Pursuing Equality For Women In STEM To The End Of The Earth

Jeanette McConnell manages the GE Additive Program for Makers Empire, directing the rollout of Makers Empire 3D software, curriculum, class management tools, resources and professional development to over 600 schools around the world. Jeanette is a passionate STEM educator and her achievements were recently rewarded with a spot in Homeward Bound, a global 12-month leadership initiative for women with a background in STEM. Through Homeward Bound, Jeanette will undergo leadership, strategy, science and visibility training, culminating in a 3-week voyage to Antarctica next year! Congratulations, Jeanette! So today we’re interviewing Jeanette about her STEM journey and the importance of encouraging girls and women in STEM.

1. What originally drew you to STEM, Jeanette?

“I always had too many questions and I was never satisfied with the answers that people would give me – no matter the context. “Why is the table hard and not like putty? Why do I sweat when it’s hot? What’s blood made of? What makes an orange, orange?” As a kid (and as an adult) my brain always throws these kinds of questions at me. When I realized that science allows you to investigate these questions for yourself and then ask even more questions, I was hooked. It’s like being a universe detective. Science allows you to ask any question about the universe and then seek out a possible answer.”

2. What was your experience studying STEM first at school and then at the college level?

“It’s funny because, the only STEM subject I remember studying in elementary school is Math, and I loved it. Maybe we didn’t specifically focus on the other parts of STEM? Then, in high school I took lots of STEM classes, but they were so boring. I hated them. I didn’t not like STEM but I hated the way the classes were set up. There were too many books telling me the ‘facts’ and not enough asking questions. I got in trouble a lot in my science classes. In college I studied chemistry, and here I was finally able to ask questions! Chemistry is amazing because it’s like a massively intricate puzzle where if you put the wrong pieces together it might explode… but find just the right pieces and you can create life saving medicine… it’s incredible! In college most of my colleagues were men, I remember one physical chemistry class were there were just two women. TWO! I’ve always been a feminist and the lack of women was very frustrating for me. So, when I did my PhD I sought out a woman supervisor, who was incredible in her support of other women. Our lab had more women than men and that was so rare. None of the other labs on campus were like this. I was mentored and supported by other women during my PhD and this was so helpful as I worked through the difficult times of my PhD. Their success was a wonderful example for me to follow.”

3. What can you tell us about the shortage of women in STEM? Why does it occur and what can we do to help address this imbalance?

“I could list a bunch of statistics here about how women are underrepresented in STEM careers, but, what really brought this concept home for me was, this: in 2010, my PhD supervisor became the first woman ever to achieve a tenured chemistry professorship at my undergraduate university, San Diego State University. This happened more than 100 years since the university opened and it was only 8 years ago. Women are clearly not equal in positions of science leadership. A similar story plays out in all the STEM fields, both in academia and in industry. The graphic below shows a few statistics. To change this trend, we need to create visible pathways for girls and women to follow into the STEM fields. It tough to envision yourself doing something if there are no examples for you to follow. In my opinion this all comes down to visibility. Women need to be promoted into positions of prestige in the STEM arena so that they are seen as powerful STEM leaders. I actually made this video for Makers Empire to explain how 3D printing can be a great tool to encourage more girls in STEM.” You can watch Jeanette’s video for Makers Empire here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A8hkx86iviI&t=53s

4. So tell us about the Homeward Bound program. What is it and how did you come to be selected for it?

Homeward Bound is a global 12-month leadership initiative for women with a background in STEM. We will undergo leadership, strategy, science and visibility training as a part of the program, culminating in a 3 week voyage to Antarctica. Yes, Antarctica! We will actually be the largest expedition of women ever to go to Antarctica. A major focus of the program’s science training is about climate change and discovering how we can take massive action to save our planet. Antarctica, which is dramatically impacted by the effect of climate change, makes a great backdrop for this discussion. But it’s not just happening this year. Homeward Bound’s larger vision is a 10 year plan to connect 1000 women with a STEM background to create a powerful global collaboration of women. I am a part of the 4th cohort, #HB4. I was selected from a pool of global applicants, and in the words of Homeward Bounds founder, Fabian Dattner, “the aim of Homeward Bound has always been to identify and foster outstanding leadership potential in STEM and Jeanette is exactly the kind of person I had in mind when I dreamt of this program.”

5. What are you most excited about?

“I’m most excited about sharing this experience with students. Yes, I am excited to go to Antarctica, but this experience has real meaning for me when I think of all the students I can inspire by sharing this adventure with them. I love connecting with student and letting then understand that I once sat where they are sitting. So they can do this, too. They can study STEM. They can chose a passion and go after it. I will document my journey and then share this experience with as many schools as possible. I want to be a visible example of what girls in STEM can accomplish and show students that they can do awesome stuff!”

6. Why are programs like this important?

“Women are notorious for underselling themselves. Women tend not to ask for promotions or leadership positions and so programs like this, which are dedicated to empowering women are so important to achieving equality in STEM leadership. Research shows that when in positions of leadership, women show great integrity and a legacy mindset – always thinking of the future big picture. However, they are vastly underrepresented in leadership, especially in STEM. At this precarious time, surrounded by a changing climate and an uncertain future, we must place more women into positions of leadership. Homeward Bound is one program set on making that a reality. And by advancing more women into STEM leadership now, we ensure that girls and young women have examples and mentors to look up to, so they can advance into these STEM leadership positions in the future.”

7. What do you hope to achieve by being part of this program?

“My big vision for this program is to use it as a way to empower diversity in STEM. As a member of the LGBTQ community, I am aware of the intersectionality of oppressions and am passionate about bring more diversity to STEM leadership. This means empowering women and minorities to find success in the STEM fields. I hope to accomplish this using my passion for education. My initial goal is to share what I learn and the adventure I have on this year long journey with as many students as possible. I am excited to bring this story to them and hopefully inspire students who were hesitant to pursue STEM. I also hope, that as I learn and grow throughout the Homeward Bound program, I will discover new ways to promote diversity and new initiatives to help me achieve my larger vision.”

8. How can people support your participation in this program?

“There are few ways that I would love to have your support. First, please help spread the word about this program and about my participation in the program. You can share this link. Second, you can help me in my fundraising efforts. Each woman in the program has to raise the required funds for the leadership program. The link above is also my fundraising page. And finally, if you think your school would be interested in connecting with me and hearing about this incredible adventure (the largest ever all women expedition to Antarctica!). I would love to hear from you and see how we can collaborate. Please email me.”  


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