Although STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) is all the buzz in education now, the concept of encouraging students to take an interest in STEM disciplines has been around since the 1990s. Nearly two decades later, STEM is still of vital importance, especially for women. However, when I decided on engineering, STEM wasn’t a consideration in schools. And having grown up in a blue-collar world as I did, pursuing a career in what we call a STEM-related field was never part of the conversation. I don’t remember such advice coming from school counselors, teachers, or my family. Even if it had, I had no inkling of what engineering entailed.
At Washington State University, where I received a B.S. in Electrical Engineering with an emphasis in power systems, I was most fortunate to be taught by three industry icons: Dr. Cliff Mosher, Dr. Dick Baker, and Dr. Al Flechsig. Brilliant and enthusiastic educators, they made power engineering seem not only attractive but somewhere I truly could make a difference. They encouraged me, excited and inspired me, despite my being a woman, and in spite of the challenges they must have known I would face once I advanced in the field.
In school and after, gender and stereotypes were two obvious factors. Noting the gender gap was easy considering the number of women in my engineering courses and then in industry, but the stereotyping surprised me. I learned early on that I didn’t fit the mold of “engineer” but I didn’t let it bother me, convinced instead that continuing to learn and perform would make my future. Luckily for me, I found a place where that proved to be true.
In 1996 I began my career at Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories (SEL) as an application engineer. SEL designs, manufactures, and supports a complete line of products and services, ranging from generator and transmission protection to distribution automation and control systems to ensure safe, reliable, and economical delivery of electric power, worldwide. Here I have gained a breadth of experience that includes the R&D management of distribution engineering for relays and controls, time and communications products, and LAN products. I led technical marketing functions, and have served as regional sales and service director for the U.S. West region. Working in an environment where success has no gender, being a female engineer has made no difference. At SEL I am emboldened to search out for innovative challenges and stretch for solutions. Because of this atmosphere, I have encouraged other women to join our numbers.
As a volunteer and advocate of STEM, workforce pipeline development, mentoring youth, and a well-educated workforce, I am absolutely passionate about education and training. I serve as Director of SEL University (SELU) and SEL’s Modern Solution Power Systems Conference (MSPSC), where leading women and men in industry and science can express their ideas to audiences of their peers and learn from them.
In SELU, we train technicians and electrical engineers on topics that include fundamentals and theory, testing and applications of products and systems for power system protection, control, automation, metering, communications, and security of electric utility and industrial power systems worldwide. It is exciting to know we’ve taught over 30,000 industry professionals in 70 countries—many of them women!
How do I strengthen my chosen career field? Mentor, engage, and serve as an example. I do that by my active involvement at the national and regional levels of the IEEE PES Scholarship Plus Initiative™ with the purpose of increasing the supply of well-qualified, entry-level engineers to the power and energy industry. Also by providing mentorship and career assistance for applicants wanting internships and full-time positions. And I volunteer on the Board of Directors for the Lewis Clark Valley Boys & Girls Clubs, serving over 4,000 area youth, subtly encouraging STEM while helping those who need us most, and benefitting the community, the children, and, coincidentally, ourselves. I initiated a local chapter of Women in Engineering (WiE), a group that fosters collaboration, creates dialogue around everyday topics and challenges, and provides mentorship and support among fellow women engineers.
While the number of Women in Power is still small, women are making strides in all areas of science, technology, engineering and math. As we gain entrance to previously male-dominated disciplines, we need to continue mentoring, encouraging, and fostering the reality that women, as well as men, contribute to the innovation that keeps our businesses thriving and our reputation sterling for cutting edge research and development around the world.
My common advice to other female engineers is that we aren’t entitled to anything just because of our gender. We have to work just as hard as our male counterparts to grow and advance. I am a proud Power Woman and I am helping others become the same.
Jackie M. Peer is Director of SEL University and Director of SEL’s Modern Solutions Power Systems Conference (MSPSC). MSPSC is unique, as it addresses a broad scope of timely and relevant topics, such as energy sources, quality, reliability, safety, cybersecurity, maintenance, regulation, economics, and more. It features thought-provoking, interactive sessions with reputable speakers and attendees who bring varying backgrounds and viewpoints to critical discussion and through knowledge sharing. Jackie is also a senior member of the Society of Women Engineers, a member of IEEE and IEEE Women in Engineering (WiE), IEEE Women in Power (WiP), and the American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE). In 2014 she was honored as a recipient of The Manufacturing Institute’s Women in Manufacturing STEP (Science, Technology, Engineering and Production) Award which recognizes women in those four disciplines who have made significant achievements in manufacturing–an award for which she feels very gratified!
Read more on why Jackie abandoned her concerns about stereotypes in her LinkedIn article “The Changing Typecast of a Power Engineer.”