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Mentors can guide women over engineering-career hurdles

June 24, 2022
Where to find help to navigate STEM professions

Kim Heinle Nelson is senior manager, research and development, Digi-Key Electronics.

According to U.S. census data, the percentage of women in engineering occupations has increased from a mere 3% to 15% over the past 50 years. While the needle is pointed in the right direction, there’s still a lot of room to grow that number. What seem to be the biggest hurdles to women interested in engineering and automation fields? And what difficulties are employers encountering as they work to increase that number?

Kim Heinle Nelson, senior manager, research and development, Digi-Key: Growing up in a small rural town, I did not personally know any engineers or why engineering might be a good career fit for me. There is opportunity for women to pursue roles in engineering and automation fields, but to grow the number of women interested in engineering takes better education for young people, so they can understand the day-to-day requirements of an engineering job and why an engineering career can be so rewarding.

Also read: 5 ways to find success as a woman in STEM

It’s so satisfying to use my engineering background to identify problems and then apply creative problem-solving to implement solutions, and I love to share that with women and anyone considering a career in engineering fields.

With the skilled labor shortage that began pre-pandemic and was heightened by the shutdown, how can organizations capitalize on the availability of women to fill these roles?

Kim Heinle Nelson, senior manager, research and development, Digi-Key: Employers can consider hybrid work models that may provide a better work/life balance. Keeping an open mind for filling job positions is also helpful. For instance, could two part-time employees fulfill the job requirements of one full-time position?

Organizations can also increase interest by offering internships and scholarships to local high-school or college students. Providing mentors for local youth organizations like robotics teams, 4-H or Future Farmers of America (FFA) starts the business relationship early and can be a catalyst to grow long-term employee loyalty.

In her relatively famous study, published in the Harvard Business Review, MIT’s Susan Silbey and her colleagues found that women in engineering experienced a significant amount of gender bias not only at the college level, but even more so in internships and co-ops and then when entering the workforce. She estimates that 40% of women who earn an engineering degree either quit or never enter the profession. What can be done to nurture and develop these women, especially early in their careers?

Kim Heinle Nelson, senior manager, research and development, Digi-Key: Companies can provide a positive work environment in which new college graduates can succeed and even fail, because failure creates learning and growth opportunities. Recognize that every employee, regardless of gender, brings a unique skillset to the position. Companies have to take the time to see what motivates a new employee and remember that treating employees fairly does not mean treating them the same.

One of the other findings in Silbey’s report is that the women who participated were hoping to make a more socially conscious impact in their engineering pursuits than the males in the study. What, if anything, does this tell us about gender bias? And, if the report is indicative of a real female desire to make a difference, where might women find those types of jobs to have a positive impact on society and civilization with their engineering and automation expertise?

Kim Heinle Nelson, senior manager, research and development, Digi-Key: Studies show that women may be drawn more to the “people” aspects of a role, while men may be more interested in physical “things.” Becoming an engineer doesn’t prevent personal interactions, and, in fact, I find industrial engineering, the “people” side of engineering, to be a great fit to work with people on ergonomics, efficiency and other process improvements.

According to the latest research from the Society for Women Engineers, females earn 10% less than their male counterparts. How does this impact a woman’s interest in entering an automation-related field, and what can be done to counteract this?

Kim Heinle Nelson, senior manager, research and development, Digi-Key: Career training on how to research national salary statistics for engineering positions and proven strategies for wage negotiations are needed. Networking with other engineers can provide real-world information, and college-placement offices are great resources that are not always used to the best advantage.

How can mentoring programs help women to stay the course and feel fulfilled in their automation or engineering pursuits?

Kim Heinle Nelson, senior manager, research and development, Digi-Key: Mentoring programs let women know they are not alone and offer ways to work past gender bias in the workplace. Mentoring offers ways to make a more socially conscious impact in their engineering pursuits.

What sorts of initiatives is your company involved with to encourage female participation in the automation field?

Kim Heinle Nelson, senior manager, research and development, Digi-Key: Digi-Key Electronics mentors the local robotics teams and sponsors “Girls Who Code” workshops for local youth (Figure 1). We also promote membership in Women in Electronics (WE).

About the author: Mike Bacidore
About the Author

Mike Bacidore | Editor in Chief

Mike Bacidore is chief editor of Control Design and has been an integral part of the Endeavor Business Media editorial team since 2007. Previously, he was editorial director at Hughes Communications and a portfolio manager of the human resources and labor law areas at Wolters Kluwer. Bacidore holds a BA from the University of Illinois and an MBA from Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. He is an award-winning columnist, earning multiple regional and national awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors. He may be reached at [email protected] 

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