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The Importance of “Seeing Herself There”

Published Monday Dec 3, 2018

Author Judi Currie

Gaynelle Swann. Courtesy photo.

A robust STEM workforce is crucial to a modern economy and to the state’s most promising sectors, including biofabrication and aerospace. While schools are stepping up their STEM curriculum and young women are being encouraged to pursue careers in science, math, engineering and technology, parents have a role to play as well by opening up the possibilities.

Independent STEM advocate Gaynelle Swann says the U.S. lost its advantage, leadership and dominance in STEM and she wants to help future generations reclaim that role. “I have always been an advocate for STEM inclusion, being the only woman and minority at the table [for almost] my entire engineering career,” Swann says. She explains she will help organizations, nonprofits and industry partners develop programs to encourage young people­—particularly young women—to pursue careers in STEM.

Swann was the keynote speaker for the fifth-annual Women in Technology event, which was held Oct. 9 at 3S Art Space in Portsmouth. The event was organized by the Diversity Workforce Coalition and this year’s theme, “Seeing Herself There,” focused on the importance of role models and mentors to young women entering STEM fields. Swann is ready to inspire the next generation but also encourages parents to do their part in getting girls to think about the possibilities at an early age.

For Swann, growing up in the south in an area where historically black colleges abound made it a little easier for her to believe in possibilities. “I attended Tuskegee University, which is one of the top HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) for graduates of African Americans in our field. Having that strength of the institution behind me, and my great uncle was a Tuskegee Airman, and having parents who were educators, exposed me and my twin sister to what was possible for us.”

Exposure and awareness are key, she says. While working with underrepresented groups of African Americans and Hispanics, she shared her knowledge and experience with children who did not have the benefit of college-educated parents.

“In New Hampshire, we have a lot of first-generation college students … it is just the nature of the environment. Being able to expose these students to the art of the possible is something I believe strongly in. A big part of my STEM advocacy is opening the aperture for students who don’t have the awareness.”

Swann says the other big challenge is the culture of the engineering industry itself, and the need to break down stereotypes so women and minorities have equal opportunities. With graduate and undergraduate degrees in electrical engineering, her 26-year professional career includes work in the automotive and defense industries, and a number of engineering positions.

But Swann is more the exception than the rule. Government statistics show women are far more likely to leave the field by age 30 than their male counterparts or be sidelined into administrative activities.

“We get marginalized. They tell you you’re a great multitasker, you’re a great project manager, you’re a great negotiator, let’s push you into project or program management and leave the technical stuff, the chief and senior engineering to the men,” Swann says. “Men need to understand how they can be better mentors and advocates and start changing that paradigm to create environments where, at every level, there is an increase in women and minorities in technical leadership ranks.”

Swann says even when she didn’t see herself in a role, she had strong male mentors who did and helped her progress in her career and not be self-conscious about being the only woman and the only minority in the room. “It is important to us to be able to see ourselves there, and once we get there, to be that [mentor] for others,” she says.

Swann moved to NH in May 2017 to establish the College of Engineering, Technology, and Aeronautics at Southern NH University in Manchester. “Who gets to start a new college of engineering in their lifetime?” she asks. Although Swann is no longer with SNHU, she is happy with what was accomplished.

As an independent consultant, Swann hopes to improve the link between K­-12, higher education and industry to create a seamless STEM pathway and to help expose young people to local opportunities. Companies could invite high school students (in their junior year when they are considering college options) to tour facilities or do summer internships and create  relationships now, she says.

“We marginalize kids too much as opposed to exposing them broadly to multiple avenues,” Swann says. “If you want an employee that is going to be loyal to you, you want to start building that base when they are young and impressionable.

They learn about the career options and the company, and are more likely to come back. That’s a win win.”


Women in STEM Careers

According to the U.S. Dept. of Commerce Office of the Chief Economist report, “Women in STEM: 2017 Update,” while women filled 47 percent of all U.S. jobs in 2015, they held only 24 percent of STEM jobs.

Other key findings also show how women are underrepresented in the STEM fields and how they are missing out on earnings and opportunities:

• Women constitute slightly more than half of college-educated workers but make up only 25 percent of college-educated STEM workers.

• Women with STEM jobs earned 35 percent more than comparable women in non-STEM jobs. As a result, the gender wage gap is smaller in STEM jobs.
• Women with STEM jobs also earned 40 percent more than men with non-STEM jobs.

• While nearly as many women hold undergraduate degrees as men, they make up only about 30 percent of all STEM degree holders.

• Women make up a disproportionately low share of degree holders in all STEM fields, particularly engineering.

• Women with STEM degrees are less likely than their male counterparts to work in a STEM occupation; they are more likely to work in education or health care.

Source: U.S. Dept. of Commerce Office of the Chief Economist

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