DEQ tackles questions about so few women in STEM fields

Lori Pillsbury, as Division Administrator, she is LEAD/DEQ Lab’s fearless leader

For anyone who works in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, all you have to do is look around to see there are very few women scientists, lab technicians, researchers, etc. In fact, according to The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s Institute for Statistics, fewer than 30% of the world’s researchers are women.

UNESCO commemorates International Day of Women and Girls in Science every Feb. 11 as part of an effort to educate the world about the barriers women and girls face when considering STEM careers. In honor of that day and as part of March’s celebration of women’s history, we asked DEQ employees their perspectives on why there aren’t more women in the science fields and what we can do about it. We received a wide variety of replies, which you can read below.

(Photos – clockwise from top, far left corner: Danielle Johnson, Blair Paulik, Heidi Williams, Mia Pan, Bridgett Relphorde, Rebecca Wells-Albers and Tina Elayer)

QUESTION #1: What do you believe are the biggest barriers to participation of girls and women in STEM?

Growing up I never saw myself entering the STEM field. Furthermore I always viewed math and science as my weakest skills. It wasn’t until I entered college and took STEM courses through a non-traditional academic format that didn’t involve testing or grades that I found myself unexpectedly going down the course of environmental sciences. Attending a college that did not have majors, tests or grades allowed me to fully engage with course material and concepts without the pressure of graded performance. I took the opportunity to learn about stream ecology and hydrology wherein the only comparison I had to face was who I was when I first started learning. This framework rewarded growth over perfectionism.

I truly believe the rigid structure of academia can be a huge barrier to women/girls/BIPOC/gender non-conforming individuals who don’t see people who look like them or come from similar backgrounds succeed in those arenas. My hope for younger generations is that they are provided with alternative forms of academic exploration that favors learning and growth over performance and perfectionism and they feel empowered enough to learn through curiosity as opposed to expectation.

– Mia Pan, permit developer, Water Quality Permitting & Program Development, Headquarters/Portland

I believe the biggest barriers to participation of girls and women in STEM are the same now as when I began in the civil engineering field, those being gender stereotypes regarding support and development of girls’ interest in STEM and the need for women to prove their professional worth once in their STEM positions. It’s just as important to have a focus on keeping women in the field as it is to recruit them. I think it’s small things that make a difference, such as treating each other with respect and as equals.

– Heidi Williams, solid waste engineer and permit writer, Eastern Region

A huge barrier for girls and women in STEM is the –incorrect, but still incredibly common – belief that we do not belong in STEM academic and professional spaces. That we are not smart enough; that we are not good enough at math; that the work will be too boring. Growing up I was always good at math in school, but I went through all of high school and part of college before even considering a career in STEM.

– Blair Paulik, environmental toxicologist/remedial project manager, Environmental Cleanup and Emergency Response, Northwest Region

Honestly? I wasn’t taught anything about the sciences in grade school (I went to a Catholic school) and barely any of the sciences in high school. Of course, this was a huge disservice for me because I’m very interested in sciences and at this stage of my life, the most that I feel I can do is to watch the younger female generation thrive.

I also never knew that there were SO many areas of science!  I do realize that some areas are newer to the ever-changing world, like aerology! I’m always trying to get my granddaughters interest in science by giving them gifts that are science related.

– Bridgett Relphorde, lead accountant, Central Services, Headquarters/Portland

The only barriers to participation of girls and women in STEM (or any other thing) are psychological/emotional: lack of self-confidence and grit. But the lower participation of girls and women in STEM can often also be attributed to lack of interest and/or a lack of support and encouragement from others to participate. If a person has an interest in something – anything – if they aren’t supported or encouraged to pursue it and to stick with it even when it gets tough, there doesn’t need to be an external barrier to limit their participation. But if they are supported and encouraged to participate, and if they learn to develop self-confidence and grit, it makes it much easier to participate and to stick with it.

– Danielle Johnson, land quality contract officer, Environmental Cleanup and Emergency Response, Headquarters/Portland

When I started my professional career in environmental protection and regulation in 2000, I was frequently the only woman in meetings and conferences. This reality also meant that I had no access to or connection with a female mentor – there were few women in my field!

While women are now more represented in STEM, the ability (and investment) in mentorships is still lacking, particularly for women of color. In my experience and in talking with friends and colleagues, restrictive policies (inadequate leave, unsupportive work environments) do not recognize the caregiving role that women play in their families and communities, which restricts access to and support for women in STEM. While the trend is beginning to change, more can and should be done to support women already in STEM, and to encourage and foster future generations of female leaders in the field.

– Rebecca Wells-Albers, brownfields coordinator, Environmental Cleanup and Emergency Response, Northwest Region

I found my biggest barrier during my career was not thinking I was technical enough. As I gained experience in the field, I noticed people commenting on how technical I was, and eventually junior staff and interns would rely on me to provide technical assistance. I was most grateful for the support from multiple mentors who helped me develop the skills and the confidence to work in a technical field.

– Tina Elayer, Cleanup Project Technician, Environmental Cleanup and Emergency Response, Western Region

(Photos – left to right: Margaret L. Oscilia, Heather Kuoppamaki, Susan C. Mills and Cathy Brown)

QUESTION #2: How can we encourage more girls and women to become interested/involved in STEM work?

