STEM Woman Leader of the Day- Catherine Didion (NAE)
Submitted by Tommy Cornelis on July 18, 2012
Catherine Didion- Senior Program Officer, National Academy of Engineering (NAE)
Catherine Didion is a Senior Program Officer at the National Academy of Engineering (NAE). Her portfolio includes the Diversity of the Engineering Workforce Program with a charge to provide staff leadership to NAE's efforts to enhance the diversity of the engineering workforce at all levels. In addition, Didion is the Director of the Committee on Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine. This is a standing committee with a mandate to work as a focal point on gender across the three National Academies – National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine.
What traits do senior leaders need to effectively support and advance STEM today?
All effective leaders need to be able to convey their message, its importance, and equally critical why their audience should care about the message – What does it mean to them? How will it impact their lives? If this latter aspect is not articulated in straightforward language and through effective channels including social media, there will be diminishing support for STEM. The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) has a project, Changing the Conversation, the focuses on reshaping public opinion of engineering including the development of an online “toolkit” of resources (www.engineeringmessages.org) that can be used in community building efforts.
What can we do to assure more women leaders in STEM?
We will have more female leaders in STEM when we focus not just on recruiting women into entry level positions but when we have equal emphasis on retention at mid-career and advancing women into leadership roles. Too often we construct career pathways that do not provide “off ramps” or “rest stations” for women (and men) who are talented yet have personal obligations that they are not willing to ignore. This is unfortunate not only for these individuals who may get sidelined but also for society as we need leaders who through their set of experiences, professional and personal, approach problems and their solutions differently.
What is your concept of mentoring and sponsorship of others for STEM careers?
Mentoring and sponsorship are both necessities in successfully climbing any STEM career ladder but are fundamentally very different. Mentoring usually focuses more on providing information and guidance that may not be available in any printed or downloaded format but is needed for the protégée to be successful in their current role. Sponsorship is less about providing knowledge and more about helping the individual you are sponsoring to gain access and endorsement. The best analogy I know to explain the difference is that a mentor shines a flashlight on all the hidden corners in their organization so their protégé does not trip or fall down while a sponsor shines the light on the individual so that they become more visible and valued within the organization.
How is your organization innovating to promote STEM?
The NAE through its web site EngineerGirl! (www.engineergirl.org) is engaging middle school and high school girls in understanding how engineering and other technical fields can provide them the tools to pursue rewarding careers that can make a tremendous difference in their communities. Many of these students opt out of math and science electives without understanding the enormous range of careers that they have discarded through their choice of classes. The web site hosts a gallery of women engineers who share advice through an “Ask An Engineer” column and provide students an opportunity to discover how the stories of these women and their engineering careers echo many of the students’ own dreams and ambitions.