Erin Fisher has twin passions related to her career in architecture and engineering. First is the work itself. Old buildings have always enchanted her, and she loves figuring out how to fix them. Ask her about restoring a steeple on an old church or repairing a building’s damaged steel without destroying its historic façade, and her voice lilts and rises, curving this way and that with enthusiasm. “I do everything from surveying the side of a building and holding a hammer and doing some of the probes myself to going back to the office and running calculations and drawing up repair details,” she says.
As director of engineering services for CANY, she commutes from her home in Yardley, Pa. to the New York architecture and engineering firm. She’s in management—she’s at the table—a feat that can’t be overstated in a field in which few women (14 percent) are even employed.
Despite graduating from Cornell Engineering—thumbing her nose at the naysayers who said she couldn’t—and building up her résumé as an accomplished design and structural engineer, Fisher has been tested every step of the way. Weathering two decades in a field that often underpays and undervalues women has taken every ounce of her energy, and she’s intimately familiar with how far engineering needs to go to rebuild its historically chauvinistic and macho underpinnings. Ask Fisher about incidents in which she was mistreated as a woman in a business dominated by men and you ignite her other passion: getting more women into science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).
Part of that desire is purely practical. “Women are inherently going to bring a different perspective. I think that diversity is helpful, in terms of coming up with different and creative solutions, and as far as addressing how to manage a company where there are women,” she explains. “But there are a million reasons why it’s important to have a woman at the table. When you are creating things, building things, and fixing things, you need that diversity of thought and diversity of approaches, so it’s imperative that you have women there who can offer new perspectives.”
While the numbers are generally stagnant or even diminishing, women have made strides in some STEM fields—they make up 39 percent of chemists and material scientists and 53 percent of professionals in the biological sciences. But a recent American Association of University Women (AAUW) review of more than 380 studies from academic journals, corporations, and government sources shows a significant gap in computing and engineering. Women make up half of the total U.S. college-educated workforce but only 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce.
The numbers are troubling because the disparity in these fields creates limitations and inequalities that go well beyond the careers themselves, says Christianne Corbett, MA, a PhD student in sociology at Stanford University who recently co-authored AAUW’s study “Solving the Equation: The Variables for Women’s Success in Engineering and Computing.” Corbett says, “People bring their experiences to their work, and when women aren’t involved in the design of products or in technology, it leaves out the experiences of women. That’s a problem in terms of creating the world we want in order for women to be equal citizens.”
Starting Them Young
ChickTech founder and CEO Janice Levenhagen-Seeley is encouraging girls to pursue STEM fields and empowering women to stay in them.
Q: After getting a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering from Oregon State University and an MBA from Willamette University, why did you switch gears?
A: I ended up leaving engineering because I felt helpless. I felt like, “I’m just one person. I’m not valued.” I thought the only thing I could do was leave.
Q: How did you translate that into ChickTech and your programming?
A: I had a lot of terrible experiences in tech that I think no woman should have to deal with or not have to deal with alone. Sixty-four percent of the girls who join ChickTech high schools have never created a project before. We use hands-on workshops in robotics, green energy, lasers, and coding, and our primary goal is to provide opportunities for girls and help create greater confidence in their abilities and create a community for them. The bottom line is, I don’t care what the girls are learning. I care what they feel when they are learning it.
Q: Why is it so important to get more girls interested and engaged in these fields?
A: Tech touches every part of our lives, and if women aren’t part of it, we won’t have as much of a say in our future as we deserve. As a society, we have taken strengths that men often have and decided they are better than strengths that women possess. Women are often empathetic, so our ability to put ourselves in other people’s shoes can help us solve problems in a different way.
Q: Why do you think so many smart, capable women leave these fields?
A: The stakes are higher for women—we are punished more harshly for mistakes. I don’t know how to fix that other than providing community and support. I think women feel isolated. It’s hard to take chances and risks when you feel alone.
What’s the Problem?
For many years, the pipeline was a huge contributor to the problem. There just weren’t enough women in STEM programs at colleges and universities and, therefore, not enough in the workforce. Jihane Fazio, Delivery Excellence Leader for AECOM, was one of just 10 women in a class of 500 in her civil-engineering program at Drexel University in 1997.
Fisher had a similar experience at Cornell. “I walked into my first math class in engineering school, and I was one of 3 women in a class of 65, and it was shocking to me. You come from high school where it’s pretty balanced in all your classes, and suddenly you’re the only woman in the class,” she recalls. Olympia LePoint, 40, an award-winning rocket scientist and author of Mathaphobia: How You Can Overcome Your Math Fears and Become a Rocket Scientist, says the gender ratio was noticeable when she went to California State University, Northridge and majored in mathematics at 16 years old. “On the first day of school, I walked into my calculus class, and it was filled with men. I didn’t think anything about it until three different boys asked me if I had the wrong room. I thought, Why do they think I have the wrong room? They looked stunned,” she recalls. “I found out I was the only woman in that class. That was my first introduction to the challenges I’d face as a woman.”
The alienation that can come with this disparity often results in women abandoning STEM majors, leading to significantly fewer women graduating from these programs than even the relatively low enrollment numbers reflect. According to a study called “Why So Few,” published by AAUW in 2010, “By graduation, men outnumber women in nearly every science and engineering field, and in some, such as physics, engineering, and computer science, the difference is dramatic, with women earning only 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees.”
