Friday, February 12, 2016

Women, Energy, and Careers:

Some Interesting Perspectives

I had occasion last week to serve as a member of a very interesting panel on women and careers in energy.  Although the fields represented by the panelists ranged from biomass to nuclear to solar energy, I was surprised at the common experiences we shared and thought some of these experiences might be of interest to others as well.

The panel was organized by the Council of Women in Energy and Environmental Leadership (CWEEL) of the Association of Energy Engineers (AEE) and was held on February 5 on the Arlington, Virginia campus of George Mason University.  The panel was part of a day-long event that also featured a Showcase of Energy and Sustainability Educational and Research programs at GMU.

Despite the fact that it was a cold day, with snow flurries on and off, the meeting got a good attendance, and there seemed to be a lot of interest in the topic.  Although the panel was all women, the audience included a lot of men, and it included both students and people who were already working.

I was a little surprised that, for the most part, the discussion really didn't particularly emphasize issues relating only to women.  Rather, the focus was on general issues, like how you get that critical first job, and what the career opportunities are in each of the fields we represented.

I think this focus reflects the fact that things have changed a lot over the years.  I have seen that change personally since I embarked on my own career.  I recounted to the audience how my entering undergraduate class at MIT was only 5% women, yet recent entering classes at MIT are approaching 50-50.  I was also the only woman in the whole nuclear engineering department at MIT the entire time I was there (although I was not the first woman to have been a student in that department).  In a way, the proof that there has been significant change is that the audience found the historical facts from my own experience somewhat astonishing.

Outside the panel, some of us did trade "war stories"--things people said to us years ago that they would never say today.  And hopefully, that they no longer think today.  Although we still see some glass ceilings and other barriers, we were all confident that the women entering the workforce today will have much more opportunity than women did even a few years ago.

What I found particularly fascinating is that the panelists seemed to have some overlapping experiences.  I always like to recount how I once saw an article about a woman who had sat down early in her career and written a detailed plan for what she was going to do and when.  By contrast, I note that I have held jobs in organizations that I didn't know existed when I first began my professional career.  Had I outlined a detailed plan and tried to follow it, I would certainly be in a very different place today.  (And, I happen to think, a place that would not have been as good a fit for my interests and capabilities.)  Therefore, when the first panelist spoke of how an event she attended in college turned her career path towards an she hadn't even known about before, I followed up by pointing out that I had similar experiences, although at a different stage of my career.  We also seemed to have similar messages for the audience in terms of the breadth of career opportunities in each of our fields.

In the end, the panel offered a mix of advice to the audience.  There were a number of specific suggestions, such as about the value of participating in professional society activities and about how to approach people for help in identifying and getting jobs.  There was also some general guidance, such as that people need to be flexible in their careers in order to be able to take advantage of opportunities as they arise.

I guess that's good advice for both careers and for other aspects of life.


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