Getting San Diego Women Into Engineering
September 20, 2012 12:59 p.m.
Peggy Johnson, Executive VP and President of Global Market Development, Qualcomm
Nancy Taylor, Director of Science, San Diego County Office of Education
Related Story: Qualcomm Event Aims To Get San Diego Women Into Engineering
CAVANAUGH: There was a time not that long ago that you usually didn't find women taking upper-level science courses. Women students in advanced physics or applied technology were few and far between. And to tell you the truth, women are still underrepresented in the so-called STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math. San Diego-based Qualcomm is holding its 6th annual Women in Science and Engineering tonight. It will discuss more ways to get women and girls interested in science. My guests, Peggy Johnson is executive vice president of global marketing at Qualcomm. And disclosure note, Qualcomm is an underwriter of KPBS.
JOHNSON: Thank you Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: And Nancy Taylor is here, director of science at the San Diego science office of education, and president of the San Diego science alliance program.
TAYLOR: Great to be here.
CAVANAUGH: Let me start by asking you to assess the status of women in the field of science and technology. Are the numbers growing?
JOHNSON: Slightly. I had a great data point. I went back to my Alma mater to give a talk to the graduating class, and I thought it'll be great to talk about how much they've grown since I graduated. And the percentage had not grown dramatically, just a few percentage of women. So we're still not doing a great job of funneling women into the engineering field in particular they was involved with.
CAVANAUGH: Now, of the fields that I mentioned, the stem fields, since, technology, engineering, and math, which are -- what of these fields are women more likely to enter?
JOHNSON: Well, I would say possibly -- because I had some sisters involved in math who then went on to become teachers, possibly the life sciences. There tends to be more women. But in the engineering field itself, very few women. And in my field, electrical engineering, there were just of a handful of us in my graduating class.
CAVANAUGH: Nancy, you're involved in science education. Are girls -- are you finding girls more eager than before getting involved in science?
TAYLOR: When opportunities are presented, we're finding that girls are quite responsive to programs that offer them opportunities to explore their interests in science and technology, engineering, and math. When we began a program, the science alliance in the county office, 12 years ago, called better education for women in science and engineering, it was actually kind of a hunch 12 years ago that we included engineering in the title. But importantly because we had some women on our committee who were civil engineers or in the defense industry. And we had this premonition, and some good data, to support our efforts in supporting engineering for experiences of girls in secondary schools.
CAVANAUGH: What would you say the things that hold back girls? You would assume natural curiosity, about different aspects of science and math?
TAYLOR: There's actually a lot of research on this that says this gender stereotypes are really preventing girls from self-expression. And we can overcome some of those stereotypes at the time of puberty. There's a lot of social pressure, immediate social pressure from within that own generation for expectations for how girls should behave and excel in math or science courses.
CAVANAUGH: It's still not considered feminine for girls to be scientists, Peggy?
JOHNSON: You know, to some degree. When I was growing up, I loved math and sciences. And not once had my grade school or high school did anybody point me in the direction of engineering. In fact, I started San Diego state as a business major. So I feel like those -- the encouragement wasn't there, and it just wasn't on my radar at all. And the reason I became an engineer is I was -- I had a job on campus, and I was delivering mail to the engineering department, and the ladies thought I was there to sign up for engineering.
[ LAUGHTER ]
JOHNSON: And they worked on me and convinced me in that one conversation. They asked me about math and sciences, and I said I loved it, and they said well, why don't you switch to engineering? And so I did!
CAVANAUGH: Nancy, how did you gravitate to the sciences?
TAYLOR: Through children, actually, and the curiosity of children in elementary and middle school classrooms. I have known that the opportunities that we can have to connect today's youth with today's talent in the STEM workforce place has inspired me to continue to foster relationships so that we can complete this pipeline. We're getting kids excited in middle school and high school, the affinity group like the QIs program.
CAVANAUGH: We'll talk about that in just a minute.
TAYLOR: Which really models the way that we as women need to collaborate. Come together and support each other's interests, both academically and socially to succeed as women in the workplace, and managers of our homes as well.
CAVANAUGH: Peggy, you host a very prestigious position with Qualcomm. You're executive vice president of global marketing. After you graduated with your engineering degree, what was your experience in getting started in the field of technology? Was that also another hurdle that you had to overcome because you were a woman?
JOHNSON: You know, I had a great experience. The jobs were there, even today there's still great demand. And when I started at Qualcomm 23 years ago in the engineering field, there were just a handful of other women there but it was a great group, and Qualcomm has been supportive and helpful along the way. At some point, I switched to the business side because I liked explaining the technology in front of the customer. I was passionate about that side of the business, being in front of the customer. And now I'm working -- it's actually global narcotic development, so it's commercializing new business business at Qualcomm. So I'm still very close to the engineering side of the house, and the technical side. But it's been a wonderful career. I haven't had any obstacles along the way. We just would like to see more women coming in at the bottom rung, coming in that way.