Show them! We need to share the careers and opportunities available in STEM fields early in education. For me, I started thinking of a career as early as high school. I knew I liked math and science, but was otherwise totally lost. The more people who identify as girls and women see others like themselves in successful careers, the more confident and educated they can feel about pursuing opportunities in STEM.

– Margaret L. Oscilia, senior project manager/environmental engineer, Environmental Cleanup and Emergency Response, Western Region

– Show children what different occupations do. Maybe it’s because of where I grew up, but I had no idea what an engineer or scientist actually did.

– Obviously get rid of the sexist attitudes. Loudly correct people when they start making those sorts of assertions.

– Encouraging any child, regardless of gender, to dig deeper into things that excite them. To ask questions and not be afraid to be wrong (being wrong is how you learn!).  We should tell children we don’t have all the answers but teach them how to try and find the answers – that’s the exciting part about STEM.

– Heather Kuoppamaki, senior air quality engineer, Northwest Region

It’s important to let girls (and boys) know that even if they don’t excel in STEM subjects, there are still so many related jobs they can pursue. For example, I was never expressly told Science Communications existed. Rather I stumbled into it when a past Comms team needed someone who liked the STEM fields and, as a service for a client, could explain it in ways that were understandable to the non-science public.

Now, I occasionally get the chance to speak with students about public relations and marketing and I always tell them they can combine their communications skills with their STEM passions to find a successful career.

– Susan C. Mills, public affairs specialist, Headquarters/Portland

A high school guidance counselor told me to look into meteorology over wildlife biology as a field, because he didn’t think I could wrestle a deer to the ground. At least he suggested a major in science! This was the early 90’s in small town Wisconsin. I always thought it was because I was not the most athletic individual, but being female was another factor. Luckily, I followed my interests, studying geography and geology towards a career in natural resources and environmental protection.

We all need to continue bringing girls and women to enter the sciences, whether its encouraging them to take a chemistry class or apply for a technical position at DEQ. Science includes so many fields and opportunities, there is no reason to exclude anyone.

By the way, I’ve yet to hear of a wildlife biologist wrestling a deer that has not first been tranquilized.

– Cathy Brown, regional specialist, Materials Management, Western Region

(Photos – left to right, top row: Amy Nomani, Alexis Cooley and Haley Teach; bottom row: Tiffany Mosher and Valerie Arkell; no photo submitted for Sara Krepps)

QUESTION #3: What or who inspired you to work in the fields of science/STEM?

In middle school and high school, I had an excellent teacher that made science fun and hands on. He encouraged his students to see the world around them in the environment, and beyond.  I largely continued chemistry because of the love of science he fostered. I believe good teachers are the foundation for inspiring young girls and women to pursue STEM careers, along with exposure to many different areas of STEM.

– Amy Nomani, organic chemist, LEAD/DEQ Lab

The Great Recession of 2008 caused a huge contraction in the arts. I found a way to apply my Liberal Arts degree in the information technology field because that is where the jobs were. In the end, I realized my ability to communicate effectively is an enormous asset from my liberal arts training. The side effect of working in abrasive and competitive cultures is that it constrained my creativity.

Alexis Cooley, project officer, Clean Water State Revolving Fund, Western Region

My Dad inspired me to work in the field of science. At a young age, he taught me about wildlife and took me on hikes to help me learn to identify different birds and trees. When I turned 16, he gave me the book Silent Spring. After reading that book, I knew I wanted to work in environmental science in some capacity to help protect the earth and the wildlife. My Dad worked as meteorologist for over 30 years. Oftentimes, he would let my brother and I go to the office to learn about different modeling systems and help launch the weather balloons. All of these things make me passionate about environmental science to this day.

– Valerie Arkell, stormwater specialist, Water Quality Division, Northwest Region

A man named Fred Lorenz inspired me to be what I am today. After fate gave him all daughters, he switched his summer camp to girls only and taught countless young girls how to be outdoors-women. He had what he called the “DDT Museum” of all the critters he found dead around their property after his dad had sprayed before the worst of pesticides were banned in the US. It was so rare for someone of that generation to be teaching caution around pesticide use, much less young girls.

– Sara Krepps, laboratory quality assurance officer, LEAD/DEQ Lab

My high school biology and oceanography teacher Mrs. Ruesler encouraged me in to pursue science after seeing my ability and interest in the subjects. I originally wanted to be a marine biologist. Mrs. Ruesler helped me get a summer internship at an aquarium and I ended up taking five science classes in four years of high school.

– Haley Teach, 401 Program project manager, Water Quality Division, Northwest Region

I’ve had many role models throughout my education/career– Kathy Childress, Elizabeth Cohen, Linda George, Katie Kolesar, and my mom — just to name a few! I am so thankful to the inspiring women in STEM, they have all brought the best out of me.

– Tiffany Mosher, air monitoring specialist, LEAD/DEQ Lab

We are grateful the many varied perspectives and ideas provided by our employees. Let’s hope all of us can incorporate them as we continue to communicate to others, and especially women and girls, about our work at DEQ.

By Susan C. Mills, public affairs specialist and Blair Adams, executive support specialist

Published by Oregon Department of Environmental Quality

DEQ’s mission is to be a leader in restoring, maintaining and enhancing the quality of Oregon’s air, land and water.

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