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Interview: Dr. Karen Panetta, Professor at Tufts University

Jan. 25, 2012
Interview by Nancy Friedrich

In the microwave industry and in engineering in general, the lack of women has become more noticeable. As former Chair of IEEE's Women in Engineering group, you have personally tried to attract more women to engineering. What did you find effective?

Karen Panetta: It is very important to connect the larger big-picture goals of the discipline to inspire individuals to pursue the field. Right now, women are attracted to biomedical, chemical, and environmental engineering. Why? Because they see these are careers that help cure diseases, help the disabled regain lost independence, and help protect and save the Earth and its inhabitants.

Today's youth all have wireless devices. Yet they do not attribute the innovation inside these devices to microwave engineers or associate the devices with electrical engineering at all. Microwaves is a cross-disciplinary field. It contributes to saving lives in medical applications and treatments, enables wireless communications, and is at the heart of homeland-security applications that ensure protection and safety against threats. These are the kinds of success stories that students need to learn more about to help inspire them to pursue the field.

Nancy Friedrich: The percentage of women pursuing education and careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) differs by country. Can you tell me which country is attracting the least women into STEM?

KP: The least is Australia with less than 4%.

NF: What issues most hinder women from pursuing STEM in terms of education and eventual employment?

KP: For young women entering college, it can be a lack of confidence and support. Maybe their teachers are not encouraging them or their peers are saying things like, "it is too hard" or "you will have no social life." That is often enough to scare away young women who haven't had strong exposure to real examples of what engineers and scientists do and the exciting types of jobs available in the industry.

NF: We tend to blame the school curriculum and the attitudes behind itfor example, the fact that girls were traditionally not comfortable participating in math and science classes. What can be done with young girls to encourage their interest in math and science?

KP: Projects teaching design and STEM principles need to be "gender-neutral." Think of what would happen if most school projects only favored female interests. For example, what if all we did were projects on doll or high-heel design? How many boys would be interested in that? Well, that's what has happened to girls. The projects are more appealing to boys than girls. This lack of diversity in the projects has driven girls away. They think that if they don't like building bridges or cars, engineering can't be for them.

Notice that boys and girls are both interested in sneaker and toy design. By simply changing the framing of the problem into something gender-neutral, we can empower both genders. The IEEE Real-World Engineering projects have recognized this challenge and now have a great repository of free projects that appeal to both genders. They target both high-school and first-year college students. The IEEE tryengineering.org website has lots of great low-cost projects for younger students.

The second barrier is that we expect educators to teach engineering and other STEM fields without giving them the support, training, and tools to easily incorporate these topics into their lesson plans. The IEEE Teacher In-Service Program (TISP) is a great way to help teachers build their own skills to teach the STEM disciplineseven if it is not their trained area of expertise.

NF: Women also have to be encouraged to pursue math, science, and engineering as career paths when they get to college. Have you seen this done successfully? Can you provide examples?

KP: Outreach programs are getting young women to the door of colleges. But once we get them to college, we need to get them to run through the finish line! This is my signature quote. It means we do so much to encourage them and then they don't get the support or tools they need to be successful in college. They see the finish line and just slow down or give up before finishing the race.

This could mean that they haven't had honors or advanced-placement (AP) math courses or any computer programming in their high school. This makes them feel inferior to their college peers, who have seen the material before. It is easy to do well in a course when you have had the material before. For those seeing it for the first time, though, it takes more effort and timewhile their peers seem to grasp it so easily. Pre-freshman bridging programs in colleges are now helping to get these students on par with their peers so that we level the playing field.

Colleges and universities recognize that most students have not had a lot of exposure to the different types of STEM disciplines. So now there are exploratory first-year courses, which try to excite students by connecting their interests to the disciplines. Animation and computer engineering, music and electrical engineering, cooking and thermodynamics, and forensics and science are just a few examples. This early exposure helps them understand how core courses apply to real-world challenges.

Professional-society student branches are also important. The IEEE student branches get students involved early in competitions, professional-awareness conferences, and opportunities to network with industry leaders that most people only dream of meeting.

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NF: I've heard horror stories about women not being able to take maternity leave, etc. due to project deadlines. Do you think increased flexibility and understanding at work would help to attract women into STEM careers?

KP: Yes! Better work environments are key for healthy, loyal employees. I have another term that I use to describe situations like the one you described: It's called the "sticky floor." Unlike the glass-ceiling concept, I strongly believe that there is a single point of failure (an individual) who holds people back from advancing and prevents healthy work environments from flourishing. This person uses excuses, such as "management says" or "human resources says." If you follow through and actually get to a real person, you will find that he or she is most likely not willing to be accountable for that decision. It is very frustrating and people just give up trying to promote change because they are never provided access for affecting policy changes.

