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Saturday, October 31, 2015

Why We Leave STEM Careers

Several attempts and proposals have been made by our government and other entities to prevent women from leaving the workplace. In a speech our president gave awhile ago, he focused on the cost of childcare. His solution was seemingly simple.  Let the government provide free childcare.  I'm pretty sure this will not address the issue of women leaving the workplace.  I really only want the government to do one thing with regards to childcare costs: Give me a dollar for dollar tax credit on the childcare I pay for.  When I was working, the maximum pretax dollars I could use to pay for son's daycare was $5000.  I always thought that the cap was $5000 per child.  When I started understanding how this would affect my family after baby #2 I found out that $5000 was TOTAL, not per kid.  So even though I was going to be paying more than double for two in daycare, the max the government was willing to not take taxes out of was $5000.  I spoke about the cost of daycare in my previous post "Why I Chose to Stay at Home", where I estimated our annual cost of daycare to be $30,000.  So while the $5000 was nice and all, it was only 20% of my costs.

To say that the cost of childcare is the reason women are leaving the workplace, and specifically STEM careers, neglects the other factors that, as a society, we need to address:

1. Allowing the excuse of "Men just being men":  I once sat through a 5 hour drive where I listened to one of my coworkers rate the women in the office according to how attractive they were.  It was lots of fun, let me tell you.  And then there was the time we received a new intern and several of the men took turns stopping by to check out her out.  Then there's the countless times I had business lunches and dinners at the various "breastaurants" available.  During my 10 years working as an engineer, there were many of these annoying "characteristics" of some of the men I worked with I had to ignore because "that's just how men are".  These kinds of statements are not only tolerated, but excused because "that is just who they are".  The problem is, these kinds of statements are symptoms of a greater issue, which is the lack of respect these men have for women.  Respect for the women they speak of, and lack of respect for the women who have to sit through and listen. 

2.  "You are not committed to the company enough":  During a weekly meeting with my boss, he informed me he was considering me for the management program, but was concerned because I had a focus on family.  This statement confused me at the time because I didn't see how one affected the other.  At the time I was handling the most projects on our team, and was the "senior" engineer.  While I left work earlier than most, I usually worked through lunch, and after my kid was in bed every night.  But during my tenure as an engineer I noticed that it wasn't so much about the work I did, but the perception of the commitment I had.  Since I was not working when others could see me (ie. in the office), it was as if I was not working at all. 

3.  The Boys Club:  I've sat and listened on more than one occasion to  people complain about how its "easier" for a woman to get a job as an engineer.  And I agree with this statement.  Many companies have great initiatives to hire more women in the technical jobs.  So, as the argument goes, if you have equally qualified candidates, and one is a male and the other is a woman, the woman will be hired over the man.  I also agree this is what happens.  I then listen to them complain about how this is not fair, but I question them on why.  During one instance, I listened to a coworker carry on about how its easier for women because of initiatives, as he was also planning to go on his second hunting trip alone with my boss.  I let him finish what he was saying, and then asked him " but would it be ok if I wen  on this weekend hunting trip with our boss alone?  Would it be acceptable to his wife  Would rumors about me and our boss start around the office because it was our second trip alone together that year?"  This stopped his complaints.  Our society has created some great programs to encourage women to enter into STEM fields, but the truth still remains that Engineering is still male dominated.  It will continue to be easier for my male counterparts to develop relationships with upper management purely on the fact that they are the same gender.

4.  She fills a quota:  An unfortunate backlash of all the initiatives to encourage minorities  into Engineering field is that some have the opinion that the only reason I do well or am hired is because I fulfill a required minority quota.  This mentality does not help establish or build your reputation in the workplace.

5.  Flexible work:  As I considered my different options after the birth of my first son, I realized that other professions (such as the medical fields) have options for part time positions.  I started to look into this possibility for engineering and found ZERO opportunities.  I understand that engineering is a collaborative field, but do believe there are opportunities companies could find to work with the different phases in an employee's life. 

