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STEM starts in elementary school

July 26, 2022
Women need to see themselves in engineering’s future

Amanda Beaton is the U.S. program manager of Siemens Cooperates with Education at Siemens.

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?

Amanda Beaton, U.S. program manager, Siemens Cooperates with Education, Siemens: When I started in an engineering role nearly 20 years ago, there were very few women in any room. Every meeting was all men. I had trouble finding role models in leadership and technical positions as there was such a lack of diversity then. We’ve improved over the years, but girls still struggle to see themselves in an engineering position because so many technical jobs are stereotypically held by men (Figure 1). At many companies, I’ve seen employee resource groups and efforts to connect and empower people from different backgrounds, ages and experience levels. This has been a difference maker in networking and engagement, especially during the changes presented by the pandemic. I’ve also seen companies, colleges and volunteer organizations starting STEM-related camps and outreach activities earlier, as early as elementary schools, to win the interest of girls before they’ve made career decisions. In many cases, reaching the high-school- and college-aged audience is simply too late to ignite the spark in a technical career.

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

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?

Amanda Beaton, U.S. program manager, Siemens Cooperates with Education, Siemens: Many companies realized a full-time, in-person presence is not required to do a great job. The increased work-life balance offered by more flexible schedules and work-from-home opportunities are critical for many women to participate on an equal level as their colleagues. It took months of awkward zoom meetings, but I think Corporate America has finally figured out how to successfully work as a team from locations outside of one office. I think this increased flexibility is very helpful for women when considering these roles.

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?

Amanda Beaton, U.S. program manager, Siemens Cooperates with Education, Siemens: I have an immediate response to this question: Mentors. I mention role models above, but I have been blessed with mentors throughout my career—both men and women—who offered unique strengths and helped to develop different parts of my career. They have been critical in offering perspective for networking, communicating and overcoming challenges that would have been far more daunting without an experienced professional in my corner. And it can be a two-way transaction. Many mentors and mentees can learn from each other and fill in gaps to mutually benefit. Outside of formal mentors and one-on-one relationships, which may not work for everyone, networking and resource groups present a great opportunity to connect people and rise above common stereotypes and challenges faced by women early in their careers.

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?

Amanda Beaton, U.S. program manager, Siemens Cooperates with Education, Siemens: I can’t speak for all women, but I know my outlook changed once I became a mother. My concern for my children’s future and the state of the world suddenly became a focus. Overall, I think we are generationally speaking up more about social and environmental issues. I also think we are more open in communicating these interests compared to 20 years ago. Particularly when you read about projects and the goals of companies like Siemens, there is an increased focus on the environment and our social impact. I’m not sure if it’s specific to one gender any more, as more and more early career professionals prioritize social consciousness over other features of a job or a company. My advice would be to come work for Siemens. We are doing wonderful things in this area.

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?

Amanda Beaton, U.S. program manager, Siemens Cooperates with Education, Siemens: I think women are still challenged in some cases by speaking up and asking for what they want. Negotiating for higher pay and truly valuing experience and talents doesn’t come naturally for some of us. Whether it’s through mentoring, self-development or networking to better understand pay, there are several opportunities to grow and build skills in communicating value and worth.

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

Amanda Beaton, U.S. program manager, Siemens Cooperates with Education, Siemens: I am not sure where I would be without the mentors over the years who played varying roles in my career development. Even the negative experiences with managers were great learning opportunities with the help of mentor guidance. I truly feel that diverse mentors matter, too. Internal and external mentors, women and men, with different functional areas and backgrounds, can be helpful; when the connection is valued, the results can be great.

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

Amanda Beaton, U.S. program manager, Siemens Cooperates with Education, Siemens: I mention informal mentor programs, formal women’s networks and other employee resource groups to connect and improve both the quality of work and experience within the company. I know firsthand over the past couple of year that seeing so many women in powerful leadership roles gives me more confidence in my work and advancement opportunities. Women aren’t just leading HR or marketing any more; they are leading the whole company.

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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