For better or worse, women tend to be problem solvers. We want to fix everything from our friends’ relationship woes to our neighbors’ unruly lawns. Interestingly, that can-do mentality hasn’t historically translated for women into career paths in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM). In fact, according to a survey done by the US Census Bureau, women account for less than 25% of those working in STEM fields, despite making up nearly half of the workforce.
A recently released report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress suggests that this under-representation in the STEM fields should not be the case. It states that girls outperformed boys on average in a nationwide assessment of eighth-grader technology and engineering skills. So why, if young girls appear to have an easier time with engineering- and technology-related tasks, do they make up such a small share of those who receive degrees in STEM fields or go on to work professionally in them?
One of the deterents may be that there can be discrimination within male-dominated college computer science and engineering courses. Additionally, technology (and even clean technology) companies may not offer women the same opportunities to advance as their male counterparts. But the root of the problem is complex. Young girls may be internalizing inherited messages from society that attempt to tell them that they are not suited for STEM fields. Many of us are used to this insidious prejudice and have grown accustomed to how things are “supposed to be.” We are not so far removed from a time where females were not welcome, or even expected, to participate in scientific debate and business decisions.
Today, we’re seeing a seismic shift in awareness and action around the role of women in society. As part of this shift, the solar industry must also become more aware of women’s roles.
The solar industry’s workforce reflects greater diversity than many industry sectors, but it still has a long way to go. In 2015, women in solar jobs increased by 2% but that only brings us up to 24% the solar workforce. So what can be done in the solar industry to encourage more women to get involved in STEM careers?
Be part of the support system
Throughout my life, I’ve been blessed with many mentors who guided me and helped me along my current career path. The first of which was my father – an exceptional engineer himself. Having him as a role model directly influenced my initial interest in and love for mathematics. As I got older, I looked to my teachers and professors for mentorship and inspiration. One teacher in particular stands out as the one who gave me that final nudge to commit to engineering. Not long after, I enrolled at California State University, Northridge as a mechanical engineering major
It was at CSU Northridge that I discovered that my support system should include both my peers and my academic mentors. I joined a Women in STEM club – a diverse group of individuals, looking to accept and encourage women in STEM fields without discrimination. Ironically, our Women in STEM club included a few men – but that only served to highlight the importance we placed on acceptance, inclusion and encouragement. My support system fostered these values in me – values that I still hold dear – and taught me that anyone should be allowed to try their hand at whatever strikes their fancy. I met professors who encouraged me and enabled me to thrive in my chosen field.
Help them believe in what we do
I chose to pursue a career in engineering in part because I derive a tremendous amount of pride and satisfaction from tackling a problem and immediately witnessing the results. As the mother of two daughters and a mentor to young women, I make a point to stress the importance of contributing to a cause they feel strongly about. “If you feel that you are making a difference in the world, then you are,” I tell them.
Taking pride in your work perpetuates motivation. This is especially true for women in STEM who can feel compelled to leave a job if they don’t feel satisfied with their work or appreciated.
Those who work in the solar industry go to work each day with the knowledge that they are actively reducing the world’s overdependence on fossil fuels, fighting climate change and moving humanity towards a more sustainable future. The US alone installed 7,260 megawatts (MW) of solar in 2015, reaching 27.4 gigawatts (GW) of total installed capacity – that’s enough to power 5.4 million American homes! The industry is set to more than double that amount of installed capacity in 2016. Through the first half of 2015, the US solar industry supplied 40% of all new electric generating capacity - more than any other energy technology. What’s more, those of us working in the solar industry are setting a positive example for future generations. There are approximately 4,000 K-12 schools in the US with active solar systems on their roofs – meaning more than 2.7 million American students attend schools powered by renewable energy.
Encourage them to explore different areas of their chosen field
When I chose to pursue mechanical engineering I was looking for a practical way to apply my love of math. I was also intrigued by the concept that engineering, at its heart, is problem solving. After an internship in the aircraft industry and IBM – and a college course on solar technology – I landed an engineering internship at Arco Solar and fell in love with the work. After 28 years of work in various divisions within Arco Solar, Shell, Siemens and SolarWorld, I was acquainted with the entire spectrum of the solar industry. I am now CEO of Silicor Materials Inc., a company that developed a cleaner, more cost effective and efficient process of producing silicon specifically for use in solar cells.
Teach them to express their love of a subject
Facilitating an honest discussion about the lack of women in STEM is one step towards tearing down the constricting societal norms barring entry for many. Declaring a steadfast belief in your chosen field of study or career path within the STEM disciplines is another. What’s more, current women in STEM should stand up for equality in their industries – and we should all ask ourselves, what more can we be doing?
And while these problems do remain, throughout my 37 years in the solar industry I have witnessed a great shift. While there is still a shortage of women and girls in STEM fields, there now exists a national conversation aimed at remedying the situation.
Written by Terry Jester, Chairman and CEO, Silicor Materials