6.  Maternity Leave:  Many companies have maternity or short term disability leave for mothers, which has been hailed as a sign that the company is accommodating to new mothers.  But to be honest, the six or eight semi-paid leave I've received was definitely not very helpful.  Without going into a dissertation of what all happens to a woman's body while pregnant, in labor, delivery, and, in my case, cesarean, eight weeks is just NOT enough time for a woman's body to heal, develop a bond with their child, and establish a schedule that guarantees mommy is rested and ready for work.  To be honest, I feel like modern maternity leave was a decision made by someone who never  bore a child, gave birth, and then had to care for the child.  A newborn is not sleeping well at eight weeks, which means mommy is not sleeping well, especially if she is nursing.  I think there are transitional positions companies could create that would help the company and make the woman feel like they have another option other than leaving their field entirely.  A temporary position would allow the mother to transition back into a full-time engineering job easier, when her family life allows it. This could also increase company loyalty as employees see the company truly help the employee find a work-life balance during all phases of life.

Changing the behavior and mentality of our culture to be more inviting to women in STEM fields will help address the significant amount of women leaving the field.  But there is a significant difference between women and men that is a factor that can not be changed:  Motherhood.  Motherhood changes the priorities of most women.  Motherhood made traveling jobs of no interest to me.  Motherhood made long hours in the office a no deal.  Motherhood changed my focus to my time on the job to my time after work.  Once I had a child, I no longer worked for my own gratification, but to support my child.  Once my job started demanding that I spend more time away from my child, I was willing to put my career aside and stay home.  There was really nothing anyone could do to change my mind.  The work place is no match for a mother's devotion to her family.


Monday, October 19, 2015

10 Keys to Surviving Engineering School

    The first thing people have always said when they find out I'm an engineer is "Wow!  You must be really smart!".  The truth is, I'm not.  Not particularly smart anyways.  I just worked really hard in college, and stuck to it.  Along the way I learned a few secrets to making sure I didn't fail out of engineering school:
  1. Never study alone!  My first year of college I continued to study as a lone ranger, just as I had in high school.  By my second year I had figured out that studying alone was not working.  Once I started studying with others in my classes, my grades improved by an entire letter grade.  Study groups help because inevitably someone in the group will be able to explain to you the concepts you are not grasping, and vice versa.  Do everything with these study groups including your homework and studying for your tests.  I found a great way to prepare for my tests from one of my study partners that really helped me prepare for tests on my own better.
  2. Go to professor office hours.  There is no way I passed kinematics.  On the first test of the semester, I got a 45%.  The average grade on the test was an 82%, so a curve on the test was out of the question.  I spent at least once or twice a week in the professor's office to understand the concepts.  While I seemed to be understanding concepts in his office, I continued to receive less than stellar grades on my tests.  The second test I received a 68%, and I got a 79% on the final.  There is no way I passed the class.  But when I checked my grade at the end of the semester, I had a C!  Engineering is really more about perseverance than the letter grade.  Good professors will work with you on the classes you struggle with.
  3. Find a good way to "tab" your textbooks.  Once you get through your basics like physics, chemistry, and math, most of your engineering tests will be open book.  Don't take this is as a clue to not study.  Instead study with your textbook.  Use and label tabs to important information.  For example, for thermodynamics (thermo), I tabbed specific areas of chapters, and the heat charts at the back of the book.  This way I didn't spend precious minutes during my test flipping through the book to find a specific chart.
  4. Use test banks.  All of the on campus professional societies (like American Society of Mechanical Engineers, IEEE, SWE, SHPE, NSBE, etc) will have test banks.  A test bank is a "library" of engineering classes previous tests.  They are given to the societies by students who previously took the class, so they are NOT answer keys by any means.  But they do give you a really good idea of the kind of questions that will be on the test, which helps you know where to focus your efforts. 
  5. Keep applying for scholarships.  There is ALOT of money available to for Engineering.  Every company reports difficulties in finding enough engineers to fill their vacancies.  In an attempt to attract new graduates to their company, some will offer scholarships.  Other scholarships are available from professional engineering societies.  The engineering school I went to had an engineering scholarship office I could go to ever so often to see what new scholarships were available.  I applied, and applied, and applied.  I only received 2 scholarships, but one alone covered an entire semester of tuition.
  6. Find a mentor.  Whether an upper classman in your degree or someone who has already graduated from your engineering college, a mentor will be able to clue you in on the secrets of your engineering program.  I had my sister.  She encouraged me and gave me ideas on how to improve my grades.  She also let me know what clubs would be helpful to be involved in, which professors to avoid and which ones to sign up for. 
  7. Find an internship or co-op.  The funny thing about trying to get a full-time position after graduating is all of the companies will be looking for someone "with experience".  When I first heard this I thought "Why are they looking for someone with experience and talking to new graduates?".  I soon learned they were looking for someone who had internship or co-op experience.  Many college internships are non-paid, but not engineering ones.  Engineering internships START at double minimum way.  I prefer co-ops instead of internships because they can be done during long semesters (spring or fall), and count for college credit.  Plus, your experience is with one company for three semesters (depending on how your school does it), and so you graduate with a full year or more of experience.  My co-op not only gave me critical experience I needed to land my first job after graduation, but it also helped me pay for college.
  8. Sign up for the 8 o'clock classes.  For some reason, the best professors seem to teach the earlier classes.  I didn't really understand why when I was a student, but my guess is that the best professors want the most committed students.  When you're 20 years old, you have to be pretty committed to your degree if you're willing to wake up for an 8 o'clock class.
  9. Schedule time to study.  One of the great things I learned from my co-op was that I was able to focus for about 8 hours a day.  I was best from 8am to about 4pm.  So when I returned to school, I kept the same schedule I had as when I was working.  Instead of taking a nap or goofing off after my first class in the morning, I would use the hour or so I had between classes to do my homework.  Before my internships I still saw school as I did in high school, thinking that homework was for night.  But I realized in college that if I used the time between classes for homework, then at night I was a little more free.
  10. Have a great group of friends, make memories, and have fun.  Engineering is a tough degree.  When others are partying on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night, you will be stuck in a computer lab or studying for test. So make sure to make friends and memories.  My best friends from college came from the study groups I formed.  We all ended up in many classes together, which helped grow our friendships.  When we did have free time we would spend it hanging out on campus and, yes, house parties.  We all graduated during three different semesters and went our separate ways, but many of us still stay in touch.  During the late nights and weekends we spent together bent over our notes and textbooks, we created memories that will last lifetime.