CAVANAUGH: Tell us about the event tonight. This is a celebration of women in science and technology. What's the goal of this QYs event?
JOHNSON: Well, QYs was started about six years ago with just a handful of women who came together to share personal and Qualcomm initiatives, and to have sort of a sounding board with each other, and it's grown to 650 women. And tonight, we're celebrating that as well as the confluence of three things. Shri Blair is speaking at our campus, and she's been a tireless promote or for women around the world. And a project we're doing with her with our wireless reach group, it's kind of an E-mentoring thing. Women in Malaysia are able to get support from businesses all over the world, many from Qualcomm. So it was started as an internal support group, but they also do a lot of outreach into the community. And it's had a wonderful impact with our technical women in Qualcomm.
CAVANAUGH: Entrepreneurs are a big part of this event. How much of a science background does someone need to start a technology business?
JOHNSON: Well, it's interesting. Very little. One of the projects that we're doing with wireless reach is in Djakarta, in Indonesia, and basically it's a microfinancing program, and we loan the local women some money, she buys a phone and a package of information, and the business is selling airtime to people where you top up your prepaid phone accounts. So people come to the woman, and she takes the cash and puts in the number of minutes that you've asked for, and she gets a percentage profit off that, and the customer doesn't have to go find a store to buy a prepaid phone card. And they can buy it in different chunks of minutes. So it's been a wonderful business, slightly technical, and here it was so simple and easy to do. And it's really helped a lot of women cross that barrier, the barrier of $2.50 a day, which is the poverty level for women in that area, and they have been able to raise out of that level and provide for their families.
CAVANAUGH: How important is it for young women to see grown-up women in these kinds of professions and be mentored by women who are already established in science?
TAYLOR: Absolutely essential to have these young women talk with others like Peggy and scientists and engineers from San Diego's greatest scientific institutions, J. Craig Venter, at the birch aquarium, at Scripps where they can see women in the workplace who are thriving on the science that they're learning about as well so girls come to know that this is good work, it's hard work, and there are also other women excelling in this field. It helps them see the potential for themselves am the mentoring aspect is also absolutely important. We have girls that begin in the program in grade 7, and we follow them with lots of opportunities to sustain that interest through their high school years, provide for them an opportunity to come back and join us. And today we have several young women in our college alumni group who are working in local industries and giving back as mentors, volunteering their time to help spur the next generation of innovators, of women in STEM. So those kinds of things they're telling us that the mentoring and the one to one contact with women and mentors in the field is really essential.
CAVANAUGH: Now, tonight you have something going on called speed mentoring.
JOHNSON: Myself and other two executives will be hosting a group of about 15 women that will come into the room with us, and they can ask us questions. There will be a panel -- one person there sort of acting as emcee, and it'll be a free-flow exchange of information, questions about balancing family and work life, how do you take that next step up? Other areas of interest that they might want to pursue, and how did you work your way up in the company? And after about 15 or 20 minute, a bell ring, and they'll go off to the next one! So they'll get three different perspectives. And we're fully booked. It's going to be a lot of fun and I think a great opportunity for the mentors as well as the mentees.
CAVANAUGH: I'm going to ask you to look at the broader aspect of science, biotech, engineering companies in San Diego. And even in this region. How well do you think local biotech companies and engineering companies recruit and train women?
JOHNSON: Well, it's interesting. I think there are very good efforts going on. There's quite a bit of outreach. At Qualcomm, we did quite a bit. What Nancy just said is very important where you talk about touching the girls at a much younger age to get them convinced about this as a potential career. By the time they're in high school, many times those cultural biases have already started to work them away from the field, and if we can talk to them in grade school and get them convinced there that this is an exciting path to pursue, I think we'll have much greater success, the funnel will open much wider. And Sally Ride had a grade program where she started in the 4th grade with girls. And I think it's just imperative that we catch them at the right moment and keep them interested along the way.
CAVANAUGH: We talked that a lot on this program when Sally Ride passed away just a little while ago. In preparing women for the workplace, according to the government women employed in science and technology earn 1/3 more than women in other professions. Is that a factor that you emphasize anywhere along the way in getting girls excited to go into these fields?
TAYLOR: It's information that we put out there, and the girls certainly see that there is a difference when we drive into a parking lot at Qualcomm and they make comments about the kinds of cars that are in the parking lot, as opposed to maybe the school parking lot or the market. And so I think they catch on very quickly that the opportunities to do something unique with their talent and earn a viable lifestyle with it is out there for them to think about. They're also hearing stories about women who make some choices to go into a field of research that may not be as lucrative. Just for the pure sense of the science. So I think it's a really nice balance for girls to take a view for what the opportunities are in front of them.
CAVANAUGH: Between balancing a passion, a growing passion for science, and also seeing it as a principal move for the rest of their lives.
TAYLOR: Absolutely. They see -- many young women are inspired by their science teachers in the classroom. And then their teachers will tell a story of who inspired them. And that kind of passion just continues to get passed around.