By Nikki Hunt

Carmen Nava and Marian Croak share how AT&T urges girls to follow dreams traditionally thought of as belonging only to men.

In 2009, President Obama set out to move U.S. students to the top ranks in math and science over the following decade. A key to his plan has been to get girls, and other historically underrepresented students, more engaged in science, technology, engineering, and math.

Carmen Nava

Carmen Nava

Women make up nearly 37 percent of the AT&T STEM network. In her time with the company, Carmen Nava has witnessed firsthand the evolution of the technology we all utilize. “When I joined AT&T, we were the ‘telephone company.’ I remember dial-up Internet and everyone needing two phone lines to make a call and be online at the same time. Now, we’re into TV, high-speed Internet, mobile, and moving quickly to cloud computing, software and apps. I remember the day my first desktop was rolled into my office! To think, in my lifetime, we’ve evolved this far. It’s crazy.”

Nava was first recruited by AT&T as an intern while she was attending the University of Southern California’s business school. Nearly 30 years and countless job titles later, she is the vice president of customer experience for AT&T Home Solutions. “Customer service, sales, billing, human resources, marketing, I’ve moved around a lot while here at AT&T. We’re really encouraged to move around and get to know the whole company.”

Marian Croak

Marian Croak

Marian Croak has experienced the same professional movement since joining the company in the ’80s when nearly all of their network traffic was voice calls. Under the name Bell Laboratories when she joined, Croak has worked her way up through integrated voice and data communications, and is currently the senior vice president of Domain 2.0 Architecture and Advanced Services Development.

“When I first arrived, AT&T was much more traditional in doing long-term research, and less applied research and correlating with business initiatives. Since then, we’ve become more fluid, making changes almost every year. The strategic vision stayed, but has become more concrete.”

Aware of how quickly technology advances, Nava recognizes the importance of incorporating it into schools. “I see how my young niece grows up with technology—all this information readily available to her on a tablet—but how is she learning? How do we use this technology to better educate her? I hope we’re better enabling educators to use the technology to better teach the students. Technology is a powerful tool for learning.”

In an effort to show students how lessons in the classroom translate to the work-place, AT&T brings high-risk high school students into the facility. “It’s a means of exposing them to the company and to professions that require math and science. We want to show them how the things they are learning in the classroom are relevant and will be applied. Sparking these interests at an early age is the key.”

Curriculum updates may be exactly what we see in the coming years. Croak recently spoke with high school students about the inequality between women and men in STEM positions. “They were shocked because they aren’t seeing [an imbalance] in their classrooms. It makes me think that maybe a change is happening. I would predict within five or six years we will see a change in who enters the STEM workforce. There’s pressure and encouragement placed on young women to join these positions, and it’s working. And it’s great to see, because there are more people creating and contributing. So much has been done in the last five years, when you look back at how far technology has come—look at your smart phone. Envision ten years from now what the young people will create for the world.”

In an effort to assure that the future generation is prepared to advance technology, AT&T supports the Girl Scouts and Girls who Code through corporate giving, as well as promoting their own ASPIRE initiative, a program mentoring underserved high school students pursuing STEM paths. “I’m proud of what our company has done and is doing, like our internship and leadership programs, where we bring young people into the company and prepare them in advance,” Nava says, adding that these programs are especially geared toward women. “I think we’re definitely a leader when you take a look around the industry. We work hard on the pipeline to attract women into AT&T comprehensively.” Since 1987, AT&T has given more than $97 million to support STEM programs. “I’m happy with our track record, and hope that women thinking of pursuing a STEM career really think about AT&T.”

Croak recalls her own experience joining AT&T’s labs when women weren’t as well represented. “I have a quiet, shy side, but I’ve always felt like my ideas were being heard and there’s a lot of collaboration. Over time, more women have joined, but then there was the dip every industry experienced. Now we’re beginning to see the upswing.” She says AT&T has always shown a desire to have a diverse work force. “Women are placed in strong positions, welcomed to be leaders.”

The company is currently working on technology Croak says will allow users to create their own network services. “We’re separating hardware and software, making the hardware more basic and the software more technical, and putting it into a cloud. It’s new and exciting.” Croak says this new plan direction has opened up more than 100 job opportunities that AT&T is currently looking to fill with a qualified team.

For young girls interested in starting STEM careers, Nava advises supplementing formal education with outside education in order to stay current. “There are youth camps and competitions, there’s always something new. It’s the mix of for-mal and experimental training that will help women excel in these fields.” And she emphasizes again the need to nurture these interests from the beginning. “I can’t stress the importance of a strong math and science foundation enough. It needs to start at an early age and be built up. Virtually all industries—technology, medicine, education—apply math and science. Expose yourself to all of the possible opportunities.”