Tuesday, October 13, 2015

5 Lessons from My First VBS

One of the things I looked forward to when I stopped working full time was being able to be more involved with my church.  I grew up with my mother always being very involved in church, which made church feel like a second home to me.  So as the summer approached, I told the Children's Minister I wanted to help out with our church's vacation bible school.  She said "Great!  Want to be a director?". I agreed to, but first she needed to let me know what a director did. She told me that I would organize the lessons for each day.  That was it.  So I got a plan together, and learned a lot while executing the plan.  Here are some things I want to remember for next year:

  1. When you have more than 20 kids, break them up!  We had just under 70 second graders during VBS we needed to teach.  We had 5 teachers, so we broke up into four groups, and this worked much more effectively.
  2. Get a good roll sheet together!  The first day we worked off of one roll sheet, which proved to be really confusing.  On the second day, we made a separate roll for each of the four groups.  This worked much more effectively!  Each teacher was responsible for their single roll, and checked roll twice a day: once in the morning, and once before dismissal.
  3. Control the flow of parents.  Dismal the first day was HORRIBLE!  We had parents coming to us from every side, and what seemed like 20 at a time.  The next day I manned our door so that only three parents came in at a time.
  4. Give the teachers more responsibly.  The first day I tried to control everything.  I told each teacher what to do every minute of their class.  I even had the great idea that I needed to let each teacher know when they were to join us in the sanctuary for dismissal.  That was not a smart idea.  In the confusion of all the parents trying to get their kids, I forgot to dismiss one of the teachers.   We actually thought we had lost some kids, until we realized that one of the teachers was still in her classroom.  But during the short time before I realized my mistake, several parents became understandably upset.  The next day I let each teacher determine when they would join us in the sanctuary.  They each knew what time to be there, and each had a watch, so there was no need for me to micromanage them.  I just stood by the door and helped each teacher usher the kids in.  I learned that each teacher had a different way to run their class, and it all worked better if I just helped them on an as need basis.
  5. Spend more time with the kids.  Once I let go of running everything, I was able to spend more time focusing on the children God had entrusted us with.  I was able to talk to each on an individual basis, and learn more about them.  I grew relationships with the kids so they would feel more comfortable asking questions.  VBS is, after all, about teaching children about God and His love, not showcasing my managing skills.  During the week, God showed me how he works in children, and that his purpose for me that week was to be God's love to those children.