Today's lesson for successful women in STEM: Pass it on
An administrator in the School of Engineering Technologies drew upon her vastly varied background this week – from two patents for co-inventions in biomedicine to teaching to dressing department-store manikins – to envision a STEM workforce as diverse as her resume.
"We're 51% of the population, but there were only three women out of 45 in my college graduating class," said Kathleen D. Chesmel, assistant dean for materials science and engineering technologies. "There are so many talented women who aren't considering this. It's better now, but it's not yet a lot better."
Chesmel spoke at the Office of Student Engagement's third and final "Women's Wednesday" program, a forum for Penn College women – particularly those in traditionally male-dominated fields – to meet, socialize and encourage one another.
Sporting buttons denoting "Woman of Science" and “Women belong in the kitchen lab,” Chesmel knows from experience that science (which she terms "the ultimate in creativity") isn't exclusively sterile, discompassionate and impersonal.
"There's the 'Big Bang Theory' stereotype of the nerdy guy with a pocket protector, right?" she said. "Young woman don't feel that there's any caring or empathy to science, which couldn't be more untrue. It's a very impactful field; it's just that they don't have that picture of a functional scientist as a role model."
Chesmel brought an informal, conversational style to her interaction with a mid-morning Bush Campus Center Lounge gathering, showing a particular interest in what attracted the students to their chosen career paths ... the hands-on empowerment they feel at Penn College ... and any challenges thay've endured along the way.
"I'm not a 'man-basher' by any means – I have a husband and two sons – but biases exist, even when men don't realize or acknowledge them," she said. A man can be lauded for being "assertive and a go-getter," she noted, while a woman exhibiting those exact traits is called "arrogant and aggressive."
Young women in the School of Engineering Technologies get a firsthand look at representation – not unlike the familiar slogan, "If you can see her, you can be her" – thanks to Chesmel and two other female assistant deans: Stacey C. Hampton, assistant dean of industrial and computer technologies, and Ellyn A. Lester, assistant dean of construction and architectural technologies.
"We're all very different, but with very comparable abilities," she said. "We didn't get our jobs because we're women, though. We got our jobs because, 'This is my experience and these are my skills and this is why you should listen to me.' Our gender is irrelevant."
Irrelevant, but not insignificant, as Chesmel offered examples – such as the refinement of automobile air bags – of the importance of diversity and inclusion on project teams. For years, she explained, manufacturers and designers failed to account for the physiology of women and children in crash tests, faulty research that risked injury or death to anyone who wasn't an adult male.
Just as Chesmel finds STEM "fascinating and underappreciated," her very job was one that she almost overlooked.
"Don't turn down an opportunity because it wasn't something that you planned on," she told students, relating how she saw the posting for her current position three times before she applied. "It may be the best opportunity for you."
And now that she's here, coming out of retirement to make a difference, she's clearly Penn College Proud.
"I would love for everyone to know about us, to know that we are the place," she said, enlisting students to talk about their success with people back home. "I challenge you to let them know; I challenge you to be that voice. Be confident enough to share your experience.
"Be the light for other people to see."