For instance, say you are told that you can't take maternity leave according to company policy. Who is it you need to speak to in order to present a case for change? At some point in the chain, there is some group of people that made that decision and they have the power to change it. It is also very common to see different managers within a company have their employees adhere to different working policies when it comes to working from home, support for further education, and training. Companies need to examine their work environments and be proactive about resolving work-climate issues, rather than only being reactive to employee complaints. The reactive approach usually doesn't end up resolving employee issues at all. And women that can afford to will leave rather than tolerate it.

NF: Is that lack of flexibility more of a problem in the US or in other countries?

KP: Different cultures have similar issues. In some countries, where maternity leave policies are very generous, you see a backlash in the hiring of women. Employers are reluctant to hire women because if those employees have children, the employer must support their leave and keep their positions open for their return. Meanwhile, the work still needs to be done and deadlines need to be met. This financial burden is enough to deter them from hiring young women. In technology, changes also are so rapid that some employers feel that women on leave become quickly outdated in their skill sets.

These types of issues still plague US academic institutions. For instance, say a researcher receives a grant and has deadlines for publishing and getting results. If a female graduate student takes maternity leave, and the researcher is forced to pay for that student even while she is on leave, how will the grant obligations be met? How does this affect the research professor's own tenure and career progress? It's a serious problem that requires multi-faceted solutions.

NF: Can you explain how the Nerd Girl projects started? And share a little about their success?

KP: When I graduated from college, there were very few women in my engineering school. When I returned to academia as a professor after working in the industry for many years, I was shocked to see less women in engineering than when I was a student. I saw many talented young women and understood that many students really don't have much exposure to what engineering is. Most only chose the discipline because someone along the way told them that they were good at math and science and engineering requires those skills. The engineering disciplines that were popular were the ones that had great public visibility. The ones that were suffering were electrical and computer engineering because they were associated with pizza-eating cavemen with no social life, who soldered all day or sat in front of a computer all night.

There were no renewable-energy topics in my school's curriculum. I was told that students were not interested and that renewable energy wasn't a realistic career opportunity (the sticky-floor principle at work!). I ignored this and got a team of girls together, got corporate support to pay for the project materials, and had the girls learn about solar energy. We visited a solar-cell manufacturing plant and then designed a solar car. We took that car on the road to do outreach with schools all around New England. The girls met with politicians, community leaders, and corporate leaders. My Nerd Girls were the most highly sought-after new hire and graduate candidates in the country!

Then, we used solar energy to power lighthouses on a remote island, which saved the lighthouses' historic-landmark designation. This was enough to show that renewable energy had great social implications. Our efforts received so much attention that universities recognized that they needed to offer renewable and sustainable energy topics.

NF: Please explain the efforts being made by the IEEE to bring more women into engineering.

KP: Showing the power that women have to change lives and using innovation to benefit humanity is one of the most successful things that the IEEE has done to help promote the disciplines. Furthermore, being at the forefront of current technology and showing the women leaders and role models developing these technologies has a tremendous impact on inspiring other women. The IEEE Women in Engineering magazine has won numerous awards for achieving these goals. It reaches students and educators in over 53 different countries. We recognize the cultural and socio-economic challenges facing women around the globe. We are promoting ways to help young girls and women choose engineering and advance their careers through the largest professional network in the world.

NF: Any advice for young girls who are strong in math and science? And their parents?

KP: Lots of advice! So much so that the IEEE Foundation has funded the new "Ask Dr. Karen" web series, where parents, students, and educators can ask questions, get advice, and help inspire young people to pursue STEM careers. Each week, I answer questions sent in via e-mail and video and respond back by video on the show. Every day, I receive hundreds of questions from students all around the world and their parents. Nerd Girls from around the world help me answer questions by showing their own expertise across the disciplines.

The one piece of advice I can offer is to inspire your children's imagination and connect the things they like to everyday technology. Don't put filters on them that say, "You need to be the best at math and science." Connect the things they love with the math and science and they will be more inclined to learn on their own!

Editor's Note: For more information about the Nerd Girls movement, visit www.nerdgirls.org.

About the Author

Nancy Friedrich | Editor-in-Chief

Nancy Friedrich began her career in technical publishing in 1998. After a stint with sister publication Electronic Design as Chief Copy Editor, Nancy worked as Managing Editor of Embedded Systems Development. She then became a Technology Editor at Wireless Systems Design, an offshoot of Microwaves & RF. Nancy has called the microwave space “home” since 2005.

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