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Gender blending

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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Kathy Huibregtse: Engineering a long career

It was the fall of 1972. The Vietnam War (and accompanying protests) were winding down, a flashy running back named Rufus “The Roadrunner” Ferguson was reigniting interest in Wisconsin football, and Kathy Ernest (now Huibregtse) was a junior engineering student majoring in chemical and environmental engineering at UW–Madison. That year, she had an old-school professor who wasn’t terribly excited to see her in his classroom, which surprised her because the same professor had instructed her father, the late Lawrence Ernest, back in the 1940s when he was a returning veteran pursuing an engineering degree on the GI bill. “I don’t think he [the professor] connected the dots until later,” Huibregtse says, noting she eventually won him over.

In her 40-plus years as an engineering consultant, she would experience occasional workplace hostility due to her gender, and sometimes the hostility came from other women such as a senior member of the secretarial staff who refused to type anything for her. Fortunately, she also had employers like RMT Inc., where she could work part time while her three children were young, ENVIRON International Corp., and now Ramboll Environ, a privately held Danish company that acquired ENVIRON International. Having reached retirement age, she works for Ramboll part time as a principal engineer.

Huibregtse’s career has been focused on the environmental side of engineering, including brownfield redevelopment, sediment management, and strategic environmental support. She has worked on high-profile projects such as Miller Park, dozens of the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Super Fund” sites, and for companies the EPA ordered to clean up contamination to soil and/or ground water. She has returned to her alma mater as an adjunct professor, where she teaches a freshman environmental design class.

While Huibregtse was the only woman in her 1974 Engineering School graduating class, she is delighted to report the gender composition of her freshman class is close to an even split between men and women. “It’s wonderful to see because you’re using the assets of the entire population to make the world work better,” she notes, “and that’s the opportunity you have as an engineer.”

Still, as someone who juggled family and profession as she climbed the ladder to fill management roles, Huibregtse knows there still are significant work-life balance challenges for both men and women in the engineering profession. For younger professionals with children and families, the challenges are significant, but there are opportunities, aided by tools such as remote computer access, to restructure things in ways that make sense for everyone.

“As a boss, if you can make it work for everyone, you get a sense of loyalty that you otherwise would not get,” she states.

Ana Hooker: From art to science

With Exact Sciences, Ana Hooker is helping to make history in the fight against cancer.

Part of the story of how Ana Hooker landed at Exact Sciences is that she didn’t want to be a starving artist. Having begun her education as an art major, she switched to a pre-health science focus after a recession hit in the early 1990s. With a bad job market staring her in the face, biology and chemistry replaced artistic pursuits, and the native of Puerto Rico has never looked back.

That’s because she keeps getting promoted. Hooker would go on to earn Bachelor of Science degrees with emphasis in chemical and biological sciences from Kansas State University, a medical technology certification, and an MBA from Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah. In Salt Lake City, her career shifted from bench technology to management as vice president-division manager of integrated oncology genetics for ARUP Laboratories. After a short stint as director of clinical laboratory operations for Exact Sciences, she has served as the company’s senior vice president of operations since 2015.

One of her first jobs was in laboratory medicine for a small community hospital in western Kansas. The hospital was located in a town of 5,000 people called Colby, which represented no small measure of portent. “Maybe that was a premonition that I was going to end up in Wisconsin,” Hooker jokes.

Premonition or not, the hospital job stoked her fire to work in health care, and while there, some terrific mentors not only took Hooker under their wing, they encouraged her to pursue the med tech certification. Whatever barriers she faced as a woman were compounded by being a Latina, but Hooker’s hospital colleagues were her champions, and now she has the privilege of doing the same thing for others at Exact Sciences, a company she says is “making history in the fight against cancer.”

Exact Sciences already manufacturers Cologuard, a non-invasive screen for colorectal cancer whose impressive sales are bringing business performance to new heights. With new headquarters being prepared and new areas where its cancer-fighting technology can be applied, it could not be a more exciting time to be part of the Madison-based company. “Being part of the population health story is magic,” she says.

Not only is her company advancing, Hooker believes the past five years has brought impressive diversity gains for women in STEM. She sees more women pursuing careers traditionally held by men and more men interested in nursing and health careers previously reserved for women.

