When I sat down with Natalie Babij to talk about the challenges faced by women working in STEM fields—an acronym that represents the academic and professional disciplines within science, technology, engineering, and mathematics— she told me that she might not be the best person to weigh in on the matter. Babij, who has spent the past year and a half working as a Technical Support Specialist at RNRG, said, “I’ve always been a technically-oriented person. I never felt weird pursuing math and engineering—I thought, 'This is what I’m good at. This is what I like doing.' I didn’t think of it in terms of me being a girl doing these things.”
Over the course of her 8-year career in renewable energy, Babij has worked for two women-owned companies—the first of which had a workforce that was over 50% female. “That was my first exposure to a technical company in the wind industry,” she said. “Then I would go to conferences and see that was not the norm.” At RNRG, where women account for about 26% of employees, including those working in mechanical engineering, software engineering, IT, and production, Babij’s gender has always felt like a non-issue. “The Tech Services department offers a supportive environment for everyone. There’s this general sense of giving people confidence and independence, but you know help is there if you need it. I think that’s beneficial for anyone in the workplace, not just women.”
Babij’s experience suggests that the STEM landscape is changing. For example, the number of women studying and working in certain fields—namely engineering and computer and mathematical sciences—has always been lower than other STEM disciplines. But in 2016, Dartmouth College made history by graduating a majority-female engineering class. Holly Wilkinson, Assistant Dean of Academic and Student Affairs at Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering, attributes part of this success to the environment at Thayer, which is akin to what Babij described at RNRG. Wilkinson said, “It’s a very welcoming environment for students, including those who might not have been exposed to certain materials, devices, and machines before. Everyone is on an equal playing field. I’ve been told by women in exit interviews that at Thayer, you’re valued for your work and what you can do, not your gender.”
Meanwhile, at the University of Vermont, Maggie Eppstein, Chair of the school’s Department of Computer Science, hopes to attract more female students by dispelling mischaracterizations of the field. “For Computer Science, there’s this vision of a fat, white male stuck in his cubicle,” said Eppstein. “But this is not the majority of what goes on. Computer Science is a creative, team-oriented field that has a huge impact on the world. I try to explain why this field is well-suited for women, while illustrating its breadth. Computing intersects with many areas and plays a huge role in everything from healthcare to the environment.” The University of Vermont has been named one of the top 50 Colleges Advancing Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, thanks to its high level of female enrollment and the annual volume of female STEM graduates.
But making it to graduation day is just part of the journey. Once they enter the workforce, retention rates for women in STEM fields are shockingly low. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration, 50% of women in STEM drop out in the first 10 years. This phenomenon has raised questions about what workplaces can do to hold onto their female scientists, engineers, and developers. Eppstein said, “Just addressing these issues and making sure that women are supported is a huge step.” Wilkinson added, “I think it’s best for women to have mentors—people they can see themselves being like in five, ten, twenty years. If you don’t have people in those higher up positions, that’s difficult to do.”
RNRG, which has a number of women on its Executive Team, works hard to retain its female workforce by creating a warm and welcoming environment. According to Anna Grady, Vice President of Human Resources at RNRG, “We provide open dialogue on these types of issues—we want to engage in the conversation and work together to find solutions rather than sitting back and complaining that there is a problem. We are working with universities across the state to build partnerships for recruitment and project work. We participate in the Change the Story group, which is a business exchange that is talking very directly about how to address issues of inequity and imbalance. It is part of our company strategic plan.”
While RNRG’s efforts are admirable, Grady believes there is still work to be done. “We have a great workplace and a very progressive, team-focused work environment, but I am on a mission to do better,” she said. “26% is not good enough and I want to push for greater representation, not only from women, but also representation from an international pool. We are a global company doing business in 160 countries—our workforce should reflect the customer base whom we serve. Additionally, having diverse perspectives around the table promotes the best decision making and the highest profitability.”
Meanwhile, Babij has a much more overarching goal. “I want to get to a point where we don’t need to have discussions about this, where it's just normal for women to be doing the same jobs as men and for everyone to treat each other equally.”
For more information about how RNRG is helping to redefine the workplace, click here.