According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women make up nearly half of the U.S. workforce but remain vastly underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. The good news is women have made significant gains, from 8 percent of STEM workers in 1970 to 27 percent in 2019, and Clemson University has teamed with General Electric (GE) to hold an event designed to keep that needle moving in the right direction.
The sold-out inaugural Women’s Roundtable Summit on November 3 at the Greenville Convention Center gathered 350 young women from around the Upstate, ages ranging from middle school to college, to connect and hear first-hand stories from accomplished women who know what it takes to reach for greatness. Three nationally renowned women who have risen to the very top of their fields headlined the bill: Soledad O’Brien, host of the nationally syndicated “Matter of Fact” weekly newsmagazine; Vanessa Wyche, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center; and Native American poet Tanaya Winder.
Founding Dean of Clemson’s College of Science Cynthia Young didn’t mince words during her opening remarks, raising her fist and declaring “Women dominate the sciences!” to rousing applause.
“As a woman leader in STEM, I look out at you and all I can say is, ‘Our future is bright!’” said Young. “Why is it so important for us to have more women pursuing STEM degrees? Because diversity makes us smarter. I see it all the time in our research groups – we come up with more innovative solutions when our teammates have different lenses on the problem.”
Clemson alumnus Amy Wallace ’03, account manager and campus recruiting leader for GE Gas Power, explained that a vital goal of the event is to bring young women into the STEM workforce pipeline earlier. She said the roundtable approach at the event mirrors several successful diversity programs at GE that create dedicated spaces for underrepresented populations to mentor, coach and get feedback from each other.
“For nearly 30 years, GE has embraced those networks and they have created immense value for our employees and our company,” said Wallace. “We wanted to take that model and bring it earlier into the workforce pipeline and so that’s why we’re here today.”
O’Brien, whose PowHERful Foundation aims to “get young women to, and through, college,” agreed that getting girls interested into STEM at a young age will be vital to closing the gender gap in STEM fields. That, and maybe a little public relations work.
“I do think there’s a bit of a PR thing that needs to be done. There are a lot of really fabulous, interesting, smart women in science,” said O’Brien. “I think for a long time we’ve thought of the sciences as, ‘Come over here and put on your lab coat now,’ [but] when women scientists come to talk to our young people it’s been amazing because they come dressed to kill. They could literally roll out of our panel into a club. Part of what they’re trying to say is, ‘Whatever you think a scientist is, you’re wrong!’”
The convention center rippled with positive energy and excited exchanges throughout the day as the young women were given VIP treatment fitting for people destined for great success. Participants enjoyed a catered lunch after O’Brien’s and Wyche’s speeches, then were separated into small groups to have roundtable conversations with students, professors and staff members from Clemson as well as corporate and non-profit professionals from the local community who volunteered their time.
The discussions revolved around academic, career and personal achievement. Some of the volunteers incorporated activities at their stations, like Clemson student Amber Oakley, a junior studying mechanical engineering, who used paper airplanes to demonstrate the fun in physics.
Chloe Bayle, a junior at Southside High School in Greenville, reflected on her experience after one of the roundtables.
“I’m glad I decided to come,” she said. “I’ve always really liked sciences and math, but I’m not exactly sure which direction I want to take. It’s motivating to hear from so many accomplished women about what they’ve gone through to get where they are. It helps me imagine myself having a job and starting to do things with my life and what I want to be passionate about. I would recommend this to my friends. I hope we get to do this again.”
Perhaps there was no better example of what’s possible for the young attendees than seeing Vanessa Wyche speak. Like so many young women in the audience, Wyche grew up in a small South Carolina town, Conway. She was a wiz at math from a very young age, and her parents encouraged her to follow her passion for science and numbers despite there being very few women in STEM fields in the 1980s.
Wyche’s determination and passion took her into the stratosphere, quite literally: From Clemson, where she earned a Bachelor of Science in materials engineering and a Master of Science in bioengineering, all the way to the top of the aerospace industry as the director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
“How did I get to NASA? How did I get to this job?” Wyche asked the crowd rhetorically. “I was a little girl who grew up in Conway, South Carolina, who is a major player in the world of space today, leading 10,000 people.”
Echoing a message Young relayed in her speech, Wyche said one of her secrets to success was not letting setbacks defeat her but rather using them as opportunities to learn and get better – or “failing forward,” as Young put it.
“All of us fail sometimes. It’s about getting back up,” Wyche told them.
Wyche said she consistently challenged herself to apply for higher and higher positions throughout her more than three-decade career at NASA.
“Take risks. You will not succeed unless you do,” she said. “I applied for positions to move up the ladder at NASA and I didn’t always get them. I would take a step back and make sure I was better prepared next time. It is hard to hear no. But you’re not going to always hear yes.”
The determination of women across the STEM fields has steadily made a significant impact. When Wyche started at the Johnson Space Center, she said, about 15 percent of its employees were female. Now it’s 50 percent.
“I applaud Clemson University for having so many women coming out with these degrees, because that will help us close the gap. Things have changed for the better, and the opportunities are there.”
Rushawnda Olden, director of the South Carolina 4H Pinckney Leadership Program, served as chaperone to the event for eight middle- and high-school girls who gathered between two “Women’s Roundtable” signs to take selfies and group photos at the end of the day, laughing and talking excitedly as they captured the moment.
Olden said some of the words that rang out from her group during the day were “self-confidence,” “possibilities” and “empowered.”
“One student mentioned that she’d never been in a room filled with just women before,” said Olden. “This day has shown these girls that their possibilities are endless. I’m just grateful that Clemson did this.”