4 Things I Learned from My Mother Working in STEM
When my mother earned her degree in electrical engineering in 1994, less than 1 in 6 engineering degrees were earned by women. The odds were far lower for a single black woman with a two-year-old daughter, but with support from her family and university administrators, my mother completed her degree in just four years and began a 20-year career in computing.
Today, the numbers are still low: Women make up just 26 percent of computing and 12 percent of engineering jobs. That’s why this fall, AAUW brought together 16 companies from a range of industries to discuss the ways in which corporate America can recruit, retain, and advance women in these fields. Women with a variety of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) backgrounds attended to offer solutions for changing the face of the computing and engineering workforce. I got to sit with a group of these women as they discussed the many challenges they faced in the fields, and one issue that came up time and again was motherhood.
They had anxiety about how many hours they worked, how the demands of their jobs affected their children, and how having children affected their work. These are the kinds of issues that can drive women out of the STEM workforce, so I wanted to share my story. I watched curiosity spread across their faces as I interjected, “I understand; my mom is an engineer.”
Seizing the opportunity to hear directly from the child of an engineer, they asked, now that I am an adult, what I thought about her as a mother and a working woman and how my experiences changed my perceptions of demanding STEM careers. Though I cannot speak on behalf of every child, I believe that these four key lessons from my relationship with my mother may help give solace to all working mothers, especially those in demanding STEM careers.
- I learned the importance of communication.
When she worked from home, my mother would talk through problems aloud as I watched. Though I knew nothing of C++, SQL, or any other programming language that would help me contribute to the conversation, I enjoyed learning about her work. She also spoke openly and honestly about the importance of the sacrifices she had made for me, and she never promised something she couldn’t deliver.
- I enjoyed the process of learning.
As an instructor at the University of Akron’s pre-engineering program for Akron Public Schools students, my mother insisted that I attend classes with her. I often complained, but I appreciated seeing my mom’s creative ways to make math and science fun and applicable to students from diverse backgrounds. Though I was sharing her time with other people, I was able to see my mother in her element, teaching things she was passionate about.
- I never let my race or gender limit my career aspirations.
I never viewed STEM careers as “men’s jobs.” Because of my mother, I felt free to choose whether or not a STEM career was right for me based on my own interests, not others’ presuppositions. Only now do I understand the privilege of that freedom — if not for other people’s surprise that my mother was an engineer, I would have thought a black woman working in engineering and computing was typical.
- I appreciated her when she was around, and learned to be independent when she couldn’t be.
Now that I am pursuing my own career, I am beginning to fathom the difficulty of working a 90-hour week and still getting home to spend time with my loved ones. Admittedly, I sometimes felt jealous of how present my friends’ hardworking stay-at-home moms were in their lives. However, in retrospect, I learned to take responsibility for myself and my needs because my mom wasn’t always available to help me with a last-minute project. Now, I hold the time she did make for me even more preciously.
Unfortunately, women of color are still vastly underrepresented in STEM, with black women holding only about one percent of engineering degrees. STEM fields need women now more than ever, and women deserve workplaces where their success does not come at the expense of their relationships with their children. My own mother worked tirelessly and inspired me daily — not to mention, she was a fabulous AP calculus tutor.
This post was written by AAUW Social Media and Media Relations Intern Seaira Christian-Daniels.
Shaneen Harris spent nearly 20 years in information technology. But then she left the field entirely. Among the reasons? Gender bias and a hostile workplace environment.
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It was one thing to be a minority in her engineering courses, but being an African American woman in the technology field took on new meaning when it came time for Stephanie to support her family.