When you consider the math for female engineers, the numbers simply don't add up. Women make up more than half of the nation's population. The majority of students who earn bachelor's and master's degrees are women. Yet, in the past decade, only 12 percent of the professionals in engineering are women. We need to work towards closing this gap for a number of reasons, not the least of which women represent a large pool of untapped talent and the demand for engineers is on the rise.
I've worked at Qualcomm for over 20 years. Today, I'm an executive vice president and president of Global Market Development, but I began my career as an engineer. Over the years, it has been truly exhilarating to be part of a team that is continually pushing the boundaries of what's possible. Early in my career, I worked on a project that made it possible for a moving truck in the middle of Nebraska to communicate with its headquarters via a satellite 22,223 miles away -- seemingly by magic, given this far preceded cellphones. Later, I led the division focused on building one of the industry's first app stores and the accompanying developer ecosystem. The first time we downloaded an app we were astounded by the knowledge that it was now possible to customize our own phones.
These days, I spend my time focused on developing new businesses underpinned by cutting-edge technologies being developed across our company. The mobile industry has reached an inflection point where connectivity is poised to affect traditional industries like never before. Our cellphones have become part of the largest communications platform the world has ever known. The possibility that represents to challenging issues such as education and healthcare are mind-boggling. It is because of my engineering background that I am lucky enough to be in the midst as the positive impact of wireless as it begins to unfold around the globe.
I say lucky because I am also very familiar with the hurdles for women interested in pursuing a science or math degree. I attended a high school with more than 4,000 students, and met with a guidance counselor only once during my four-year stint. Despite my clear strengths in science and math, my counselor's advice was to pursue a degree in business. A career in engineering was never encouraged nor, in fact, ever mentioned. Based on my counselor's direction, I enrolled at San Diego State University as a business major.
It was happenstance that led me to where I am today. As a college freshman with an on-campus job, I was delivering paperwork to the engineering department one day. There I encountered two department assistants whose faces lit up with the hope that I was a prospective student. I hadn't come there to enroll, but their reactions piqued my interest. When they told me that an engineering degree incorporated math and science -- two of my favorite subjects -- I switched my major the next day. With a short conversation, those two ladies changed the course of my life.
As a woman in what has been perceived to be a "man's profession," I've learned some lessons along the way which may be helpful to young women considering a technical career:
Be proud that you stand out.
Early in my career, I was the last in line as a group was filing into a meeting room. The man who was leading the meeting turned and asked me to go get the coffee, confusing me for an assistant because of my gender. At first I was confused and admittedly a bit angry, but then and there I realized it was an honest mistake and decided to just roll with it. A colleague quickly set the record straight -- that I was a part of the engineering team -- and we laughed it off. I found that in a sea of men, the few women present are more likely to be remembered later for their input. It's best to leverage these situations as an opportunity to take the lead and push things forward.
When you push yourself out of your comfort zone, you will grow.
In 1989, I answered an ad for a software engineer at a small startup named Qualcomm. Long before mobile devices were changing lives, Qualcomm was best known for developing communications technologies and systems. I was hired and quickly set about learning an entirely new area of technology for me. I listened, worked diligently and never took my position for granted. Daily, I would attempt to push myself outside of my comfort zone and never turned down an opportunity to take on more. Twenty years later, I'm in a role I could have hardly imagined when I started, but it would not have been possible if I had not closed my eyes, taken a deep breath and moved beyond the limits of my comfort zone.
Be yourself and trust in your strengths.
You don't have to fit into a mold that someone else has defined. Throughout my early career, I was told to speak up more in meetings and generally be more assertive, attributes that are highly valued at review time. At some point I realized that wasn't my nature and I would never be the most vocal person in any meeting. I told my manager that if I were to continue to be rated on those traits, I was not going to be successful. I am grateful that he listened and, supported by the company, he modified our performance ratings to be more equitable for all employees. If we succumb to the pressure to be something we are not, we risk losing the very characteristics which make us unique, and it can devalue the collaboration, teamwork and relationship skills which are an important part of any equation.
Keep your priorities balanced.
To young professionals -- and particularly women -- looking to advance, it is imperative to keep your life in balance. I recall something I read years ago that said to consider the different aspects of your life, eg. family, friends, work, health and integrity, as glass balls to be continuously juggled. Each one is vitally important and the challenge is to keep all the balls in the air. However, there will be times when you need to work 12 hour days, 3 days in a row and there will be times when you need to leave at 3 o'clock to watch 8-year-olds run around a soccer field. And you can't spend time feeling guilty about doing either one. You may need to put one down briefly, but the lesson here is to take care never to drop one.
Increasing female interest in "male dominated" industries is a challenging but fully attainable goal. It is important to start as early as elementary school to encourage curious young girls' minds to seek opportunities in the science, math and engineering professions. I look forward to helping develop the next generation of women engineers, perhaps in part due to revolutionary mobile technologies providing them access to an exciting new world of opportunity.
Follow Peggy Johnson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/peggyj