Karen Purcell: The Sandberg of STEM

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Karen Purcell says when she’s at work, not only do her clients automatically look for a male in need of an answer even if they are fresh out of school, but, “[gets] called ‘honey’ and ‘dear’ a lot, too.”  For the President of company PK Electrical,  an award-winning electrical design, engineering, and consulting firm based in Reno, she stands up to sexism in her STEM field of work with a groundbreaking book and launching her non-profit company, STEMspire.

Karen Purcell majored in electrical engineering in college, and now represents the mere 1 out of 7 women engineers in the US.  In an interview with FORTUNE, she highlights the importance of women in STEM fields due to the necessity of female-inspired design.   She gives the example of the airbag – originally designed to fit the standard male body, women and children with smaller body frames were at risk.  Purcell urges women to join STEM jobs for the high-paying nature of it, too.  As of 2011, aerospace female engineers earned on average $83,000 according to an AAUW report.  Even though a wage gap exists between male and female engineers, the gap is smaller for STEM professions compared to non-STEM jobs – a male aerospace engineer earns $100,000.

Similar to Sheryl Sandberg, who urges women to lean-in to achieve success and equality in the workplace, Purcell argues that women need to speak up.  She learned she couldn’t be afraid to jump into a conversation, even though that wasn’t her personality.  Furthermore, she argues women need to set clear goals for themselves and exude confidence in their work center.  She delves deeper into what a woman needs to do in STEM jobs in her book, Unlocking Your Brilliance: Smart Strategies for Women to Thrive in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.

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(Photo Credit: Lauri Kulpsoo via Creative Commons License)

Purcell hopes that her book will become obsolete in 10 years.  Why?  The US Department of Commerce projects a 17% growth in STEM jobs by 2018.  How?  Purcell believes the increase in the number of programs targeted to intrigue girls to science and math will help achieve this goal.  Purcell recommends programs that include a high-tech camp ran by Microsoft and The Society of Women Engineers (SWE) Aspire program.  She also stresses the significance of mentorships, some offered by the Association of Women in Science and the National Center for Women in Information Technology.

With these kinds of programs, Purcell believes “in a few years we’ll see more young women choosing STEM careers — and succeeding brilliantly at them.”

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