Strategies To Help Women Thrive In STEM Careers

Is there something about STEM in particular that makes it more challenging to women than other fields? Fast Company talks to Karen Purcell, author of “Unlocking Your Brilliance: Smart Strategies for Women to Thrive in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.”

Strategies To Help Women Thrive In STEM Careers


In 2009, 22.6 percent of master’s degrees in engineering went to women–the lowest percent of master’s degrees awarded to women in the science, technology and math and engineering fields known as STEM, according to National Science Foundation statistics.

That year, 18.1 percent of engineering bachelors went to women, and a look at salaries of female engineers reveals that their 2006 median earnings were $69,000. Compare that to their male counterparts, who earned $80,000 annually.

What’s going on? And what can be done to encourage women to pursue STEM careers and stay in them? Karen Purcell, 44, an electrical engineer and entrepreneur who founded and is president of PK Electrical, Inc., in Rena, NV, tackles that in her book, Unlocking Your Brilliance: Smart Strategies for Women to Thrive in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (Greenleaf Book Group Press). She is also a wife, mother, and athlete. Below she discusses why she wrote her book, in which she included her battle with an eating disorder and balancing her career and family life. Each chapter follows the same three-part structure, beginning with a suggestion or goal, describing a hurdle, and ending with strategies to make it through. Purcell also comments on the points of view of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Princeton University Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter on having it all.


FAST COMPANY: What are the three most important messages you want readers to take away from your book?

KAREN PURCELL: First and foremost, if you’re interested in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) this is a field you can be very successful in. So many women have been discouraged from entering STEM fields. For me, as an entrepreneur, it’s important that other women who are in STEM see that they can run a company. There are hurdles and challenges, but there is opportunity. Third, I wrote the book to encourage and inspire women to pursue their dreams and passions. If STEM is that for them, they can follow through. They can do it.

Is there something about STEM in particular that makes it more challenging to women than other fields?


Because STEM has been male-dominated for so many years, the culture is based around men and it can be intimidating and challenging to live in that culture. They’re not used to women taking maternity leave, picking up kids, or having a sick child. STEM hasn’t been super-inviting for women. Back in the ‘60s, women were almost prohibited from applying to STEM jobs. Ads said, “Women need not apply.” That’s the way we’ve been brought up.

You say a major reason why women should go into STEM is because of product design. I was fascinated to read in your book that early voice recognition systems responded only to male voices, so that women’s voices were literally not heard. And more dangerously, air bags in cars were designed for male body sizes.

Yes, the systems were originally calibrated to recognize male voices because only males were designing such products. But everyone deals with air bags on a daily basis. So having a women’s input with respect to product design makes a huge difference.


What are the best ways for a woman who is a student to counter gender barriers?

When I went to college I was clueless. I didn’t have a book like mine. I didn’t have any guidance whatsoever. I saw gender inequity and I was scared and needed to know what to expect. I felt I had to prove myself again and again. Finally, in my junior year the guys in my class realized I wasn’t going away.

Have the confidence to follow through and be present. Stick to your guns. Don’t let other people’s attitudes or actions get you down.


Tell me about the “imposter syndrome” and how to overcome it.

That came from one of the women I interviewed, Ruth Charney, who is a professor at Brandeis University and president of the Association for Women in Mathematics. She says everyone has had a crisis of confidence. As a grad student, you wonder if you will be any good. And once you get a job, you’re convinced you’re not that good and don’t belong there. As you get older, imposter syndrome subsides, but never goes away. To deal with it, you need to find confidence builders and to maintain confidence.

Is that particular to women in STEM or for anyone?


It can be for anyone, but is even more so in STEM because you are surrounded by so many men that it can be a drain on your confidence especially if they try to belittle you or talk down to you. For example, in my specialty, we do lighting and power design for construction projects and going out in the field. There were plenty of times when someone thought I was an assistant and not and engineer. Then I opened my mouth and they realized I was and engineer. This was when I was working for Tom and they looked to him for approval, as opposed to realizing that what I was saying was true. That’s a shot at your confidence—when someone doesn’t really believe what you’re saying. That’s more dominant in STEM.

According to the Society of Women Engineers, of 6,000 individuals who received engineering degrees between 1985 and 2003. In 2006, one in four females were either unemployed or not employed in engineering or a related field. Only one in ten males were not in engineering fields. That means women were either not being hired into engineering positions or they were leaving them shortly after entering. Another study by the US Economics and Statistic Administration found that 40 percent (2.7 million) of men with STEM college degrees work in STEM jobs, but only 26 percent (0.6 million) women with STEM degrees work in STEM jobs. Women are leaving STEM jobs and much higher rates than men.