Given all that’s happening in STEM, and with diversity and inclusion programs gaining traction, Hooker is encouraged because “all this is evolving right in front of our eyes.”

Nancy Pautsch: Cultivating a growth mindset

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, Nancy Pautsch says career opportunities for women in technology are limitless.

Nancy Pautsch refers to herself as a recovering Type A personality — Type A cubed, in fact. In her former life, she was part perfectionist, part people pleaser, but in the past 10 years she intentionally has undergone a period of self-reflection and self-study that enables her to be a more conscious and authentic leader for Envision IT, a Madison-based technology consulting firm.

Her title, chief evangelist of stakeholder value (aka president), helps explain what this renewed and still-evolving professional is all about, but it corresponds to the more collaborative business cultures that have taken hold, even in a sharp-elbowed industry like information technology. Pautsch did not go back to school to upgrade her skills, but instead set out to cultivate a personal growth mindset.

“It helped my career by gaining an understanding that my Type A personality can lead to burnout and only take me so far,” she confesses. Today, she strives for more authenticity (coveted by millennial and other young employees) as part of a more collaborative, team-oriented culture.

Information technology was not her original career ambition. To provide an example of her youthful, Type A drive, it took her only three years (1988-1990) to earn bachelor’s degrees in international relations, French, and political science from UW–Madison. Next came a Master of Art’s degree in international political economy from Syracuse University in 1991, and a career journey that she would not allow to be sidetracked by workforce barriers. When male supervisors would frustrate Pautsch by moving the goal posts whenever she met project goals, she took her skills to organizations where her accomplishments were appreciated. Their loss was her, and her new employer’s, gain.

Eventually, she would discover that managing a technology business is about more than bits, bytes, and other technical considerations as she built her career in organizations such as Berbee (since merged into CDW) and Core BTS, where she served as regional vice president. As for women in technology, “I see the career opportunities as limitless,” she states.

So is the possibility of cultural transformation that makes technology, at least at organizations such as Envision IT, more accommodating for women. As Pautsch explains, Envision IT is intent on “growing a soulful company” for its 25 Dane County employees. The organization’s embrace of Conscious Capitalism, with its purpose-driven focus on stakeholder (not just shareholder) value, is well aligned with concepts of diversity, equity, and inclusion. With business organizations facing a labor crunch and job-seekers increasingly in the driver’s seat, women looking at the computer technology industry are in a better position to demand cultural change in business organizations or, as Pautsch once did, take their talents elsewhere.

Lisa Johnson: Minding biotech

Lisa Johnson expects the new Women in Biohealth-Madison to advance more women to executive leadership positions.

More than 35 years ago, Lisa Johnson earned a bachelor’s degree in finance from UW–Madison, so naturally she forged a career in the biotech industry. “I knew nothing about it,” she recalls. “Bob Mierendorf [then president of Novagen] needed a business person.” So have other organizations along Johnson’s career path, such as Merck, which acquired Novagen in 1998, Semba Biosciences, and now at BioForward Wisconsin, which serves the state’s biohealth industry with legislative advocacy.

While biotech wasn’t necessarily Johnson’s ambition, it has become her passion. Novagen, where she served as a founding partner, was an opportunity to help build something from scratch, Merck offered a chance to contribute on an international stage, and her role as CEO of BioForward is an opportunity to pay it forward.

A common perception is that the life sciences have done a better job diversifying than information technology. From Johnson’s vantage point, that’s true. She considers herself fortunate to have joined the industry when it was receptive to women, and her admiration for the life-saving and life-enhancing work of biotech professionals has only grown with time.

“IT is going through what biotech did a couple of decades ago,” she observes. “Novagen was 50 percent men and 50 percent women. I was fortunate because I never felt the way many women do.”

That’s not to suggest that everything is perfect, as women are too often excluded from leadership roles. Professional development is among the reasons Johnson is excited about Women in Biohealth-Madison, developed to create a network for professional women. Her advice to young women interested in biotech is blunt: “Never feel uncomfortable if you’re the only woman in the room. That’s their issue, not yours.”


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