CIW: An Opportunity to Reflect on Women in STEM Careers

Chicago Ideas Week is “about the sharing of ideas, inspiring action, and igniting change to positively impact our world” and “reflects our great city in its inclusiveness, diversity and excellence of intellectual discourse.” Without a doubt, Chicago Ideas Week is a great opportunity for a diverse group of forward-thinking individuals to come together and discuss the future of Chicago and communities around the world. Considering future developments also provides the opportunity to reflect on areas of weakness that are still not as developed as we might hope; one such area important to everyone in the MEM community is women in STEM educational programs and careers.

We’ve covered the topic of women and STEM in the past, including updates on women in the STEM workplace and personal stories from MEM alumni. In general, the results aren’t what we would like to see. Women hold fewer than 10% of positions in engineering fields, though in the face of discrimination in the work place, the facts come as no surprise. Of the over 230 speakers at CIW, only about 35-40% are women. After looking at applications for the coming quarter, MEM Associate Director Susan Fox reports that a significant decrease in applications from women. “I have asked the women to go out and talk about the value of the program. It is important,” Sue says on the topic.

The topic is of the utmost importance and one can’t help but see the irony that engineering fields on the cutting edge of technology seem to be behind the times in terms of discrimination and mutual respect. Rather than focus on the negative, we’d like to present a few speakers at CIW worth looking to for inspiration (see for more information about each speaker):

  • Deborah Sawyer is the President and CEO of Environmental Design International and a leader in environmental engineering services.
  • Jean Case served as a technology executive in the private sector for two decades before founding the philanthropic Case Foundation.
  • Nicole Lazzaro is a world-renowned in the game industry as a researcher, speaker, and designer.
  • Robyn Beavers is the Director of Commercialization for Water & Power Technologies, DEKA R&D Corp and has worked with a variety of companies in energy industries.
  • Wendy Pabich is the Founder and President of Water Futures and wears a variety of hats as a consultant scientist, writer, artist, and educator.

These are just a few of the women leading the way in STEM industries despite the difficulties they face. The MEM program has a host of brilliant women like Executive VP of Global Marketing and Sales for Shure, Inc., Christine Schyvinck, who graduated from the MEM program in 1999 and was a 40 under 40 pick by Crain’s Chicago Business in 2006. What women inspire you? What is your take on creating a better future for women working in engineering fields? Share you thoughts and stories today to an important conversation in engineering management!

1 Comment

  1. I could tell some sad stories about some past experiences in my 30 years of practice. Several of the issues I encountered have changed, as flexible hours, part time work and full day prekindergarten have become more commonplace.

    Two critical skills are needed early in order to have a career that is rewarding for engineers. The first is planning for long hours, travel, and inconvenience while learning a process or business. The second is to market yourself.

    One of the critical parts of becoming a good engineer is being present through the challenging times of ALL of a project. To become an expert, you have to see the problems from birth at design, to full eruption at startup. It is also useful to be in product support, in order to see your product the way your customers do. This learning is not unlike the learning that medical residents must have before they become physicians.

    The problem with that learning is that your schedule is not your own. If you cannot allow a period in your life for this learning , then your engineering learning will be slow. The slow learners will have a slower growth in their careers as engineers. Slow growth leads to situations that cause many women to leave their engineering careers. I am convinced that the choice I made, to work part time while my children were very young, has left me a few steps beyond many of my peers.

    I wonder if young women need a little coaching to understand and work with this. As they plan their personal lives, it is important to EXPECT that support will be present for this “resident” portion of their learning. This is usually during their first job. It is very important to work with the closest people in their personal lives in order to have a system for personal life to be stable even when the time at work, or traveling is significantly long.

    Once they have this experience, women need to be assertive enough to sell it. A portfolio, with graphics and examples is necessary. Just a few lines on a resume will not sum it up. I found this exercise to feel a little like bragging. It really is creating brand awareness, just like you learn in Marketing.

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