Unlocking Your Brilliance: Smart Strategies for Women to Thrive in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math

Unlocking Your Brilliance: Smart Strategies for Women to Thrive in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math

by Karen Purcell


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 Even though Karen Purcell excelled in math and science in high school, nobody ever talked to her about a career in the STEM fields. Finally, in her senior year, when she was frantically trying to decide on a college and course of study, her physics teacher commented that she should consider engineering. Lack of exposure was the first hurdle that Karen would face on her path to success as an engineer and entrepreneur, but it certainly wouldn’t be the last.

Tackling an important social issue from a personal perspective, Karen describes the trajectory of her own career in engineering, including the struggles she endured. Through her story and stories from women in other fields, she explores the hurdles women in the male-dominated STEM world must overcome and offers pragmatic strategies for moving beyond them. From gaining exposure to occupations early in life to earning the respect of male colleagues to balancing a personal life with career pressures, Karen will empower you to realize your full talents.

Part inspiration, part strategic career advice, Unlocking Your Brilliance can help you pursue your passions and leverage your talents to create the professional and personal life you want. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781608323760
Publisher: Greenleaf Book Group, LLC
Publication date: 08/01/2012
Pages: 170
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

 Karen Purcell, P.E., is a dynamic engineer, entrepreneur, and author focused on helping women create meaningful futures in the STEM fields. As the founder and president of PK Electrical, she draws on her experience to inspire young women to enter the STEM fields with confidence. Her nonprofit organization, STEMspire, was founded to support that mission. She is actively involved in the Reno Tahoe Entrepreneurs’ Organization and has held numerous officer positions. She also won a 2012 Reno Gazette-Journal Entrepreneur of the Year Award. 

Karen is an avid marathon runner, Girl Scout troop leader, and volunteer with Big Brothers, Big Sisters. She lives in Reno, Nevada, with her husband and two daughters.

Read an Excerpt

Unlocking Your BRILLIANCE


Greenleaf Book Group Press

Copyright © 2012 Karen D. Purcell, P.E.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-60832-376-0

Chapter One


I lived a typical childhood in a typical town—Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I liked spectator sports, competing in field hockey, spending time with my friends, playing the clarinet in the marching band as well as concert band, and being with my family. I spent four to eight weeks of my summer every year from the ages of nine to sixteen away at summer camp where we would swim, play various sports, hike, and do a variety of art projects. As a family, we would spend a week of summer vacation in Wildwood, New Jersey, at the beach.

My parents stressed the importance of education, which suited me just fine because I enjoyed school. As far back as I can remember, I was interested in a variety of subjects, but math held my attention more than any of the others. In high school, I think that I helped the majority of the boys in my geometry, trigonometry, and calculus classes get through and pass. They would come over to my house so I could explain the math problems and help them with (or actually do) their homework. Through elementary school and middle school, this didn't separate me from other girls much, but as I began my high school career, excelling in math and science began to seem less girlie.

High school is such a challenging time. You are almost an adult, but not quite. You are trying to figure out what you want to be when you grow up and what classes are appropriate to take. And then you have the peer and societal pressures. Are you part of the right clique? You don't really want to be different than anyone else, yet you want to stand out to some extent. I remember high school as a fun time. I was fortunate to have a good group of girlfriends as well as boyfriends (friends that just happened to be boys). I learned time management at an early age. I split my time between my activities, my friends, and my studies. Math was very important to me, so I did not let anyone else's negative or positive comments change any of my actions or decisions. Looking back, I think a lot of girls were actually jealous of my math abilities and, because of that aptitude, my interaction with lots of boys.

Another important aspect of my life then was that I ended up meeting my first husband when I was a junior in high school. We actually met in a grocery store where some of my high school friends worked. He went to a different high school. Our relationship continued on through high school and added to the complexities of life at that time.

As high school progressed, the need to choose a career path loomed. Since I didn't want to scribble out equations in front of bored students for the rest of my life, the math route appeared to be a dead end. And while I loved playing field hockey, I was pretty certain that I couldn't make a living at it. So, like most high school students exploring what to do with their lives after graduation, I turned to teachers, peers, counselors, and my parents to discuss options. Various options were raised, including becoming a teacher or an accountant, but nothing really clicked with me or caused me to say, "Yes! That's what I want to do with my life."

My mother was a nurse at the local hospital. She is twenty-six years older than I am, and in her day, women predominantly pursued one of two career paths: nursing or teaching. Even though my mother's choices were narrow, she found fulfillment in becoming a nurse and was exceptional at it. In a different time, I have no doubt she could have completed med school and become a doctor. To this day people in her community call her for medical advice before they pay a visit to a physician. With that kind of medical talent in my immediate family, I'm not sure how I got stuck with the deathly-afraid-of-needles gene. Even as an adult, and mother of two, I still get queasy when I think about a meeting between any needle and my arm. For this reason alone, I knew the medical professions were not for me. Plus, it was the kind of traditional path I didn't find appealing.

