Women in STEM, an interview with Wanda Reder

 In WCS Blog


Posted by Guest Contributor

It is quite possible that the life of Wanda Reder would be very different, if she had not a forward thinking algebra teacher suggest she should be an engineer. Today, she is VP of Power Systems Solutions of S&C Electric Company as well as Chair of the IEEE Smart Grid Task Force and a strong advocate for bringing more women into STEM fields.

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math. STEM and innovation are closely tied in a variety of fields, especially clean tech, renewable energy, and sustainability. When you look at the STEM statistics, Wanda Reder is an impressive engineer, leader, manager, mentor, and businesswoman. Today, women fill only 24 percent of all STEM positions in the U.S.   On average, a woman earns 33 percent more in a STEM job than a non-STEM job.  Unfortunately, 50 percent of the women that enter STEM fields leave it, as compared to 20 percent in non-STEM jobs.

Technological innovation and increased economic competitiveness happen through engineering and scientific research and development.  Because women hold only 24 percent of STEM positions, we are losing out on a great amount of brainpower and human resources.   Advancement in technology is limited if we draw from only half the population.

This message is at the core of what Wanda professes.  Involving women in STEM roles is critical to the economic viability and vitality of our country.  Estimates are that women account for $7 trillion in consumer and business spending. Women control 67 percent of the wealth and influence 85 percent of all purchasing decisions.   Thus, getting more women into R&D will enhance the development of products that can be marketed to women.  Companies that pay attention to women will have better sales propositions.

Women in STEM = Better business outcomes

Barriers exist that we need to overcome.  Wanda views this situation in three facets:

1. Start Early

Starting at a very early age, even as early as elementary school is critical to getting more women into STEM positions. The challenge is how to get girls to study math and science, to change the paradigm that girls can be good in math and science, and that math and science are fun.

2. Retain Women in STEM

Women currently in the field need to stay.  They need to be heard, feel valued, and provided the same opportunities (and salaries!) as their male counterparts. Companies need to do a better job of keeping the talent that they already have.

3. Lead and Connect

The imperative is to connect women who are in the field now to the potential girls and young women who could be entering the field. We need to communicate who are the women role models and have them participate in the education and mentoring of young women.   We need to show that increasingly women are being heard and have opportunities for growth in various STEM fields.

Wanda’s personal efforts have advanced women and minorities in her own department.  She hires for diversity and understands from personal experience what it means to be the outsider.   She encourages those who work for her to be inclusive and respectful of everyone.  Her diverse department of 120 people is highly technical with scientists and engineers working on innovation in solar, batteries, self-healing systems for utilities, and smart grid technologies. Her group emphasizes mutual respect and allows everyone to be heard.  Such diversity and inclusiveness encourages women to stay because they feel valued and heard.

She has also lead the effort in her research for her industry to understand the dire need for skilled engineers and scientists.  She released an IEEE Power & Energy report in 2009, Preparing the U.S. Foundation for Future Electric Energy Systems: A Strong Power and Energy Engineering Workforce, that lead to $100M in stimulus funding toward smart grid education.  Part of the funding was used to launch a national scholarship internship program to increase the pipeline of engineers entering the power industry.   It is also critical to Wanda to track the veteran women in the field to be the role models and mentors needed for the newcomers.

Wanda is part of a burgeoning collective of women and men who are aware of the issues and are working to correct them.  In a recent PBS Newshour program, President Beverly Daniel Tatum of Spelman College, America’s oldest historically Black college for women, spoke about Spelman’s focus on STEM education.   Dr. Tatum offered some positive news: almost one third of the students earn STEM degrees, 52 percent of their STEM faculty are women, and they have a higher rate of persistence of women staying in the field.  The students are actively involved in local schools such as FunLab that brings fun science experiments to elementary and middle schools.  Another program in the computer science department, SpelBots, takes robots to local schools.  These efforts encourage young people, especially women “to think about science as something that can be fun and they might want to pursue.”

We can change our culture to be more welcoming of women in STEM by following the models set by leaders such as Wanda Reder and Dr. Tatum.  STEM education is the heart and soul of technological creativity and innovation. Our national competitiveness depends on technological advances.  As Bill Gates said about Saudi Arabia, and which resonates here, “Well, if you’re not fully utilizing half the talent in the country, you’re not going to get too close to the top.”   The US has been at the top for a long time, but past tendencies do not reflect future performance.   We can only stay relevant if we include the 50 percent of the population that is currently underrepresented.  And for the women who are currently in STEM positions, you might want to heed former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s quote, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”

Let’s link arms and bring awareness to our girls that STEM is fun and can be a catalyst for doing good things for our planet and its inhabitants.

Susan Brooksbank thrives on making the world a better place.  After a successful career in sales, marketing, quality, and production for highly technical products, she has redirected her efforts toward organizations, products and projects that enable a sustainable, peaceful planet.  She currently consults with entrepreneurs in business and customer development.

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