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Closing the STEM Gap: Empowering Women to Be Equal Partners

As we celebrate the UN’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science, UL’s Della Wolf and Leslie Malaki reflect on their early interests in STEM and getting more girls and women involved in STEM.

Women working at a table

February 11, 2022

While the number of women achieving degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) continues to increase, they remain under-represented in these areas. To help close the gender gap in STEM education and careers, the United Nations (UN) named Feb. 11, 2015, as the first annual International Day of Women and Girls in Science. The UN aims to empower women and girls to be equal participants in science and the other STEM fields.

As a Signatory to the UN Global Compact, UL supports the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 5 — achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls. We believe that fostering a diverse, equitable and inclusive workforce in which women are equal partners helps promote innovative work, create safe workspaces and help the company better serve our diverse customers.

In honor of the 2022 International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we spoke with learning and development project lead Della Wolfe and project engineer Leslie Malaki, both UL’s Women in Leadership Business Resource Group members. They discussed how they got involved in STEM, who helped influence them and how we can help get more girls and women participating in these fields.

When did you realize you were interested in STEM topics?

“What sparked my interest was screen readers. I had initially intended to be an attorney, but I had to finish college online. After surgery to remove a brain tumor, I developed a condition called aphasia and needed to use a screen reader,” said Wolfe, who works in UL’s Enterprise Technology group. “I was intrigued by what they did and the possibilities of what they could do for me and others.”

Wolfe went on to earn her master’s degree in network engineering and security. “It appealed to me in a similar way law did. I felt I could help bring some justice and equality to people,” she said.

Malaki, who works in UL’s Small Appliances team within the Consumer, Medical and Information Technology group, was drawn to anything technical from a young age. “My dad would buy me remote-controlled cars and small tools to help fix them. I liked figuring out how things work. I’d take apart my toys and try to put them back together,” she said with a laugh.

“My dad would have me help fix his cars, changing the oil and tires when I was in high school,” Malaki said. “I joined Project Lead the Way in high school, a program that helps kids learn and develop in-demand skills. It introduced me to engineering. I learned about computer-aided drafting (CAD), robotics and product design.”

What brought you to UL?

Wolfe started at UL in a technical support lead position. Her role now includes information technology (IT) training and communications, training new hires and accessibility in technology training.

Malaki connected with UL after meeting a representative at a career fair. “I gave her my resume and contact information. I ended up with an internship during my third year at college in the materials laboratory at UL,” Malaki said. She connected well with her internship manager, who was impressed with Malaki’s work. She wrote a letter of recommendation, and Malaki started working full-time at UL after graduation.

Who has been your most significant influence in pursuing a STEM education and career?

While working for a large telecommunications company, Wolfe had a director who noticed her technology skills. “She encouraged me to continue my education and become a network engineer. There were not a lot of women in technology at that time, so my director became a mentor to me,” Wolfe said. Wolfe never felt she ran into any extra challenges because she was one of a few women in the field. Instead, she thought of the girls coming up behind her and how she could eventually be a mentor to them.

Malaki was encouraged to follow her passions from childhood. “My dad is also in the field as an engineering technician. My mom encouraged me to study whatever I loved the most,” she said, noting there are a lot of engineers in her family. “My cousin and I are the first women in the family to become engineers.”

How can we encourage more girls and women to pursue STEM studies and careers?

Both women agree that having a mentor is an effective way to get more women into STEM fields. “People need to be the mentor that they wish they would have had. There is a sense of connection with other women in technology because you both understand that there are not many of you. You want to help them, teach them things you didn’t know at their stage,” Wolfe said.

Malaki noted the impact that mentors and coworkers have had on her careers. “Having a mentor, male or female, is very effective in getting more women into STEM. It’s not the only way, but it does help open doors to new opportunities,” Malaki said, sharing that a colleague from her previous role at UL reached out and encouraged her to apply for her current position.

“Women encouraging other women is key to helping us get more women in STEM and taking on leadership roles. Networking can be very effective,” Malaki said.

As is a common refrain when talking about girls staying interested in STEM, Wolfe and Malaki also believe it is important to reach kids at a young age. Wolfe stated that they need more education and resources regarding STEM

 “People need to volunteer in the community to teach girls about the STEM opportunities available to them. This was not available to previous generations,” Wolfe said. She volunteers with Black Girls Code and, as a member of UL’s WiSTEM program (Women in STEM), she will be taking over as the lead for a summer workshop initiative.

“Girls need to know they can play with toy cars and even destroy and fix them. I remind my nieces that they can do anything and encourage them to get involved in STEM activities,” Malaki said, “It is not just women’s job to help get other women to get promoted and pursue STEM careers. It is also the responsibility of men to be sure they provide equal opportunities in job openings and encourage women to take on new roles.”

Have you seen changes regarding women in STEM fields?

Wolfe and Malaki feel their experiences in STEM, both in school and professionally, have been respectful and welcoming overall. However, while not a day-to-day issue, both have experienced situations where they felt the need to “prove” themselves.

“There has been a shift with women in some technology and STEM positions. It’s not where it should be, but it is promising,” Wolfe said. “There is still a sense that you have to be a step above to prove yourself.”

Malaki agreed that sometimes women have to work harder to show that they belong. “You need to be strong-minded. Truly believe that there is value in your thoughts, in your creation. Sometimes people won’t see it, but you have to know that there is value in your thoughts, opinions and work,” she said.

Malaki remembers being one of only a few women in her STEM classes throughout high school and college — sometimes the only one in a class of 20 to 30 students. “It is so frustrating to see the imbalance. We have work to do. Until we see an equal number of men and women in those classes and workforces, we need to keep working on the equilibrium of STEM,” she said.

Similar to the UN’s position on closing the gender gap, Wolfe said, “More women in STEM are necessary because they offer different perspectives. This is what leads to innovation.”

While the UN works toward equality for women in the work force and companies like UL continue their outreach to support these efforts, we will hopefully see more women continue to contribute to STEM advancements. Wolfe remembers to focus on the end goal and stay positive as these efforts continue.

“Life is a blessing. It doesn’t come without problems. Instead of running away from problems and wishing they didn’t exist, become the best problem solver. Be grateful for the lessons that you learned from the problems,” Wolfe said.

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