Karen Purcell is owner and president of PK Electrical, an electrical engineering firm based in Reno, Nevada. Purcell has used her experiences as a female entrepreneur and woman in a male-dominated industry to help other women through her new book, Unlocking your Brilliance: Smart Strategies for Women to Thrive in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (available on Amazon.com).
Q. What are common hurdles and challenges experienced by women in STEM fields and strategies to overcome them?
That’s really what my book addresses. It depends on where you are in your education and career, but for example, just trying to rise through the ranks in a male-dominated workforce. There is a high attrition rate for women entering the STEM field; the culture can be somewhat challenging in these fields. That’s a hurdle. Maintaining confidence throughout your career is another hurdle, too.
Q. How do we combat the lack of exposure and encouragement of women in STEM fields?
I think that there’s an underlying bias that definitely exists. Educators and parents put it out there unintentionally, but there is a bias for boys going into the science and math fields. It starts very young—boys are given erector sets, train sets; they’re given toys that you have to figure out how to work. Girls, on the other hand, are given dolls and things like that.
It starts with parenting, giving encouragement to young girls. Some girls may not be interested in STEM fields, and that’s perfectly acceptable, but I think there are young women who are interested in science and math and they don’t know where to go with it. They need to be shown activities and have mentors.
Q. What kind of programs and initiatives in the school and community are available for girls interested in STEM?
It definitely varies by community, but there are some national programs like Microsoft’s Digigirlz and the Girl Scouts’ STEM initiatives. There are also fabulous math camps, math competitions, and programs like that which girls can participate in.
Q. Why do you believe a more proportionate retention of men and women in STEM fields will help the U.S. economy?
The U.S. Department of Commerce predicts by the year 2018 there will be a 17 percent growth in the STEM-related fields. The opportunities out there are really endless. For example, at my company we are trying to hire more electrical engineers and designers, and we are having a difficult time finding people. There is such a demand for engineers right now, and it is unfortunate there is a huge unemployment number, but there is not the educated population there to support the jobs available. There’s an opportunity for men and women that would like to go into STEM. Girls need to be encouraged just as much as boys so that [proportions are] equal and they realize that there are these great job opportunities and careers out there.