Author(s): Scott Sutherland. Published on May 2, 2016.

THE XX FACTOR

Conference panel will look at women in engineering and technical fields.

BY SCOTT SUTHERLAND

IN "SILICON VALLEY", HBO’s tech industry spoof, a pair of young male executives attempts to interview a woman for a software engineering job at their expanding startup. The woman, Carla, lists her qualifications. The execs nod, impressed. “All of that,” one of them says. “Plus, you’re a woman.”

NFPA Conference Session
NFPA Conference & Expo, Las Vegas, June 13-16, 2016

Women in Engineering Panel Discussion
Wednesday, June 15, 4:00 PM to 5:00 PM

Kathleen Almand, NFPA, moderator; Rekha Agrawal, Tyco; Ellen Kerr, FM Global

Carla looks at him. “What?”

“No, I just mean, we would absolutely love to have a strong woman working here,” he says.

“I’m not a woman engineer,” she replies. “I’m an engineer.”

The exec, flustered, tries to recover. “No, no,” he sputters. “Yes, of course, we want to hire the best people who happen to be women, regardless of whether or not they are women—that part is irrelevant.”

Carla gives him a squint. “Are you doing that interviewing thing where you try to rattle somebody to see if they freak out or not?” she asks. She gets the job.

Aside from sparking an Internet meme (“I’m not a woman engineer”), the scene captured some of the awkwardness that can arise when women appear in male-dominated industries, especially the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) professions. Sometimes the provocations are harmless, but in other cases they can result in workplaces that are uncomfortable for women and can include wrestling with male-oriented corporate policies.

For a big-picture look at women in engineering and technical fields, NFPA will host a panel discussion and networking event, sponsored by JensenHughes, at the Conference & Expo in Las Vegas. The panel will include three women who will share their career experiences in STEM fields.

Mainstream media contain a wealth of dispatches on STEM workplace issues—a recent jezebel.com story detailed sexual harassment as the primary reason women leave STEM jobs—but core concerns continue to revolve around recruitment and retention of women in technical fields.

“The data tell us that the percentage of women engineering graduates hasn’t changed in 25 years—what's being done to attract women into the profession isn’t working,” says Rekha Agrawal, vice president and general manager, water and mechanical, for Tyco Fire Protection Products and a panelist for the Las Vegas event. “Once we get them, how do we keep them? It’s a challenge at every step.” About six percent of NFPA’s approximately 60,000 members are women.

Family leave policies can be hurdles for many women and can be symptomatic of broader personnel challenges in STEM fields. As Kristin Bigda, a principal fire protection engineer at NFPA, puts it, “STEM fields want women grads, but the question is whether those fields are really ready to support women.”

Agrawal says Tyco has made recruitment and retention of women a priority, but the process is slow. “This industry doesn't change quickly, and it's very homogenous,” she says. “But for it to survive, we need to look a lot more like the general population in terms of gender, ethnicity, and age. What we do is so important, and we can’t afford to get by with a limited talent pool. If we do, everyone will lose.”

SCOTT SUTHERLAND is executive editor for NFPA Journal.