To ensure a robust workforce in the jobs of the future, diversifying the so-called STEM fields has become a national (and local) obsession.
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From the pages of In Business magazine.
Diversifying the so-called STEM disciplines and professions is proving to be achievable, but at somewhat of a snail’s pace. Due to the importance of these high-paying occupations in today’s economy, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) or STEMM if you add the word medicine to it, has become ground zero for diversifying the workplace.
The general perception is that progress is particularly slow in information technology, or computing professions. According to Code.org, a nonprofit organization dedicated to expanding access to computer science and increasing participation by women and underrepresented minorities, female numbers are growing but women are still vastly outnumbered. While the number of females who took the AP (Advanced Placement) computer science exam grew from 2,600 in 2007 to more than 29,000 in 2017, women still represent 27 percent of all students who took the exam.
Code.org also says that 83 percent of all university computer science majors are men, and with seven in 10 STEM occupations residing in the computer realm, there is still ample room for improvement on the diversity front. A lot depends on how you slice it. The picture, at least at UW–Madison, is better when health-related occupations are factored in. Of the 12,981 UW undergraduates in fall 2018 who were in STEM and health majors, 47% (6,049) were female.
In the work environment, the U.S. Department of Commerce reports that women filled 47 percent of all U.S. jobs in 2015, but they held only 24 percent of STEM jobs. In addition, while nearly as many women hold undergraduate degrees as men, they make up only about 30 percent of all STEM degree holders.
Locally, the great exception to the rule is Epic CEO Judith Faulkner, but there are others who have broken through. We spoke to several area women in these fields to discuss their career experiences and got their advice for younger women pursuing careers in STEM fields and for organizations that must do a better job driving diversity.
Demetria Menard: Lady can code
Demetria Menard, here with Wisconsin Technology Council President Tom Still, has parlayed a love of writing software code into a career of teaching others how to use technology to build their careers.
Writing software code is one of Demetria Menard’s great loves. Menard started coding in high school when she was invited to participate in a Cobalt class. While she picked it up fast, that didn’t stop a male classmate from remarking to her: “You know what happens to girls who are good at this? They become housewives.”
Menard became much more, starting with a consulting firm in Houston that needed a Cobalt programmer. There, she encountered a familiar environment — not many programmers were women — and even though she had no trouble with Cobalt trouble-shooting, she never got promoted and eventually joined Shell Oil. She upgraded her skills to include Java, and Shell was more accommodating on the promotion front, asking her to manage others.
But when you’re a coder at heart, and the entrepreneurial bug starts to bite, you talk things over with your spouse, stop living other people’s dreams, and start chasing your own. For the past 15 years, Menard has worked as a programmer, manager, and executive, and that includes a brief stint as COO of SwanLeap, the Madison startup that last year was No. 1 on Inc. magazine’s 5000 list of fastest-growing companies.
Menard says she’s married to one of the best trainers in the industry, and they have traveled the country helping others understand how to use technology to build their careers. She described her time with SwanLeap as “kind of a pit stop” because she and her spouse were interested in its logistics technology, but they have resumed traveling and training new hires and re-hires, including those who have not been formally trained in IT.
“We’re going backwards a little bit and finding the people who may be a receptionist right now, but they want to be a programmer,” she explains. “We’re using the same thing we use when we are training someone fresh out of college, teaching people who want a shift in their careers or a promotion.”
She acknowledges that in IT, diversification is difficult but sees signs of hope in a myriad of programs such as Girls Who Code. “The really cool thing is there are a lot of people who are interested [in diversity], but implementation is not as easy as it could be, so I’m super excited about initiatives that are out there to help,” Menard says. “Girls Who Code is important, but what about women who want to code who are looking for a career change and who have a couple of kids?”
In far too many organizations, policies are not conducive to work-life balance for women, even with technology tools that make remote working possible. Menard credits SwanLeap, which makes custom software to help manufacturers save money on shipping and better manage their supply chains, for its work-life creativity. “One of the things that we did at SwanLeap, which was kind of awesome, is that we used agile development,” she explains. “One of the things it lets you do is pair with people, so a person working from home just dials into whatever program we happen to be using and is partnered with somebody for the day. Things like that are going to be the difference between women giving up and women who keep going.”
Renee Schlick: Accidental techie
Growing up in Western Pennsylvania, it’s safe to say that Renee Schlick never thought she would work as a senior scientific project manager for a company like Thermo Fisher Scientific. A question about whether she once aspired to a life science career provoked laughter from Schlick, whose youthful ambitions centered on becoming a veterinarian. “In high school, I didn’t know what biotech was,” she acknowledges.
She does now. Not only does Schlick do custom lab work for Thermo Fisher’s biotech and pharma clients, it’s pretty sophisticated stuff, including stem cell reprogramming and editing. Not bad for a kid whose industry knowledge was once limited to construction, trucking, and others that once dominated the landscape of her home turf.
For Schlick, the journey to Madison’s biotech scene has been a long, sometimes strange, and always rewarding trip through the U.S. Marines Corp., where she met her future husband and worked with the White House staff on flight schedules for Marine One (under presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton). She gained so much confidence from that experience that she followed her husband to Iowa and earned a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from the University of Iowa, and she matriculated to Madison to work on protein purification with Pan Vera, which has gone through several organizational changes on its way to becoming part of Thermo Fisher.
Last year, she topped it off by earning an MBA in Strategic Management from University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Business. Thanks to the MBA, Schlick still is trying to climb the business side of biotech, with the goal of managing one of Thermo Fisher’s product lines. Without a Ph.D., it’s harder to climb to the very top of biotech organizations, but biotech firms still need business acumen. “There is so much on the business side,” she notes, “from marketing to distribution to planning. It helps to have a good understanding of science to navigate that, but there are a lot of avenues you can take. I don’t think a lot of people are aware of that. I wasn’t when I began my journey.”
While women are well represented in the life sciences, there does seem to be a glass ceiling that stops at the middle-manager level. Schlick believes one of the culprits is the implicit bias that rests within all of us, and she praised her employer for addressing it with diversity, equity, and inclusion programs, employee resource groups, and other steps that she believes will help move the needle.
Her advice to younger women pursuing a biotech career is multifaceted but boils down to a passion play. “Come up with a goal large enough to make your heart beat faster and your palms a little sweatier.”