- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Historically, the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics have drawn most of their employment base from men. Even today, women are still somewhat discouraged from entering the traditionally male-dominated market.
A study conducted by the Economics and Statistics Administration department of the U.S. Department of Commerce in 2011 showed that while women have made huge strides in the job market overall, they still hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs nationwide. In 2009, 6.7 million men held STEM jobs, while 2.5 million women found employment in the fields.
Despite the sizeable gender gap, women in Southern Maryland work every day to show that it is possible to attain STEM success as a woman.
Paving the way for others
Pennie Drinkard always knew that she wanted to work in engineering.
Growing up in Indian Head, Drinkard, the daughter of an engineer, said she and her siblings were exposed to “the tinkering of an engineer,” and so she was never really raised to believe her capabilities only lay in one area, as she feels might be the case for many young women.
“I think a lot of times young girls don’t know that they have the capability because traditionally young girls aren’t socialized or steered in that direction,” Drinkard said. “It’s not that they can’t or don’t want to do it. The opportunities just aren’t presented to them.”
Drinkard also credited her lifelong interest in part to her private education, which she felt never discouraged her from pursuing the field.
“I was very fortunate to have my very first job with a design firm, and so I had that exposure. One of the owners of the company, a woman, encouraged me to go ahead and pursue my engineering degree, so it was very nice for me to have that opportunity.”
Although Drinkard no longer works directly as an engineer, she manages engineering projects at Advanced Vision Systems Inc. in Indian Head. Drinkard was trained in electrical engineering and did intelligence work for the federal government prior to opening AVSI, motivated in part by a desire to have more job security, as she often saw engineers who had been employed for decades laid off while the managers stayed on.
“I’ve always been fortunate to get results from technical teams. It takes a certain skill set and it takes a certain personality, and I think I was blessed with both of those,” Drinkard said of her decision to pursue a master’s in engineering management. Drinkard also credited her success to her passion for engineering, along with dedication to the craft.
Despite not having daughters of her own, Drinkard said she spends a lot of time with her niece, Harmony, and works to help her understand some of the intricacies of the field.
Sheila Zattau, Drinkard’s sister and Harmony’s mother, said Drinkard’s influence on her daughter has been notable. Zattau also works at AVSI.
“She does a lot more for them than she thinks. From a very early age, from when Harmony was about 2, Pennie would be over and she’d have her come over and help her work on the computer,” Zattau said. “I don’t mean just keyboarding; I mean she’d have her helping work on the circuit boards and things like that. If she goes into the field one day, I wouldn’t be surprised.”
Inspired, not intimidated
Laurel Wright, a chemistry analyst at Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant in Lusby, said she always has had a passion for science “to varying degrees.”
While enrolled at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Wright, who is from Calvert County originally and now resides in Hughesville, found she had a passion for lab work but did not want it as a career. Wright also considered the medical field and found a compromise of sorts in earning a master’s in public health from George Washington University.
“It isn’t hard science, but it’s science-related,” Wright said of her degree. There’s more people skills, a good blend of the science and the people.”
Wright, whose father also worked at Calvert Cliffs, manages a specific chemical system at the plant. She observes trends in water chemistry and interacts with scientists in the field who conduct the sampling.
While in school, Wright said, she had a “lot of female role models” who made her confident in her decision to pursue her field.
“I got to see how they managed relationships with men both in the lab and in their personal lives,” Wright said. “I never saw it as a challenge. It’s different in the field than in academia. In the actual work environment, it’s been an adjustment. I think women bring a different attitude and a set of skills, and people appreciate that.”
Despite having adjusted well to her new environment, Wright said there still are challenges to be met.
“By being the minority in terms of numbers, it’s hard,” Wright said. “Looking around, girls might not see a lot of women. That lower number means that they need to look harder.”
Calvert Cliffs public information officer Kory Raftery said 14 percent of the plant’s employees are female, and the organization’s chief nuclear officer is also female. In the recruiting process, Raftery said, Calvert Cliffs seeks to include women to provide a valuable range of perspectives.