My father was an entrepreneur who started a variety of small businesses and worked at making them successes. His influence would shine through later in my professional life, but majoring in "entrepreneur" wasn't a path of study at the time, so I didn't even consider it.

My parents encouraged my younger brother and me to be whatever we wanted to be in life. Still, no matter how free we were to dream and pick our own way, I still believed that college was my only option after high school. It did not seem so much an option as a requirement.

As I began the countdown to graduation day, counselors and teachers began asking me what my plans were for the future. Where did I want to continue my schooling? What did I want to be? Was I sticking around Harrisburg? I was disappointed that my guidance counselors and school administrators were not suggesting anything related to math or science. I thought at the time that my only option was to study math to become a math teacher. Not that there is anything wrong with becoming a teacher, but there I was, stuck with a decision similar to my mother's: Do I want to be a teacher or a nurse? Back in my high school years the Internet did not exist, so researching career options was very time-consuming and confusing. There didn't seem to be a lot of obvious choices. My high school physics teacher, a man, finally made a suggestion instead of posing another string of endless questions. He told me that, based on my aptitude in math and science, I should consider engineering, a career dominated—then and now—by males. I asked him what engineers do and his answer boiled down to "lots of things." I was so relieved that someone in an authoritative position, who was teaching a subject I liked and was good at, gave me that recommendation. I will never forget that teacher and will be eternally grateful to him. I guess, in hindsight, that was the point at which my life got complicated.


Gender stereotypes have always helped steer men and women toward separate paths. These stereotypes are ingrained into the minds of our youth by way of media, family life, education, and society. And these societal pressures have been a consistent focus of seemingly endless research. For instance, sociologist Alice Baumgartner-Papageorgiou surveyed two thousand eight- to seventeen-year-olds in 1982 to find out what career paths they would follow if they awoke the next morning as the opposite sex. Her study uncovered some amazing but not extremely surprising results.

The young girls frequently replied that they would be construction workers, athletes, pilots, and engineers. Had I been questioned as part of the survey, I would already have been inclined to want to be an engineer too. The girls said that, if male, they would likely be rich and enjoy more freedom while having less responsibility. They also remarked that they would show off more frequently, be more macho, not express their inner feelings, act calm and collected, and be more valued by their parents. Obviously the young females felt that they did not have the same opportunities that their male counterparts did.

The boys followed suit by submitting comments that further trapped females inside stereotypical roles. The young males surveyed frequently replied that they would be secretaries, airline stewardesses, teachers, or prostitutes. Boys also thought that they would get paid less and be expected to become homemakers. Baumgartner-Papageorgiou conducted the same study ten years later and collected similar results (Baumgartner-Papageorgiou, 1982, 1992).

Studies such as this highlight an interesting question: Would young women choose to follow a different career path for the rest of their lives if they were encouraged by society to make the decision based on their interests and skills?

As I just shared, over the course of my entire high school career, only one teacher recognized the aptitude I showed in math and science and looked beyond the fact that I was female to suggest that I follow a career path in one of the STEM fields. Although that was years and years ago, things have improved only so much today. And it gets to the underlying reason why there aren't more women in the STEM fields. Young girls cannot possibly consider opportunities they do not know exist. If girls are not exposed to certain career paths, particularly STEM careers, prior to or during high school, they are highly unlikely to elect to follow them in college.

Stephen Hegedus, PhD, is the founding director of the Kaput Center for Research and Innovation in STEM Education at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. He argues that girls are not as comfortable as boys are when deciding to pursue their strengths in science and math because girls "have not been educated or mentored to follow STEM career pathways as much as boys" (Lade, 2011). The American Association of University Women and the National Science Foundation have published a host of statistics that back up this claim: Approximately 66 percent of young children indicate they like science, but once they enter middle school, girls and boys differ in their attitudes about and interests in science. And even though girls take as many science classes in high school as boys do, many of them don't continue their studies as undergraduates (Dyer, 2004; National Science Foundation, 2007).

Lack of early exposure can be detrimental to achieving gender balance in STEM fields because such degrees typically require students to get on the right path prior to freshman year. The studies are intensive and usually begin in the very first semester of college. Young adults are inquisitive and may end up in STEM fields for a variety of reasons, but early exposure to these fields would result in more informed and more precise decisions when selecting a college or university and a particular course of study. More than that, it would help young women understand that their gender shouldn't determine the career path they choose and that pursuing a STEM career doesn't make them any less feminine.

For example, it is possible to be a successful career woman and still have a family. In 2010, China actually required that its female astronauts also be mothers. In the United States, one female high achiever in a STEM field is Lisa P. Jackson. She was appointed by President Barack Obama as the current head of the Environmental Protection Agency. This amazing woman earned a masters degree in chemical engineering and is the proud mother of two (Wikipedia, 2012).

When I talked to other female engineers in my area as I was writing this book, I found out that they felt the same about poor STEM exposure prior to or during high school. One young woman told me she always dreamed of being an astronaut and believed an engineering degree was a reasonable place to start, which it can be. However, once she settled into mechanical engineering she found an area she was very interested in and now happily works for a private firm in Reno that provides plumbing and mechanical (heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning, or HVAC) system design for commercial projects such as hospitals, schools, and airports.

