TechRepublic’s Karen Roby spoke with Jenn Donahue, president and owner of JL Donahue Engineering and an engineer. Donahue is also a mentor and speaker encouraging and helping women to be successful in STEM positions. They talked about the challenges women face in STEM careers. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
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Karen Roby: Jenn, why do you think it is such a challenge to get women into these roles?
Jenn Donahue: I think it starts at a very early age. A lot of the people that I know, they loved math and science, especially science, whenever they were kids. But it seems like as we start to get a little bit older, maybe in middle school and high school, there’s a lot of social pressure where maybe math and science is only for the boys and a lot of women and a lot of young girls, they go, “Well, maybe that’s really not for me.” And they go and they pursue other endeavors. But they still have that love of science and they still have a love of math.
Some of the older women that I’ve talked to were like, “I really wish I would’ve just stuck with the math and science back whenever I was a kid.” I think we’re starting to see a little bit of a change in that now where there are a lot of young girls who are being helped and mentored in math and science in order to remain there. But I think it has to go even further for women that now have their careers to make sure that they also stay within the STEM fields.
Karen Roby: Jenn, we’re seeing that women that do get in often may have a few years of experience under their belt and then they just drop out. Why is that?
Jenn Donahue: I found two real main reasons for this. One of them is a lot of women have decided that they want to basically drop out and have kids. I think that’s absolutely a great thing to do. Several of the women that I know that’s what they decided to do. They decided they wanted to have a family. They got out of the STEM fields and they’ve not come back whenever their children have grown. A lot of them feel like they’re so far behind now that they can’t catch up. They’ve gone on to different things.
Another reason that I found is they just sort of got disillusioned by the fact that they were really around a boys club all the time. A lot of them just felt like, “You know what? This just really isn’t for me,” and decided to go off and take on other adventures.
Karen Roby: We certainly hear that a lot. Jenn, with more remote opportunities, we’ve had more now than we ever did before because of the pandemic. Do you think that will be a help for women, especially those that are juggling kids at home?
Jenn Donahue: I think it is. One of the only problems that I found is that in 2020, there was a report that came out that said almost 80% of the workforce that left were women. Now this isn’t necessarily women in STEM, but a lot of women left the workforce in 2020 because they were primary caregivers for their children because their children were having to be homeschooled and things like that. I’m hoping that that trend is going to be reversed here in 2021, where they do come back to the field.
I think it’s really important that we try to concentrate on bringing those women back in and get them re-assimilated and we can move forward from that. But I think it’s one of those really important items that we have to look at retaining women in the workforce. Especially if they’re working from home, this is a perfect opportunity for them to stay.
Karen Roby: Jenn, when it comes to tips to pass on to women, things that they need to be cognizant of and just some everyday things they can keep in mind when it comes to being successful in STEM related positions, what type of tips would you pass on?
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Jenn Donahue: I think the first one is that you need to find a mentor. If you don’t have a mentor, go find one, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a female mentor. You can have a male mentor. Actually some of my best mentors have been men. Have more than one. Think about having a board of directors. For instance, you might have a female mentor. She’s been through everything that you probably are. She can help you go around some of those pitfalls that she did.
But also having a male mentor is also really important as well. A lot of times these are men that are in some type of position of leadership or position of power and they can help bring you up with them. That’s really important, to try to have a couple of different mentors. I would also say that, as women, a lot of times we’re not as assertive. I would say that as women in STEM, we need to find that courage and that drive and that fire and remember why we love what we do. We need to stand up and say, “You know what? This is what I’m going to do.” That’s a little bit hard for people because that might not be in their normal wheelhouse. But stand tall, be brave and just remember and hold onto why you love what you do.
Karen Roby: Jenn, we know what when it comes to the amount of tech jobs that are open and out there, there’s more jobs than we have professionals to fill those positions. When it comes to companies attracting and retaining that talent, how do they hold on to these talented females that they have in these roles?
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Jenn Donahue: I think it all comes down to listening. I think as a leader, you need to make sure that if you have female talent already within your corporation, go and talk to them. Find out what they need to be the most successful. That’s something that we really haven’t done very well in the past is understand, do they need more of a flexible schedule? What kind of resources do they need in order to be wildly successful in whatever they’re doing? I think it’s all about going out, asking questions, being vulnerable and saying, “Hey, what do you need?” I think that’s a great way to earn trust and loyalty in those females that are within your corporation.
Karen Roby: If you had say 30 seconds to talk to 100 women who are in STEM positions in different areas and different places within their career, what is the most important kind of advice that you could pass on to them?
Jenn Donahue: I would say number one, you need to promote yourself. If you don’t promote yourself, probably no one else will. There’s a lot that goes into that. I think it’s absolutely true. You have to be your own cheerleader from time to time. That takes courage. That takes vulnerability. That takes know-how in order to get where you need to be. Promote yourself because probably no one else will.
Karen Roby: So much important stuff to remember, Jenn. I appreciate you being here with me and talking to me about this. I love this topic, obviously. I think it’s just so important that we keep talking about it.
Jenn Donahue: Absolutely. We have to all work together to try to maintain our network. Anything that I can do to help anybody, I’m sure that if they’re on the podcast, please keep listening to the podcast, create your networks and let’s all stay in this together.