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Women in STEM Panel Addresses Challenges, Barriers to Entry

A Women in STEM Innovation event hosted by the Midland Business Alliance encouraged high-school-aged women and girls to hear from industry professionals about work-life balance, common myths and how to move up.

STEM graphic
(TNS) — More than 100 women attended a Women in STEM Innovation panel discussion to discuss the challenges women face in the field and how to overcome those challenges.

The event, hosted by the Midland Business Alliance on Thursday at the Holiday Inn Midland, invited women to network and hear from others in the industry from those just starting out to those with 30 years of experience.

The MBA encouraged high-school-aged women to come learn more about STEM and consider a career in the industry, as women make up only 24 percent of the STEM workforce. The panel moderator Sarah Gallo, digital capability manager at Dow, said Technology and Engineering have even less women in the workforce.

The event was also attended by both women and men STEM professionals.

The panel was made up of five women in STEM from three different companies:

  • Jessica Snyder — Michigan Operations Site Leader at DuPont, Snyder has worked at Dupont for 22 years

  • Linda Gruber — Site Leader at Hemlock Semiconductor Corporation. Gruber, a mechanical engineer, has worked at HSC for 27 years.

  • Sarah Eckersley — Vice President of Research and Development at Dow, Eckersley has worked at Dow for 30 years.

  • Christal Taylor-Lawson — Information Technology Service Manager at Dow. Taylor-Lawson has worked at Dow for 18 years.

  • Aundrea Trzaskos — Senior Information Technology Analyst at Dow, Trzaskos has worked at the company for five years.

Snyder discussed in the panel some of the "myths" surrounding manufacturing work. One of those myths included the idea that the job is dangerous and requires workers to always be on call. This would make it difficult for pregnant women or mothers to work plants like Dupont.

"I had both of my children when I worked at a manufacturing plant," she said. "I think the other big myth in manufacturing is that it's unsafe or unhealthy. I was pregnant in manufacturing plants and I think they're one of the safest places."

The panelists discussed at length work-life balance and how difficult that can be for women in STEM. Eckersley gave the example of parenting and how in some cases mothers may struggle to relinquish their parenting role to their partner when their career is busy.

She gave the example of when her daughter was young and she traveled often for work. She said it was difficult to let her husband take the reins when parenting their daughter while she was gone.

"As women, we think, 'I have to be mom first,' and, 'I have to be seen as the primary parent because that goes with my gender identity,'" Eckersley said.

Gruber agreed and said that it can be hard to balance family, work and community events or socializing and networking while working in STEM.

"That does mean sometimes you have to let things drop off your plate, both at work and at home," she said. "Don't think you have to sacrifice things at work for home or vice versa."

The panelists gave advice to those in the audience considering a career in STEM or those starting out in the industry.

Taylor-Lawson said a good way to move up in a career is for an individual to look at the future roles they want and the qualifications it will require. She said if a certain skill set is needed, workers should ask their managers for certain jobs that would build that skill set.

She also said rejection can "hit you hard in the face," but that it's important to ask for feedback on what can be improved and to remember that rejection just means the job wasn't right for the individual at the time.

"Maybe that 'no,' is not really a no forever," she said. "It's probably just a 'no' for right now."

Trzaksos emphasized the importance of networking, especially for those just starting out in STEM. She said when a worker doesn't know something, it's beneficial to have people to rely on for information and help.

Snyder encouraged those going into STEM to take internships and be willing to relocate, especially in the first few years of their career.

"Find what speaks to you, what sparks your passion, what peaks your interest and use that as a compass to make decisions on the opportunities looking forward in your life," Trzaskos said.

Ren Short, an 18-year-old student at Saginaw Valley State University, said she enjoyed the panel discussion and was glad to see an event focused on women in STEM.

"I love talking about STEM, particularly science," she said. "I would have liked to see a scientist on the panel, because the panelists were all in IT or engineering, but I understand. The TE (in STEM) is really under-represented."

Short is studying ecology, evolution and organismal biology with minors in geography and psychology.

"I've always been a dinosaur kid," she said. "But I'm also interested in all life. I took a psychology class and was amazed at how the human mind works."

Short said she was inspired to pursue STEM because her mother is an IT professional.

"I've looked up to her my whole life," she said. "She's this strong, opinionated woman in STEM. I've enjoyed watching her enjoy STEM despite the hardships."

Short has already faced hardships in the field during her first year at SVSU when she failed a physics class and was told by many that STEM might not be for her.

"I learned to persevere and to not have too much on my plate," she said. "As women in STEM, it's hard not to overwork. I think learning that before I start my career will help me in the future."

Short said the panel discussion on the challenges in the career and how to create motivation from the setbacks was inspiring, something she hopes to do as well one day.

"I would love to be on a panel like this one day," she said. "I aspire to be inspirational."

©2023 the Midland Daily News (Midland, Mich.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.