown that diverse organizations are more creative and make better decisions by incorporating more holistic views. A recent Harvard Business Review article states,

Working with people who are different from you may challenge your brain to overcome its stale ways of thinking and sharpen its performance. Non-homogenous teams are simply smarter.”

My first job with Emerson was in the control valve business. I sat in the ‘sales suite’ of Fisher Controls in Marshalltown, Iowa. Our job was to support our Local Business Partner sales personnel with product application questions, delivery expediting and other support tasks.

Had you walked into the sales suite back in the stone age, you would have seen about 60 desks arranged in a bullpen style. Behind each desk sat a 20-30 something white male. Everyone hailed from somewhere in the Midwest and wore a similar suit and tie.

It wasn't for several more years that the first female sales engineer, Mary, arrived. She was followed closely by Chris who was African American. To a very minor degree, as a Connecticut Yankee, I was the minority before Mary and Chris arrived. It's been very gratifying to see how our industry shifted to a more balanced workforce in the intervening years. 

That said, I am consistently made aware of how the number of women in engineering stack up because I have two very vocal daughters. One is in the law and the other in behavioral sciences. They can't comprehend why we haven't come farther compared to their disciplines.

In fact, in 2016 MIT reported that 20% of undergraduate engineering degrees are awarded to women, but only 13% of the global engineering workforce is female. Numerous explanations are offered for this discrepancy in this MIT study, including a lack of mentorship for women in the field; a variety of factors that produce less confidence for female engineers; and the demands for women of maintaining a balance between work and family life.

If factors such as discouraging group dynamics, marginalization and lack of support are some of the primary deterrents to women’s interest and growth in engineering fields, how might we work together to fix this? Recently, I was asked to be the executive sponsor for Emerson’s Women in STEM group in our region; As you might imagine, I was shocked, flattered and 100% on board. Comprised of both women and men, the group’s mission is to encourage the diversity of ideas and approaches in the workplace and help women achieve their full potential as leaders and in STEM careers.

In my career, I've seen a lot of progress, but we still have an enormous way to go. This short SWE podcast featuring Ken Barrett, Global Diversity Office of General Motors, spurred my thinking. What are your experiences in the workplace? Has your organization implemented diversity initiatives, training or support programs that you feel have helped you be more successful? Please share your comments below…


  • One of my favorite Ted Talks provides some unique insight on why there is a gap of women between middle to senior leadership, but I think this holds true to the lack of female leaders in STEM fields. In Susan Colantuono's Talk "The Career Advice You Probably Didn't Get - she cites that there are so few women leaders in corporations because the tendency is for women to be advised by mentors to be likeable, network, work well on teams etc. However, this tendency is what limits females from reaching senior levels. She cites a case where a male executive had two protégés: a man and a woman. And he said, "I helped the woman build confidence, I helped the man learn the business, and I didn't realize that I was treating them any differently." Susan talks about how this difference in the kind of mentorship men and women receive are what causes this gap. Women are often mentored on soft skills development, but not on strategic acumen. Having mentorship programs is great and I have benefited from them, but I think these programs need to be re-designed to give confidence not through encouragement, but with arming women with more strategic knowledge is what can impact the trajectory for more Women in STEM.