When Suzanne Bergmeister was young, her parents said she could be anything she wanted.
So she became an engineer.
When she graduated from Rutgers’ University College of Engineering in 1984 “less than 20 percent” of women were pursuing a career in engineering, she said.
The percentage of women actually working in engineering in the 1980s was just about 5 percent, according to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.
To Bergmeister’s dismay, she said, the current number of women pursuing careers or working in engineering is not much higher.
In Louisville, progress is being made to attract women not only to jobs in engineering, but also in science, technology and math, also known as STEM fields.
Louisville ranks fourth among 16 peer cities in the number of women employed in STEM related fields, according to data provided by the Greater Louisville Project. Nearly 37 percent of Louisville women work in STEM fields, but Bergmeister said it still isn’t enough.
She said young women don’t get the encouragement they need to pursue rigorous jobs like those found in STEM fields. Instead, they are encouraged to obtain work in fields that allow flexibility, such as teaching and nursing—jobs that allow them to stay at home with children.
“I don’t know where these girls are getting their advice from,” she said.
Rider Rodriguez, deputy director of KentuckianaWorks, said a “mass awakening” is happening in regards to women working in STEM jobs.
“This is not something that should be exclusive to males,” he said. “Anybody with an interest and desire or an interest and ability should be actively encouraged to pursue these jobs.”
Bergmeister said to successfully attract young women to STEM related fields, educators and parents alike must start early.
And that is the idea behind programs like UofL’s Digital Media Academy, which is tailored for young women.
Mary Sheridan is an English professor at UofL and is spearheading the program that works to spark young women’s interest in STEM related fields. She said women are “significantly underrepresented in future job opportunities” and the Digital Media Academy looks to change that.
“We want girls to imagine if they were to create something, what would they create, so they can be consumers of their own messages and not of what others create for them,” she said.
The program takes 20 students, all of the young women, and provides them with state-of-the-art equipment to help them incorporate technology into telling their story of what they want to be and what career they want to pursue.
Bergmeister said the Digital Media Academy and programs like it are “incredibly important and valuable” to creating a next generation of producers.
“I think we need more stuff like that,” she said.
Women in STEM-related jobs can earn as much as 33 percent more than those in other fields, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Nationally, women make up less than 25 percent of STEM jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. About 14 percent of women work in engineering related jobs, according to 2012 report published by the Congressional Joint Economic Commission.
‘There Is Power in Numbers’
For Bergmeister, she pursued engineering because she wanted to be sure she could get a job when she graduated. She said young women aren’t the only group who should be focused on pursuing jobs in STEM fields, young men should also be looking to become educated in these fields.
“There is power in numbers,” she said.
The unemployment rate in Louisville is significantly lower for STEM related jobs (4.9) than non-STEM jobs (8.6), according to a report by the Greater Louisville Project.
And STEM employment makes up just over 19 percent of the total job share in Louisville, according to a separate study by the Brookings Institute.
To Bergmeister, STEM jobs are more than just making money and punching time cards.
“If you’re good at math or science and you want to do something that is going to change the world, this is what you need to do,” she said.