You devote a chapter to confidence. In the conclusion you write: “While we may have built up a level of confidence in school, during internships, or throughout the early stages of our careers, it is continually threatened as our careers progress. Finding support even in the middle and late stages or our careers is incredibly important.” How can a woman who has already launched her career retain her confidence?


One way is to join support groups, have extra curricular activities, or to reach out to family. For me, the extra curricular activity was running and running on teams. I’m a marathon runner. It has really had a huge impact on my life to decide to run some number of miles and do it. That’s boosted my confidence because I know that if I have a challenging goal, I can meet it. It’s important to know that you can set short goals and complete them.

So learning from your performance in non-work related activities can help in professional matters.



You write about your very positive mentoring experience with your second male boss. I wonder if you were unusually lucky. Do you think so?

I do feel I was very fortunate to have found a job with Tom Krob, who has his own engineering firm, TJ Krob in Las Vegas. It didn’t matter to him that I was female. He took the time to show me the ropes. I realized I had a tremendous opportunity and followed him to see what he did, not only in engineering, but with respect to the business. I credit a lot of where I am today with his mentoring, guidance, and support.

You remark in your book that as the baby boomers die out that sexist attitudes will leave with them. Is Tom a boomer?

Yes, he was born in 1951 and was 38 at the time. I was 23.


What if you can’t find a mentor, or one as exceptional as Tom?

Go to organizations or societies like the Society for Women Engineers. They have a tremendous program where you can network. Or if it’s on the business front, try the Entrepreneurs Organization (EO). You really have to seek out a mentor.

Do you think it matters whether a woman has a male or female mentor?


It doesn’t matter. One advantage of having a woman is that she can share what the experience has been in a male-dominated field, but I really don’t think it matters.

Do you have other advice for women entrepreneurs in STEM?
EO has helped. To become a member you must have some measure of success already—your company has to have over $1million in sales. But being a part of any support group that is business-oriented and networking are essential to success. Showing confidence is really important.

When I was in school I didn’t learn anything about running a business although I grew up with an entrepreneurial father, so it was in my blood already. I just followed my dreams and passions and learned and stumbled along the way. Having external support groups along the way has definitely helped.


Please tell me about your non-profit, is meant to support women interested in STEM financially and with support groups. Initially, we will provide scholarships for women in college pursuing in STEM careers, and later for those who want to start a business. We are just getting started so I’m not yet sure how big our grants will be. The site should be up in the next two weeks and definitely by August 1.

How are you funding it?


A portion of the profits from Unlocking Your Brilliance will go toward it and we’re looking at other fundraising opportunities.

What is unique about what you’re doing?

I’m sure there are other non-profits doing something similar. My goal is that if I make a difference in just one women’s life and help her get into STEM because that’s what she wants to do. I want to help equal out our field.

Your book is quite personal. You write about your eating disorder, the break up of your first marriage and the ways that your second marriage is different. Why did you decide to reveal so much about your life?
By making it personal, women can relate more–that I’m human, had these struggles, these moments of lack of confidence where my life was not going so well. I’ve had challenges throughout my life and I thought it was important to share that you can overcome them.

Once reason why I wrote book is because a group of men, my colleagues at the Entrepreneur Organization, encouraged me to write. Eight very successful businessmen said, “Look where you are. Look at what you’ve done. Share with other women to motivate them and encourage and inspire them.” I want to give back to the community and to other women interested in STEM. It’s not for everybody, but if you are interested, don’t be discouraged.

A debate recently has surfaced since Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic Monthly article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” and before that the speeches of Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg on having it all. And that’s the title of your last chapter. Where do you stand?

They both have good points. I agree more with Sandberg. I think women have to take responsibility for what they want in life. They need to be assertive, aggressive, and find those confidence builders to help them get to where they want to go. They can’t rely on policy makers. At the same time, as a business owner, I do try to provide flexibility to all employees, male and female, to help with the work/life balance. Unfortunately, I know this is an anomaly.

Because of the upcoming election, I saw a commercial saying that President Obama signed into law that women should get equal pay. It talks about his mother being a single mom, that he has two daughters, and that he strongly believes there should be equal pay. And women earn 77 percent less than men in the same positions as men. There should be laws in place to prevent that. It’s a disgrace that women are paid less. You should be paid the same. I talk about this in my book. It’s important for there to be rules and regulations that are more gender-equal.

[Image: Flickr user Abhinay Omkar]