Despite pandemic, women in STEM, academia find opportunities for growth
By Sandra Guy, SWE Contributor
Two women engineers — one a businesswoman and the other an academic — transformed COVID-19-related challenges into opportunities, and they encourage others to do the same.
For Severine Valdant, a light went off when one of her employees asked to relocate from Connecticut to California and work remotely.
“I had to say, I felt a bit of envy,” said Valdant, a native of Compiègne, a 45-minute train ride north of Paris. Valdant — who earned degrees in chemical and industrial engineering in France — and her husband were living in Connecticut and had already downsized from a house to a condominium. They had had enough of the state’s snowy winters. So Valdant started looking in the Miami area, and she and her husband found a new house in six months.
That was just the start.
“COVID made me realize that I could take nothing for granted, and that anything can change,” said Valdant, who loved to work and build office teams in person. At first, she felt uprooted by the remote work mandates. But after a few months, she started doing yoga in the mornings in place of her stressful commutes, and she began to see how efficient remote teamwork could be if handled well.
CREDIT: Courtesy of QuesTek
“You can be an engineer and still be everything else you want to be. An engineering degree gives you the tools to become a better version of yourself. It will help you as an entrepreneur in solving problems, since you will have to solve lots of things by yourself.”
– Severine Valdant, chief commercial officer, QuesTek Innovations
She also became excited about learning new skills. “I had spent my entire career at one company, and I realized that I wanted to learn a new skill set,” Valdant said. “I wanted more challenges.”
So Valdant left her job as president of a medical device maker, at which she had won acclaim for leading the company’s first FDA approval for 3D-printed polymeric permanent implants. A recruiter for a materials engineering company on the verge of launching its first software product contacted Valdant, and soon she accepted a new job as a chief commercial officer.
Now she works remotely from Miami as she leads business development, marketing, and communications for her Chicago-area employer, QuesTek Innovations, which designs novel materials found in everything from smartphones to spaceships. She is also overseeing the launch of ICMD, QuesTek’s comprehensive new software platform for materials design and engineering.
CREDIT: Photo by Adrien Bisson for the University of Massachusetts – Lowell
“To have women’s share of employment in civil, chemical, mechanical, and aerospace engineering increase during that same COVID period is doubly notable.”
– Kweilin Ellingrud, a director and senior partner at McKinsey Global Institute
Valdant wants others to heed her insight: “You can be an engineer and still be everything else you want to be,” she said. “An engineering degree gives you the tools to become a better version of yourself. It will help you as an entrepreneur in solving problems, since you will have to solve lots of things by yourself.
“And in terms of working in a team, the team leaders want an ingenious solution,” she said. “They want an engineer who can think. Everything has been engineered in one way or another.”
Kelilah L. Wolkowicz, Ph.D., underwent a similar transformation. She remembers applying for her first faculty position just as the COVID-19 pandemic began. “Lots of universities put their applications, mostly for assistant professorships, on hold,” she said.
She was thrilled to be hired as an assistant professor in mechanical and industrial engineering at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, where she had to quickly transition to teaching online in fall 2020.
The COVID-19-caused “she-cession” — a term used to describe when women left the workforce en masse as schools and businesses closed and childcare access diminished — has ended, and women engineers are back in force.
“It was a big transition,” said Dr. Wolkowicz, who serves as one of two faculty advisors to the UMass Lowell Society of Women Engineers Collegiate Section. Dr. Wolkowicz’s transition came after she earned a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at Pennsylvania State University, where her research focused on designing a responsive robotic wheelchair for people with neuromuscular diseases.
Prior to that, she earned a B.S. in engineering at Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island, during which time she was chosen for the National Science Foundation’s prestigious Graduate Research Fellowship Program. After her time at Penn State, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University in bioengineering.
“[As COVID hit], we had to reevaluate how we were going to present lesson material and how we would work on class projects, given there would be no more lab time,” Dr. Wolkowicz said.
At the same time, Dr. Wolkowicz said the university has enhanced its outreach and communications in several inspiring ways: It runs a first-generation student support network; encourages undergraduates to get involved in research projects; urges women engineering students to earn master’s degrees and consider careers in higher education; and offers chapters of SWE, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, and the National Society of Black Engineers.
Also, during COVID, many new UMass Lowell women faculty started meeting each month to share resources, host social and academic events, and encourage each other — including those in engineering — to apply for mentoring grants. The mentoring grants, funded through the university’s ADVANCE Office for Faculty Equity and Resilience, aim to promote an equitable, inclusive, and empowering environment so that faculty of diverse identities get support, resources, and opportunities to thrive.
And the university enabled managers and faculty to allow employees and students, respectively, to enjoy some flexibility in their schedules.
“We realized in academia that we can adapt,” Dr. Wolkowicz said. “We learned that we have the technology to keep moving forward. However, we did, and still do, need to consider the challenges many students face in terms of lack of access to laptops and high-speed internet.”
The efforts to create more inclusive, responsive, and participative engineering careers for women are starting to pay off. The COVID-19-caused “she-cession” — a term used to describe when women left the workforce en masse as schools and businesses closed and childcare access diminished — has ended, and women engineers are back in force.
The national share of employed women ages 25–54 hit 75.3% in June — the highest number recorded since the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey started reporting the numbers in 1948. That compares with data collected between August and September 2020 revealing that nearly 1.1 million workers ages 20 and older dropped out of the labor force, and, of those, the vast majority — 865,000 — were women.
Women are also more likely to work in STEM occupations now than prior to the pandemic. Women’s share in two broad job categories that include engineering increased slightly post-COVID. In the architecture and engineering category, women’s share edged up to 16.1% in 2022 from 15.7% in 2019. In computer and mathematical occupations, women’s share increased to 26.7% from 25.8%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The national share of employed women ages 25–54 hit 75.3% in June — the highest number recorded since the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey started reporting the numbers in 1948.
For specific engineering sectors, comparing pre-COVID 2019 to post-COVID 2022, the latest data available, the numbers showed some significant gains.
- Aerospace engineers: Women’s numbers grew by 11,610, or 62.8%, and their share increased to 17.4% from 13.8%. The occupation totaled 173,000 employees throughout the United States in 2022.
- Civil engineers: Women’s employment increased by 16,397, or by 24.8%, in 2022 compared with 2019, and their share of all workers in the occupation increased to 17.1% from 13.9%. There were 482,000 civil engineers in the United States in 2022.
- Others: Women’s share in chemical engineering jumped by 67%, and by 27.5% in electrical and electronics engineering.
Analysts said the progress reflects more women choosing engineering as a profession — taking jobs that men previously held and filling vacancies caused by men retiring — and the Biden administration’s focus on diversity, which seeks to award infrastructure and other contracts to companies that provide family-friendly benefits such as childcare to their employees.
“To have women’s share of employment in civil, chemical, mechanical, and aerospace engineering increase during that same COVID period is doubly notable,” said Kweilin Ellingrud, a director and senior partner at McKinsey Global Institute. “While women’s share of employment in many other occupations was decreasing, it was actually increasing in these engineering fields.”
Ariane Hegewisch, senior fellow at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington, D.C., said “the absolute growth in women’s numbers” in the STEM fields may also reflect that women are being recruited into new jobs, such as information security analysis. “Though women are still strongly underrepresented” in the STEM occupations, Hegewisch said, “the trend is going into the right direction.”