Programs across the country, including Girls Who Code, the National Girls Collaborative Project, the National Math and Science Initiative, the Women in Engineering ProActive Network, Girls Inc., and many more, are working to increase interest in and confidence among young women in STEM fields by providing hands-on experience, leadership, and support from peers. But even when women receive more STEM degrees from colleges and universities, it remains to be seen if businesses and corporations will welcome them and support their growth.
“Why So Few” reported that “high-tech companies, in particular, lost 41 percent of their female employees, compared with only 17 percent of their male employees. In engineering, women have higher attrition rates than their male peers have, despite similar levels of stated satisfaction and education.” Corbett says these kinds of statistics significantly limit what otherwise innovative and effective STEM programs can accomplish in the grand scheme. “The educational sphere can do a lot, but those kinds of programs have been going on for decades,” Corbett says. “I don’t feel good about trying to prepare girls to go into these careers, only to have them entering occupations where they’re just not going to be welcomed. It’s disingenuous to say that if we just prepare these girls to be interested, then everything’s going to be fine, because that’s not the whole story. The companies have a really important part to play as well.” More women in these fields—especially in management positions—can lead to a more hospitable environment for other women coming in. Instead, they face an uphill battle.
What’s in the Hopper?
Grace Murray Hopper was a computer scientist and U.S. Navy rear admiral (who joined the Navy 15 pounds below military guidelines) from Arlington, Va. In 1944, she was one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer and invented the first compiler for a computer programming language. (She was also the first to use the term “bug” to describe a glitch in a computer system after she found an actual moth causing trouble in her computer.) Last November, she was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. “If Wright is flight, and Edison is light, then Hopper is code,” Obama said.
Named for Hopper, the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing has become the world’s largest gathering of women technologists. It is produced by the Anita Borg Institute and the Association for Computing Machinery and typically features STEM influencers from government and corporate America. GHC 17 will be Oct. 4–6 in Orlando, Fla.
Navigating the Workforce
Some women describe the discrimination they experienced in STEM fields as subtle but consistent, some say it’s overt and out in the open, and still others report experiencing both, depending on their job at the time. Fisher recalls having to call meetings to ask employees to stop using the word “bitch,” especially on construction sites. While those situations were frustrating and awkward, sometimes the issues were even more fundamental, she says.
“If you knew how many New York City bathrooms I pumped in when I was breastfeeding, you’d be disgusted. I used to have to argue with my boss that there was no place designated for me to pump on these construction sites, and he would say, ‘Just use the bathroom,’” she recalls. “And I’d say, ‘Would you eat lunch in that bathroom? Think of it like I’m preparing food for a baby; a dirty bathroom isn’t acceptable.’”
But LePoint says her challenges were often indirect and more unnerving than physical or overt. She graduated in 1998, top five in a class of 6,500, and went to work at Boeing, helping design and build space rockets, launching a total of 28 NASA Space Shuttles from 1998–2007. “The sexism was subtle, which is what was so psychologically challenging. The second day
I started working at the company, this man came and circled me as if I was a museum piece. His mouth dropped,” she recalls. “A woman I didn’t know pulled me into the restroom and told me there were no other female engineers on the floor. She warned me that there were are a couple of men who would do anything to push your buttons to see you cry. She said, ‘Don’t show any emotions. Don’t let them see you cry.’”
Shawn Linam, co-founder and CEO of Qwaltec, Inc., a Tempe, Ariz.–based business that provides aerospace systems engineering, mission readiness, and technical training services, says she struggled to feel like herself, especially in the early years of her career. She tried her best to keep her emotions hidden. “When I started in such a male-dominated field, I valued the male traits more than the female ones. I tried to keep the emotion out, be cutthroat, and not take things personally. I tried to wear all black. The problem is, that’s not who I am,” Linam says. “When I went to work at NASA, the other female engineers I worked with didn’t have those hang-ups. They were comfortable bringing their femininity into the workplace. I eventually learned that by removing the emotion from my work, I was trying to be something I’m not. Now I don’t try to be a hard person. I’m a soft person. And I’m good with that.”
On the other hand, Fazio, who lives in Yardley and is raising two daughters, says she has no problem keeping the emotion out of business and says it’s served her well to take that approach throughout her career. Too often, smart, capable women get tripped up by overanalyzing situations or getting bogged down in the details, and it contributes to the lack of parity in these professions, she says. “I have had people hang up on me, all kinds of things, but I don’t take anything personally. I’ve worked through the situation, and the next day we’re fine,” Fazio says. “Unfortunately, I’ve seen women who have it all, but they can’t get out of their own way. I’m adaptive. I go with the flow. And that works for me.”
Fisher says she struggles to find a balance between cultivating enthusiasm around STEM and preparing young girls for some of the challenges they will likely face in the workplace. “I think, on the whole, we have to be honest with our girls. Not just like, ‘Hey, you’re great at math, and you’re smart.’ But we also have to tell them, ‘Look, it’s not always going to be easy and fair out there.’ We just have to be real with them about that.”
Fisher says she sees the way forward. “Those of us at the table in STEM fields are ready to establish an education component in the workplace for current companies and managers to learn how to welcome more women to the field and how to mitigate the female attrition rates.”