Women make up almost half of the U.S. workforce and have been the bulk of bachelor’s degree recipients since 1988. Still, women account for only about one-fourth of workers in science, technology, engineering and math careers.
One is the loneliest number but not for Liz Brown.
Brown, who serves as Indiana State University’s math and computer science department chairperson and a math professor, recalls being the only women in many of her classes while she pursued both a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in math in the ‘80s.
Women make up almost half of the U.S. workforce and have been the bulk of bachelor’s degree recipients since 1988. Still, women account for only about one-fourth of workers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
“Somehow it seems like women have the idea that STEM fields are somehow incompatible with being a woman, but that’s just not true,” said Brown, who also has a Ph.D. in math education.
Being the only person in class with two X chromosomes didn’t discouraged Brown in her pursuit of a math career, but it didn’t take her long to realize she would have to operate in a man’s world.
“I was married and had a young child at the time I was working on my master’s in math, and I had a professor once who didn’t like the time the class met and decided it would meet an another time,” Brown said. “I didn’t have that option to just switch times because I had obligations at home, which he didn’t seem to understand. It was nice once I got into math education, though, because I had other women who might have children too and understand my situation.”
Like Brown, Mary McGuire has helped pave the way for females in what are male-dominated industries.
As the second female to graduate from Indiana State’s packaging engineering technology program, McGuire, ‘79, spent 34 years working in STEM careers. She had the opportunity to travel the globe and make a home in places from Indiana to Mexico before she retired a few years ago as the Operational Excellence manager for Remy International Inc.. She retired to spend time with her late husband who had been diagnosed with cancer and to mentor future generations of females in STEM-related fields.
“I originally came (to Indiana State) to be an art and interior design major. Then I started looking at other careers and I decided I wanted a career that paid well after graduation. I looked at technology because the jobs were better paying,” she said. “Since I was an artsy and creative person, packaging was about creating structures and pictures, so it was a match for me. The assistant dean at the time helped me find a packaging co-op job at General Motors and I was hooked.”
From 1990-98, McGuire served in various roles in a Mexican manufacturing site; she was the supplier quality manager, continuous improvement manager, industrial engineering and lean implementation manager.
McGuire mentored many female engineers and learned that she was the first female in management at the Mexican manufacturing plant with over 5000 employees. She would go on to serve in management roles from operations and engineering to sales and business development. The last half of her career she started focusing on lean and six sigma improvements. She has a Lean and Six Sigma Black Belt certifications and has used those skills in every position she held.
“I never thought my career would let me travel the world. Being flexible opened up many great opportunities along the way,” said McGuire, who lives in Carmel and serves on Indiana State’s College of Technology executive advisory board as the co-chair and ISU Foundation board of directors. “A lot of times I was the only female or maybe there were one or two others, but it never bothered me because I was focused on my goals. There may have been hurdles along the way, but I didn’t look at them that way, they were usually great ways to grow professionally or personally.”
When McGuire landed a job, whether it was as Delphi’s account manager or global design center manager, she knew it was because she was the most qualified, not because she was a woman.
Now she’s urging other females to believe in themselves, their skills and talents. She is the Indiana co-chair of the Million Women Mentors – an initiative to get 1 million women to commit to mentoring a girl or young woman in STEM skills. Indiana has committed to 5000 mentors, but McGuire thinks we can beat than number.
“I just went for it throughout my career and I would recommend the same to any woman – go for it, take calculated risks, seek out other females in the field to mentor them, set goals and have fun,” she said. “Even after I retired, I still find ways to volunteer and encourage other women to get in the field because I want to be a role model for other women. I have had a great career and a great life. No regrets.”
Jennifer McNelly, president of the Manufacturing Institute, said, “Women have a huge impact on shaping the industry, whether they are running the company, designing the next big product, or testing innovations on the shop floor. We try to highlight these stories and show that manufacturing presents women with opportunities to lead and succeed.”
