To ensure a robust workforce in the jobs of the future, diversifying the so-called STEM fields has become a national (and local) obsession.
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.”
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.”
Bias literacy coming to business near you
The term technology transfer refers to university discoveries that eventually become the focus of business development, but what about research transfer?
Dr. Molly Carnes
The findings of Dr. Molly Carnes, director of the University of Wisconsin–Madison Center for Women’s Health Research, pertain to STEM related academic units, but don’t be surprised if they make their way to private employers.
Her previous research into “bias literacy” among STEM departments at UW–Madison, funded by the National Institutes of Health, and her development of tools to “break the bias habit,” are designed to promote equal opportunity for people in previously underrepresented groups. This is particularly true of leadership positions, where organizational perception of who makes a good leader has been influenced by certain stereotypes and resulting unconscious (implicit) biases.
An example, Carnes notes, is how tall men are assumed to be commanding and assertive and therefore ideal leaders, which impacts the opportunities available to women and men who don’t fit the masculine stereotype. About 15 percent of men are over 6 feet tall, but among the male CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, more than 60 percent are over 6 feet tall, so the implicit assumption is that the more masculine appearing man is a better leader.
Carnes believes that change will come as people and organizations understand these implicit biases and engage in self-regulation with certain cognitive strategies to mitigate the damage. Says Carnes: “Our reasoning is that if you can get individuals in an organization to recognize and self-regulate the way assumptions about groups of people can lead to bias, then as with any cultural change, eventually the culture of the whole organization changes.”
STEMing a Caucasian male tide
When it comes to getting more girls and young women to consider STEM careers, it seems that every school is getting into the act.
Efforts to drive diversity in local institutions range from the UW–Madison Geoscience Department’s “Expanding Your Horizons” annual conference, specifically dedicated to helping middle school-aged girls explore STEM careers, or Madison College’s Early College STEM Academy, where high school juniors and seniors take college courses toward STEM degrees. These initiatives are among many offered at each institution.
Then there’s Edgewood College, which has partnered with the Badgerland Girl Scouts to help a greater variety of young people explore technology opportunities. Edgewood has played host to a series of Saturday programs on campus as part of the Girl Scouts’ “STEM Soup: Code Squad.” Over the past year, it has served more than 200 kindergarten-through-3rd grade girls across southwest and south-central Wisconsin, and Dr. Atreyee Sinha, an assistant professor in Edgewood’s Computing and Information Sciences Department, is determined to grow it.
According to Sinha, computing aptitude is not a barrier for girls, the social construct is. “They misconstrue a computing career as something that’s only for geeks and nerds who have no communication with the outside world,” Sinha says.
Girl scouts work in teams of two and, with the help of coding programs from Code.org and Google, they are challenged to write their own algorithms and brainstorm. Sinha hopes the girls’ biggest take-away isn’t just that girls can code, but also that computer programming is no different than any other problem-solving exercise people do in everyday life, whether it’s a chef preparing a dish with a new recipe or a filmmaker trying to make a screenplay come to life.
“They learn that problem-solving is something people do every day but in different contexts,” Sinha notes. Including the computing context.
Click here to sign up for the free IB ezine — your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.