Author advises women on ‘transforming your STEM career through leadership’

In a new book, engineering professor Pamela McCauley Bush shares her strategies to succeed in a male-dominated field

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Pamela McCauley Bush, PhD

Dr. Pamela McCauley Bush recalls the time she visited a major university to give a speech for academics in the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and medicine. While sitting in on meetings beforehand, she observed something that caused her to pause.

"When I looked at these amazing, brilliant women, I saw so much insecurity; I saw women who weren't getting the opportunities they were fully capable of," she said. "They didn't have the assertiveness or the confidence they should have had. … I saw so much potential, and I saw so much of it going unrealized."

After returning home, Dr. Bush started on her most recent book – Transforming Your STEM Career Through Leadership and Innovation: Inspiration and Strategies for Women – which was just published by Elsevier.

"I want to see more women empowered," she said. "It's unfortunate to me that in 2013, we still have so many of the same issues that have plagued women in their careers for years.  As happy as I am about (CEO) Ginny Rometty at IBM and (CEO) Ursula Burns at Xerox, there are still a lot of women that are dealing with issues, and they are struggling. They are not realizing their potential.

"As a group, women in STEM … are not leading at the levels, or achieving at the levels, or innovating at the levels we really should be," she said. "My greatest desire is that this book can be a form of motivation and inspiration for those women."

Why are women outnumbered?

Women comprise just 14 percent of the STEM workforce in the United States, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.  And the number is even lower when considering the higher-level positions, Dr. Bush points out.She has certainly managed to achieve success in her career. She was the first African American woman to earn an engineering PhD in her home state of Oklahoma. Now, she is a tenured Professor in the Department of Industrial Engineering and Management Systems at the University of Central Florida, where she leads the Human Factors in Disaster Management Research Team. She is the author of over 80 technical papers, book chapters and conference proceedings.

Recently, she departed for New Zealand, where she is pursuing her research as a Fulbright Scholar.

Dr. Bush said women often have to overcome obstacles to achieve at the levels of men. She mentioned the lack of role models for young female scientists, along with factors she claims contribute to the low percentage in the workforce.

In her book, she cites the 2005 Catalyst Study: "Women 'Take Care,' Men 'Take Charge': Stereotyping of US Business Leaders Exposed," which indicates some ways that women are still at a disadvantage in the workplace.

She writes:

Young women of today, especially those in college, are ready to fight for their dues and are ready to demand recognition for themselves and their achievements. However, after a few years of joining the workforce, the pressures of marriage and family, coupled with the perception that a career leads to the disintegration of family, begin to set in. Although the propaganda states that devoting one's life solely to the family is noble, rewarding, and feminine in nature, it tends to demotivate some women from pursuing their ambitions and also places innumerable barriers in their path to success outside the family.

This book is designed to be used by individuals, organizations or as part of the academic curriculum. 'With self-assessments and exercises for career planning, it's ideal for an interactive classroom setting,' Dr. Bush said. She suggests that individuals pair up with an 'accountability partner' or use it in a reading group: 'It really is about accountability and taking action and ownership of your career, while looking ahead at your career as a leader."

In some instances, she said, women have to act in a way that may make them unpopular. "For example, aggressiveness is thought of as a great trait for men, but often times, women show aggressiveness, they can be perceived more negatively. And let's be real, you've got to have some degree of aggressiveness to lead.

"The moral of this story is, you may be perceived negatively by some, but you can't back off of being aggressive. Now perhaps be mindful of how you do it, knowing that this may lead to negative perceptions about you … but having said that, you still have got to eagerly and aggressively pursue the things that you are responsible for as a leader."

An early lesson

Dr. Bush learned this lesson early in her career. She recalls the time she was a young engineer at a technology company charged with doing an ergonomic assessment of the production facility. During the overnight "graveyard" shift, she noticed that a heating element had a broken bolt, causing it to swing precariously over the lap of the woman who was using it.

"She was so nervous," Dr. Bush recalled. "She had on three smocks and had things on her lap in case it fell,because her supervisor told her she had to do the job. I told her, 'This is unsafe behavior, and you are to stop immediately.'"

Dr. Bush finished her evaluation and went home.

The next morning, she panicked when the company's vice president demanded to know who shut down the assembly line

"Well fortunately, even at 24 years old,  the sense quickly came back in," she said. "So I straightened my back up. I was trembling inside, but I went to my boss and explained why I did what I did, why it was the right thing to do – and by the way, because of what I did, we don't have anyone in the hospital whose lap has been burned."

In the end, she earned his praise for a job well done.

Dr. Bush still finds herself nervous at times, though each challenge strengthens her for the next one.

"The fear may never go away, but it can diminish," she said. "You keep going, you keep doing it, you keep moving forward. Often we think because we're afraid of things, we can't accomplish them. Well, that's far from the truth -- it just means you have to push yourself a little harder.