To help encourage young women and girls with an interest in science, Wright said she speaks to Girl Scout troops in the area, goes to career days, has helped judge the science fair in St. Mary’s County and belongs to a group for women in the nuclear field.
“I hope I’ve helped influence them,” Wright said. “I’d tell them to not be intimidated by being a girl. People want to help you. Look for those people, not the barriers. You’re different, but that’s OK. Embrace it.”
Success through mentoring
At the MIL Corp. in Lexington Park, two women help to oversee contract projects every day, although they’re not directly involved in the engineering process. Megan Warren of Leonardtown and Brenda Fleming-Warren of Lexington Park both work as project managers.
Fleming-Warren does not work on-site at MIL’s Great Mills Road location as Warren does but travels for work frequently.
Fleming-Warren first began working in the systems engineering side of the business in Virginia before moving to Lexington Park 2½ years ago and beginning work for MIL.
“A lot of the tasking provides program office support to customers, so I was right there to give support to execute projects and work along with them,” Fleming-Warren said. “Most of what I do now is application on the deployment end of the project cycle.”
Given her longevity in the field, Fleming-Warren said she feels she earns respect through experience.
“I think I bring a lot of experience. I’ve been on the business side and the engineering side,” she said. “I know the administrative side, and I’m responsible for the tasking. There’s a lot across the board. I think it means people have a lot of confidence in me, and that’s nice to see. It’s a nice luxury, and I’ve worked hard for it.”
Most of Fleming-Warren’s career was spent as a single mother following a divorce. Although she is now remarried, Fleming-Warren said she never viewed her situation as too big an obstacle.
“I guess I didn’t see it as a negative challenge,” she said. “I was focusing on doing what I needed to do for myself to help provide the life she needed and to grow up in a comfortable home.”
Fleming-Warren has mentored young women starting out in the field and stressed that a degree is the most necessary tool to get ahead, along with a clear goal and vision for the future.
“The consistent thing I’d say is without a degree, you have no record,” Fleming-Warren said. “If the person you’re talking to sees your experience, it could work. My resume speaks of what I can do, and I have people who can attest to that, and I’m grateful. It put me where I am now. The challenge on women is to perform and demonstrate that you’re capable, and then that will speak for itself.”
Warren, who has worked at MIL since 2008, manages engineering projects that she said deal with the design and installation of audiovisual equipment, and serves as a liaison between engineers and clients. Warren said that while knowledge of the engineering involved gives one an edge, it is not necessarily needed.
“Because I’ve stayed focused in this one area, it’s helped me pick things up a little faster,” said Warren, who is in school for a bachelor’s in management development.
When she was first beginning in 2008, Warren said, the pressure she felt to perform in her field was not from her peers but internal.
“I really felt it from myself,” she said. “It was more of ‘OK, I’m new in this field and I want to be really good at it,’ so I focused and put my head down and got the information I needed and tried to pick up as much as possible to really be a good project manager.”
In the day-to-day routine, Warren said, she works on managing multiple projects at a time. Warren said she feels that she succeeds at her job because she is planning-oriented and that she has found a good niche where she is.
“I’m really a meticulous person, and detail-oriented,” Warren said. “Even if it was just something like how to toast a piece of toast, I’d still want to sit there and make, like, a 20-step list because, if it were me, I’d want the full instruction. I feel that helps in the planning and budgeting, and I also use time well. I maximize efficiency with activities going on.”
Warren, like Fleming-Warren, also emphasized the importance of a degree in the field.
Warren said she has never felt like there was any discrimination against her because of her gender but also considers herself gender blind where her professional life is concerned.
“Don’t be intimidated entering a field that’s mostly male-dominated. That’s something I’ve done pretty well,” Warren said. “When I began, I didn’t come in saying, ‘Oh, I’m the only female, I’m really nervous.’ I just came in, got my job done and tried to prove myself. It wasn’t Megan the female, it was ‘Megan’s going to do this. She can handle this.’ Don’t get hung up on that.”