As the first American woman to enter space, astronaut Sally Ride was nothing if not an inspiration to girls and women around the globe. Her death this week has provoked not just a deep sadness that she's gone, but also considerable reflection on the challenges and opportunities facing women in science and technology today, some 30 years after her first mission.
I had a chance recently to speak with Karen Purcell, author of the forthcoming book Unlocking Your Brilliance: Smart Strategies for Women to Thrive in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, about some of the challenges facing women in these fields.
Purcell's book is due out on Aug. 1. As a professional engineer and founder of award-winning engineering firm PK Electrical, she has both professional and personal insight on the topic.
PCWorld: Please describe some of what makes it difficult for women to thrive in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.
Purcell: Women who choose to follow careers in STEM disciplines face unique and frustrating challenges. Even after we establish ourselves in our careers, we continue to encounter potential career-ending traps. Not only do women in STEM careers have higher attrition rates than do their male counterparts--especially within the first 10 years on the job--we also have higher attrition rates than women in other careers.
The general belief that men outperform women in math and science fields is one of the reasons for the high attrition rate. Other reasons include cognitive gender differences, a womans lack of interest in the STEM fields, work-life balance issues, and bias. This is an important subject to acknowledge and correct; otherwise, we will never level the playing field.
In the STEM fields, conquering post-secondary education is also vastly different from conquering a career. College and university programs teach guidelines, problem solving, and time management, but they do not always prepare us for the working world and are not always the best indicator for how well we will do once we land jobs.
When we start our careers, we are being paid to achieve results. Multimillion-dollar projects can ultimately fail because of our workmanship. The pressures facing young females entering the STEM workforce are humbling and extremely trying. Without much warning, these pressures can lead to high levels of dissatisfaction.
PCWorld: It's obvious why these challenges are a problem for women, but why are they also a problem for the fields themselves? Why would IT, for example, benefit from the involvement of more women?
Purcell: Many jobs within the STEM fields focus on designing products and materials that aim to advance our experiences and allow us to live safer lives. Therefore, it is critical to have a strong female presence to ensure that products and materials are developed to benefit both genders. Without the involvement of women in these fields, product designers may easily overlook needs that are specific to women.
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