A coworker of mine is now one of the top designers of electrical systems in Nevada after selecting (and quickly deselecting) biology in college. Another friend of mine believed throughout childhood and high school that she wanted to be an architect. She planned on pursuing a career in architecture until a friend of hers with some engineering knowledge mentioned that her interests aligned more with engineering. After taking a break from schooling to decide what she really wanted to do, my friend decided her true passion was civil engineering. Today she not only works for a well-respected civil engineering firm, she also visits high schools through a program with the American Society of Civil Engineers to speak about the field and the opportunities that can be found within it.

Had these women been exposed to their chosen fields earlier on in their lives, they would have been better armed to select a path that matched their true interests. They all ended up finding their calling eventually and are now very happy. But how many other women failed to stumble upon the career path that could have been their true calling because they were not exposed to STEM fields? This is a loss both to those individuals and to the professions.

Having grown up in the 1960s, Pamela Brown, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at the New York City College of Technology and a chemical engineer, was inspired by the international space race, which led to her enrollment in a two-week summer course on astronomy at the University of California, Los Angeles. Only seven years old at the time, Pamela became "completely hooked" on pursuing a STEM career. "By the time I got to high school, I was one of the few females in honors math. I had a particularly chauvinistic math teacher in ninth grade, and, rather than tolerate his attitude, I asked to be transferred to a different, more supportive instructor."

Even at the young age of fourteen, Pamela says, "I felt I was entitled to a supportive learning environment." But the request for a class transfer was met with some resistance. "Initially," she recalls, "the guidance counselor said no to the change in teacher, so my mother went over his head to the principal and arranged for the change. She argued that I was a good student, and if I thought I needed the change, then she supported me. He agreed. I continued to love math and excel in the subject."

"Trust your instincts when you feel that you are not in a good learning environment," Pamela advises, "and try to do something about it. I could have given up, decided to become a troublemaker, or tolerated the negativity. Instead, I arranged for another teacher."

Science and technology are and will continue to be important factors in what we are able to accomplish in our lifetimes. As long as young boys and girls are exposed to science and technology and equally encouraged to study those disciplines, those with talent and a genuine interest in those fields will be able to develop that interest. Concerning technology, for instance, there are documented differences in girls' and boys' preferences. Boys, in general, tend to enjoy exploring technology simply for technology's sake. They like playing games on or tinkering with computers just for the fun involved. Girls, on the other hand, want to know what the technology can do and use it as a means to accomplish certain purposes. For example, girls use technology to find information or to maintain social relationships (Farmer, 2009). These inherent differences are a positive thing. By having both mind-sets working to advance technology and the fields that use it, we better our overall chances of accomplishing amazing feats.

As a country, we stand to gain a lot by exposing young girls to STEM fields and encouraging those who are interested to follow their hearts and minds.

Simply focusing attention on one age group cannot cure all societal issues that influence career choices among females. Correcting the negative perceptions that girls develop at a young age can, however, lead them to not avoid math and science when they reach high school. Administrators and educators must strive to create environments in high school and college math and science programs that are inviting to females to help prevent the likelihood of their choosing a different direction.

Luckily for me, my perceptive high school physics teacher suggested that engineering could be the right fit for me. Nevertheless, my lack of exposure to engineering in high school continued to have an adverse impact as I selected my major, earned my engineering degree, and pursued my career after graduation. It seemed that my professors and advisors at every turn assumed I was already knowledgeable about the different areas of the discipline—boy, were they wrong! I didn't even know how much I didn't know, and I also didn't know what questions to ask to elicit the information I needed. Needless to say, I was uncertain, confused, and frustrated.

Even though I found my way to an engineering degree and career, I would have dealt with less uncertainty had I experienced greater exposure to the subject before or during high school. My lack of knowledge blurred my decision-making abilities until my career was well under way.

If I had struggled with my studies or had any other hesitations, this added uncertainty could have tipped the scales. I might never have completed my degree or have moved into the career I now love so much. Consequently, in conjunction with writing this book, I am also launching STEMspire, a nonprofit focused on encouraging girls and young women to explore and remain in STEM fields. A portion of the proceeds of book sales will go toward offering scholarships for their studies within any of the four STEM disciplines.


Excerpted from Unlocking Your BRILLIANCE by KAREN D. PURCELL Copyright © 2012 by Karen D. Purcell, P.E.. Excerpted by permission of Greenleaf Book Group Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


PREFACE....................VII INTRODUCTION....................1
CHAPTER 1 Start Early, Keep with it....................9
CHAPTER 2 Thrive in the Company of Men....................29
CHAPTER 3 Find the Right Career Path....................45
CHAPTER 4 Do the Work Well and Respect Will Follow....................63
CHAPTER 5 Move On Up—and Love It....................79
CHAPTER 6 Hold Your Head High....................97
CHAPTER 7 Believe in Having It All....................111
CHAPTER 8 Looking Forward....................133
ABOUT THE AUTHOR....................147


 Reno, NV

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