STEM Women Talk – By Gay Morgan Moore

A Technical Development Senior Specialist for a major chemical manufacturer, Jennifer Henry knew from an early age she wanted to have a scientific career. Initially aspiring to be a veterinarian, her interests changed by the time she entered college. Electing to attend community college for her first two years, she felt supported and encouraged, even though most of her professors in her science and math courses were men. Employed at an analytical chemistry laboratory throughout college, she obtained a bachelor’s degree in biology from UTC (University of Tennessee at Chattanooga).

Ironically, her first position out of college was in the analytical laboratory of a large food producer, where all, save one, of her co-workers were women. Currently, she is part of a technical development group where she is the only woman. She states that she “loves” her job and has never been harassed or experienced bias from her male colleagues or supervisors. Although she believes “women must work harder to prove themselves,” she counts her immediate past supervisor as a career mentor.

Married with two young children, she states her biggest challenges come from maintaining a work/home balance. Because she must travel for her job, her husband, parents, and step-mother form her necessary support system. She believes most of her struggles balancing work and home come not from her employer, but from within herself. Nonetheless, Ms. Henry tells young women, including her daughter, to pursue careers they will find fulfilling, including careers in STEM, as there are many opportunities open to women today. While she emphasizes the opportunities and encourages girls to follow their passion, she also cautions that success takes “a lot of hard work.”

Chemical engineer, Rene` Wigham is in her 25th year of employment with a major chemical company. From earliest childhood she loved building with Tinker Toys and figuring out how things worked. She credits her father for helping her develop deductive reasoning and problem solving skills. Reared in a small town in rural Virginia, where girls were not expected to go into science and math, but rather more traditional occupations, her parents encouraged her talents in math and science, affirming she could do whatever she wanted. In high school she was exposed to higher level math and science and was “engrossed.” She excelled and by her junior year was determined to become a chemical engineer.

Attending a community college for one year following high school, Ms. Wigham feels she had an excellent start, especially in math. She graduated with honors from the West Virginia Institute of Technology. While in college she worked for a summer at a coal fired power plant, finding she enjoyed the manufacturing side of engineering.

Following graduation with a master’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Virginia, she was hired by her current employer into a research and development group. As she continued her career, she was assigned to several production facilities.

Today she holds the position of Business Director for the company’s core product. She has responsibility for making all of the business decisions and is the “go to person” for pricing, contract negotiations, servicing large customers, and monitoring supply, and delivery of the product throughout the world. Putting an emphasis on the many opportunities she has been given and her love of problem solving, she is obviously dedicated to continuing to learn at every stage of her career.

One of the few women engineers employed by her company, she denied overt harassment and discrimination. She credits much of her success to the realization she had to learn to think and communicate like a man. She finds the communication principles in John Gray’s book Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus quite helpful. Frequently attending meetings where she is the only woman with 25 men, she seeks to communicate as member of the team, rather than as the lone woman in the room. She stated she never felt “special” and needs to be treated as though she is “special.”

Travelling frequently, at times internationally, for her work, this married mother of two finds she and her husband, who also travels in his work, must work together to support one another. Since neither has family nearby, they must hire a woman to fill in the gaps. She feels her company is supportive of maintaining a work/family balance. However, she and her husband must be as organized at home as they are at work.

Ms. Wigham makes an effort to talk with high school students, especially girls, about careers in STEM. Whenever she has the opportunity, she tells young women not to be intimidated. “I tell them what my mother told me, ‘You can be anything you dream you want to be. There is nothing or no one who can tell you that you can’t. You can chose and don’t be discouraged by some one’s opinion who doesn’t even know you.’ ” She also advises students of the difficulties and that success takes time and dedication, stating, “You get out of life in general what you put into it. If you are willing to work hard, your can have the career your want.”

She related a story about her high school chemistry teacher with whom she shared her desire to be a chemical engineer. He said to her, “You’ll never be a chemical engineer, because that is not what girls do.” She mailed him a copy of her degree when she received her bachelor’s degree and later her master’s degree in chemical engineering. Perhaps, he learned something about mentoring students, both men and women.

The picture for women in STEM related careers is changing. Obviously there is great interest in promoting careers and opportunities for women. Just as obvious is the need to deliver the message to girls, their parents, and teachers from earliest childhood on through high school and college that women can find rewarding and successful careers in STEM.

Still there are challenges. Like most careers, STEM careers require hard work, time, and persistence. Furthermore, most women seek to have a family, in addition to a rewarding career. Industry and academia must be partners in those goals, if they are to benefit from the contributions of women. In other words, success requires significant investment by women as well as their parents, teachers, employers, and society as a whole. The rewards are, however, worth the resources invested at the personal, family, national, and global levels.

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