"That's another message I try to drive home to women: you're the expert, you're in your zone. Own it and the confidence that goes with it."

In her talks, she sometimes quotes the lyrics of the popular R&B singer Mary J. Blige: "'It's OK to show yourself some love' – you're fabulous."


Six steps to becoming an effective leader

In Transforming Your STEM Career Through Leadership and Innovation, Dr. Bush gives the following tips:

1. See yourself as a leader.

Recognize the potential in yourself. There is so much you can do. The problem is that you probably never sat down to seriously think about your strengths in relation to issues you feel strongly about. Do it now. You will be surprised at how much you can contribute. Later in this book, we will examine how you can define your strengths. However, you can make a start now by keeping just one thing in mind – don't be modest, be honest!

2. Make a commitment.Dr. Bush's book is part of Elsevier's collection of professional development books and eBooks for scientists and researchers.

It is not easy being a leader and it can be very demanding - your life is probably already very full and to make this step toward leading is a definite commitment. You may feel that you can't afford to get involved. If you feel strongly enough about something, you will be able to find a way to rearrange your life a little, so that you do not have to give up on other things that are important to you. Sure, it means extra effort, but you will find the personal rewards you derive worthwhile. Being a leader is never going to be easy. Success requires that you juggle different roles and manage time well. Don't let it put you off. The struggle is worth it and the fruit at the top of the tree is always the sweetest.

3. Choose the issue you want to get involved in.

Find an area where your unique contribution will make a real difference. It may be as small a matter as getting the street around your home repaired, or getting extra streetlights in your neighborhood, but your contribution here is of great importance. You see, the issue itself is not necessarily the important part; what is important is your commitment to it. Don't compromise on the level of commitment. If you compromise on your involvement, you compromise your chances of success. Make a list of these issues that matter to you.

4. Understand that leadership is a learning process.

Be willing to take time to know about leadership. Read, observe, and take  note of the leaders around you, especially in the areas that matter to you. The best way to learn is to observe. Find a female leader championing a cause you care about and support her. When you shadow someone, you come to understand the finer nuances of leadership.

5. Understand what it means to be an innovator.

Understand what innovation involves, as well as the type of environments where your innovative skills will be nurtured. This should also include taking time to develop strategies that focus on innovative approaches or innovation development as a method to refocus your career. Additionally, you will learn how to evaluate the merit of your ideas from an innovation perspective, as well as gaining an appreciation for the relationship you will need to be a successful innovator.

6. Believe you can be an innovator and leader.

You can do it, but you have to stand up for yourself! Recognition of your efforts and for your achievements is a tool that will empower you as a leader. You have a right to demand recognition for what you have achieved. It benefits both you and your cause and also our collective cause of seeing women advance in all walks of life. Recognition gives you the respect of others and endorses you with the authority to take more responsibility.

A woman ready to play hardball has her motives and sexuality questioned at every step. Young women of today, especially those in college, are ready to fight for their dues and are ready to demand recognition for themselves and their achievements. However, after a few years of joining the workforce, the pressures of marriage and family, coupled with the perception that a career leads to the disintegration of family, begin to set in. Although the propaganda states that devoting one's life solely to the family is noble, rewarding, and feminine in nature, it tends to demotivate some women from pursuing their ambitions. It also places innumerable barriers in their path to success outside the family.

Ayn Rand created the phrase "the virtue of selfishness." Her bestselling novel, The Fountainhead , defined and popularized greatness as being true to one's own abilities, intellect, and ambitions. Don't stop halfway down the road – follow your passion through to the end.

Alison Bert, DMA

Elsevier Connect Contributor

Alison Bert (@AlisonBert) is Editor-in-Chief of Elsevier Connect. She joined Elsevier five years ago from the world of journalism, where she was a business reporter and blogger for The Journal News, a Gannett daily newspaper in New York. In the previous century, she was a classical guitarist on the music faculty of Syracuse University. She holds a doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, was a Fulbright scholar in Spain and performed in the 1986 master class of Andres Segovia.

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1 Archived Comment

Ylann Schemm, Elsevier March 8, 2013 at 3:17 pm

It's clear that this book is also highly transferable across disciplines. We were able to give copies to our Elsevier Foundation women scientists from the developing world, which was great. But now I see this as a must-read even for the non scientists among us. Thank you Dr. Bush!

Dr. Pamela McCauley Bush March 8, 2013 at 6:19 pm

Ylann, Thank you for your positive comments. Today, many women, often in developing nations, are not able to capitalize on the things most of us take for granted. With this awareness I am even more committed to pursuing innovation and encouraging women to lead. Congratulations to women around the world on this International Women’s Day! Let us celebrate as we lead, innovate, inspire others, and make a difference for each other and the global society.

Dr. Pamela McCauley Bush

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