By Jane LeClair
When I was a young girl, I fell in love with science and technology. I was intrigued by famous physicist and chemist Marie Curie and her pioneering research on radioactivity. I wanted to know how such a small piece of uranium could be turned into so much energy. And my curiosity about the nuclear plant that was being built about 50 miles from where we lived only grew as I reached my teens.
My fascination with science was perhaps an unusual passion for a girl at the time. Still, despite the downward pressure that came with trying to navigate a world that pigeonholed women within certain career paths, my passion for science and technology never wavered. In truth, I devoted my life to it, spending nearly two decades in the nuclear industry before leaving for academia and occasionally consulting with the International Atomic Energy Agency.
With changing demographics and retirements, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts increasing demand for engineers. Yet, when I left the field I became just another statistic and part of an alarming number of women (56 percent) who leave the technology fields by mid-career. We’ll need to reverse that trend to fill the labor gap.
This is why the 11th Annual Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day, on Thursday, February 23, is critical in raising awareness of an important issue: Opportunities for women in engineering. Historically, as a professional field, and as a nation that values scientific achievement, we have failed to engage generation after generation of young women—many of whom with a bit of encouragement, mentoring, and most importantly, acceptance could have grown up to lead the next generation of engineers.
The sobering reality is that many young women don’t understand what a career in engineering offers: A creative outlet, great pay, and a chance to positively impact the world. It is a field for the independent thinker, the individual who loves to solve puzzles and find solutions to problems. A career in engineering is also an opportunity to see the world. Throughout my career, I’ve trotted the globe, from Ukraine to Hungary, Sweden to Vienna, visiting nuclear plants and engineering programs and working with the IAEA. I’ve also visited nuclear plants throughout the United States to bring academia and industry together to meet their mutual needs and the needs of our global community.
As a young girl, I never would have dreamed I would be doing what I’m doing. I’ve faced many challenges along the way as I negotiated the glass maze of prerequisite positions, interviews, qualifications comparisons, time in grade, and other confusing practices typical of high-end technology careers. But I am proud of my accomplishments. If it wasn’t for the encouragement of those close to me growing up, and the help of mentors along the way, none of this would have been possible. I know that many of the women engineers I have worked with throughout my career share my sentiments.
Let’s mark Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day by refocusing our priorities and affording all young women of science the encouragement they need to pursue careers in the technology and engineering fields.
Dr. Jane LeClair tells her story of working in high technology:
Dr. Jane LeClair is the Dean of the school of Business and Technology at Excelsior College in Albany, N.Y., and an advocate for recruiting and retaining more women in the technology fields. LeClair worked in the nuclear industry for Constellation Energy for 20 years in various management positions. She was involved in a variety of professional organizations, including the American Nuclear Society, where she served as chair of the Education and Training Division, and the American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE), where she was region chair of the St. Lawrence Section of ASEE. She has worked with the IAEA and has chaired several international conferences and collaborated on numerous projects. She blogs on higher education, online learning, women in technology, the nuclear industry, and her experiences traveling the globe at Café LeClair.