Nearly three decades after McGuire earned a degree in packaging technology, female students in several different technology majors at State were seeking opportunities to share experiences with each other. In 2007, Females in Technology (FiT) was created by several interested and committed students with the assistance of Bev Bitzegaio, GR ’96, director of outreach and student career support for the College of Technology.
Mechanical engineering technology alumna , ’09, was among the founding student members of FiT. “The goal of FiT was to build relationships and provide professional development opportunities for current students, as well as invest in outreach activities in the community that could generate excitement in STEM fields for future students,” Andreasen said. Returning as a professional participating in the FiT for the Future Conference last year, she noted, “It was invigorating to see the drive and passion with which the current members of FiT are continuing to progress the organization.”
Andreasen has worked as an engineering manager for Alcoa for the past six year, and as an intern at Toyota and Delphi as a student. “Engineering and technology have provided me with a progressive career which is continually challenging and developing me, and allowing me to be a part of making really cool products,” she said. “I have rarely felt like the minority in my field, although in most cases I have been. Whether I have been out numbered or not, I strive to consistently prove my worth through my actions and performance on the job. In doing so, respect from colleagues is earned, regardless of gender.”
Bitzegaio said professionals such as McGuire and Andreasen play a significant role in helping to build the knowledge and confidence young women need to connect their interests to STEM-related careers.
“I believe role models and mentors can help get girls and young women excited about opportunities in STEM,” she said. “FiT has been a great way to bring women in STEM together, provide opportunities to serve as role-models and mentors, and learn from the STEM professionals who return to share their experiences.” While the ranks of today’s professoriate remain mostly male, nearly half of Indiana State’s math majors are women, which Brown sees as a positive sign for the future of the STEM labor force.
“We see more women in math at the undergraduate level than at the graduate level, but I think a lot of women are actually getting into the STEM pipeline,” she said. “The problem, I think, is that we lose a lot of women after they enter the workplace.”
The verdict is still out on why women leave STEM fields, but pursuing predominantly-male career fields can present challenges. Brown suggests women find people who will support their goals, something she did after declaring a major in math in her third year of undergraduate study.
“I was interested in a lot of things and wasn’t sure what to major in, but I have always liked math and always took a math class when I had the opportunity,” Brown said. “I liked languages and literature too, but I thought I could pursue those interests without being in school, whereas, I think with math it would have been harder for me to do that.”
Since coming to Indiana State in 2000, Brown has seen a consistently healthy number of women pursuing math degrees at the undergraduate level, though there is drop-off at the graduate level.
The math department also has four, female tenured-track faculty members, including Brown, along with one female instructor and one female adjunct professor. Brown hopes to add more women to the ranks in the future.
“A balance of people and diversity is important in any school or workplace environment,” she said. “A balance of women and men changes the environment and better reflect the demographics of the student population.”
While she pursued a career in education, Brown said math majors are needed in other areas, too.
“I was interested in how people learn math and my advisor suggested I go into math education and focus on that. It was really good advice and I was glad we had that conversation,” she said. “Really any career that requires quantitative analysis would be open to a math major, and I think that if women knew some of the opportunities in math and that they could pursue careers outside of teaching, it might help in encourage them to get into the field.”
Caroline Byrne, who will graduate in August with a master’s degree in biology with a focus on bats and their social behavior, said her first idea of studying science came in high school after she attended the Expanding Your Horizons Event at Cornell University – an event that is oriented towards women in junior high and provides activities to stimulate interest in STEM topics.
“It was the first time I really remember understanding what it meant to be a scientist and that you didn’t have to be one of those women in black and white historical photos from the dog-eared grade-school science books,” she said. “I have always struggled with my writing and spelling for various reasons and understanding that you could a have a career in science and math, where I excelled, as a woman really struck a chord with me.”
With a growing number of women entering the sciences, Byrne’s said she hasn’t really faced gender-specific challenges.
“Things are changing and it is a wonderful time to part of a community that is embracing women in science,” she said. “The interdisciplinary nature of the sciences is also an amazing experience and it is great to see women excelling and collaborating across disciplines.”