Unlocking the brilliance in high tech

Ironically, it was a male physics teacher who finally helped Karen Purcell – author of a new book on women in science and technology careers – to realize she could choose engineering as a career.As Purcell recounts in that book, engineering was an odd career choice for girls back when she was in high school in Harrisburg, Pa. (I don’t know her age, but judging by Purcell’s photo and the fact that her youngest daughter is 12, I’m going to assume she’s talking about the 1970s.)Yet it wasn’t a woman who suggested engineering as a calling for Purcell; it was a man.

“My high school physics teacher, a man, finally made a suggestion instead of posing another string of endless questions,” Purcell writes in her book. “He told me that based on my aptitude in math and science; I should consider engineering, a career dominated – then and now – by males.”

Thus began Purcell’s journey towards a career in a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) field. She details that personal journey in her book “Unlocking Your Brilliance: Smart Strategies for Women to Thrive in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.”The book serves partly as a personal memoir of how she overcame obstacles, first in choosing a STEM career, then in carving a path to the top of her profession as the founder and president of the electrical engineering firm PK Electrical, winner of a 2012 Entrepreneur of the Year Award from the newspaper in her Reno, Nevada home base, and active leader in the Reno Tahoe Entrepreneurs’ Organization. (She’s also founded a non-profit called STEMspire to provide college scholarships for girls pursuing STEM degrees and startup financing for female STEM entrepreneurs.) But it’s also a practical advice book, listing detailed suggestions about how women can survive and thrive once they’ve entered a STEM profession.

Though the person who finally opened her eyes to a STEM career path happened to be a man, Purcell makes the point in her book that it doesn’t matter who plays that role; more adults of either gender – be they teachers, guidance counselors or parents – need to step up and encourage girls to consider STEM careers, she argues. While girls today receive way more information about those careers than Purcell did while growing up, things still need to improve, she says. “I think there has been some improvement over the last 20 or 30 years. But there’s still an underlying bias (where) teachers, parents and guidance counselors don’t really realize they’re doing it. There are more programs and awareness and after school programs that can guide (girls). But it’s not enough,” says Purcell.

Reality No-Show

Purcell’s book cites studies showing that the biggest factor in girls not entering STEM careers isn’t a lack of aptitude in science and math – it’s a simple lack of encouragement and exposure to information about those careers.

“In a fairly recent survey of girls, only 10 per cent said their parents encouraged them to try the STEM fields whereas about 20 per cent said their parents encouraged them to try to be an actress,” Purcell says.

In other words, until some TV executive launches a show called “Engineering Idol,” the lack of wide promotion for STEM careers likely won’t change drastically any time soon. Although Purcell says her outlook for girls and women in STEM fields is “positive”, she adds that she doesn’t expect women to attain an equal 50 per cent share of STEM careers in her lifetime. Being a realist, she says she’d be content if women moved from occupying just 10 per cent of STEM jobs to holding 20 or 25 per cent of them in her lifetime. The accessibility and popularity of mobile devices and cloud-based technologies (both big parts of the consumerization of IT trend) will probably help spark interest among more girls in STEM careers, Purcell predicts. Canadian statistics about young women entering IT study paths provide some worrisome insights. According to a StatsCan study, 61 per cent of all Canadian university grads in 2007 were female, up from 56 per cent in 1992. During that same period, however, the number of women graduating from university with a math, computer or information sciences degree actually dropped – the only field out of 12 (including law, education and health care) that saw a decrease in the number of female graduates. Another study from the University of British Columbia found that women make up only 20 to 25 per cent of all computer science students at Canadian colleges and universities and only about one in five grads from those programs.

At this point you might be asking “why should we care?” Purcell makes the case that any industry which includes the involvement of only 50 per cent of its potential innovators (and customer base) is just engaged in bad business practice. Examples in her book include the fact that voice recognition software and car air bags weren’t originally designed with female users in mind, an oversight that had disastrous results in the former case and life threateningly dangerous consequences in the latter.

“There’s a lot of product development that, by not having women in STEM (positions), is sacrificing product development,” Purcell says.

Purcell’s book contains chapters devoted to advice for women trying to advance their STEM careers and also for those struggling to balance motherhood with work. Since Purcell confesses in the book that she “scheduled my C-section around important meetings,” it’s worth asking for her opinion on new Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s decision to take just one or two weeks off work following the recent birth of her first child – a decision that has been equally vilified and applauded in the media.

“It’s a very personal decision and there’s no right or wrong answer. It’s obviously very personal and no one should be told what they ‘have’ to do,” says Purcell, a mother of two.

The author explains that after the birth of her second child, she chose to work from home, stay connected to the office, then return to the office gradually in one- or two-hour increments. While it was the right process for Purcell, she’s not keen to prescribe a specific one-choice-fits-all course of action for all working moms out there. Still, at least Mayer is there, heading up the turnaround effort at Yahoo, which is still one of the biggest marquee names in technology worldwide. It’s a position that probably wouldn’t have been filled by a woman back when Purcell was in high school, lucky enough to get good advice from a male teacher who looked past her gender to see her true potential.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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