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Why we need more black women in STEM leadership

woman working with technical images

Numbers don’t lie: There’s a disparity in the number of black women in senior positions in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Without a stronger commitment globally to diversity and inclusion in STEM, companies will continue to miss out on — or lose — talent that could bolster their business performance, and ultimately, their bottom lines.

But what should we do about it? How can we close this chronic gap? And is change on the horizon?

We took those questions to a trio of black women at UPS with a wide array of perspectives and experiences, ranging from nearly two years at the company to three decades.

Rhonda Clark, President of Corporate Buildings and Systems Engineering at UPS, started as a supervisor in plant engineering in Knoxville, Tennessee, 30 years ago. Today she leads UPS efforts to expand its Global Smart Logistics Network, spearheading plans to build new package facilities and upgrade buildings with the latest technologies.

Kim Felix, President of Enterprise Technologies at UPS, 20 years ago saw a recruitment advertisement touting jobs in the company’s nascent e-commerce space. Her work in information technology in the years since produced shipping and visibility solutions for customers around the world.

Alexis Harrell, Mechanical Design Engineer at UPS, joined the company in 2018. She supports and builds on the designs of end-of-arm tooling for a robotic research project.

Alexis Harrell, Mechanical Design Engineer at UPS

Check out their thoughts below on the state of the STEM landscape and the importance of promoting minority women. Lastly, they share their message to black girls considering a career in industries plagued by underrepresentation.

Longitudes: How would you describe the STEM landscape today in terms of inclusion? What signs of progress do you see? Where can we most improve?

Clark: The STEM landscape is improving. We have been very deliberate in our desire to increase the number of women and diverse employees in our function, and our numbers reflect the change. 

When we hire diverse candidates, we increase the pool of diverse candidate in two ways. The most obvious is that it increases the number of diverse candidates in the pool for future opportunities. The second way is that it increases the potential for diverse referrals.

People no longer just see differences; they see the benefits of being different. That’s really important in STEM. We need different perspectives to solve the world’s greatest challenges. 

The inclusion piece is still a challenge. We are working on building a bridge toward our millennial group. We must never feel as if this work is complete. We must ensure our diverse candidates feel the support of the leadership team and continue to fill the pipeline with diverse talent.

Harrell: The STEM field is getting better in terms of inclusion — but slowly.

There is a serious lack of minority representation in high management positions, the C-suite level and just below. Best way to improve? Keep promoting women of color!

Felix: I can see progress when I spend time on university campuses, in classrooms and with STEM programs where I volunteer. Our representation has grown, and I see a number of bright, engaging students committed to the field.

When you look at the representation and inclusion in industry, particularly at the leadership levels, that’s where we have real opportunity. There is a lot more talent and potential we can tap into by increasing our diversity and inclusion at all levels.

“People no longer just see differences; they see the benefits of being different. That’s really important in STEM. We need different perspectives to solve the world’s greatest challenges.”

Longitudes: What drew you to your particular line of work? Did you plan to do this, or did plans change along the way?

Felix: I often tell this story when talking with students about a career in the STEM field. My plan in high school was to attend Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service and become a translator at the United Nations. Math, science and technology did not factor into the equation — pun intended!

A combination of a less-than-great campus visit, along with my counselors and parents encouraging me to go into the engineering field, changed my path. 

My parents also guided me to maintain a broad study program, including math and science courses that allowed me to receive sponsorship in an AT&T diversity and inclusion program that provided mentors, internships and on-campus support to complete a dual-degree engineering program.

Clark: I did not plan a career in STEM. In school, I had great grades in science and math. A program at my middle school identified minority students who had the ability to be successful in STEM fields. 

Select students attended a high school prep program for engineering. This program made sure the high school courses supported STEM curriculum in college. The top-performing students received college scholarships. I was one of those students.

“When you look at the representation and inclusion in industry, particularly at the leadership levels, that’s where we have real opportunity.” 

Longitudes: Why is it critically important to recognize and promote black women in STEM? Why is it imperative for black women to be in the field in the first place?

Harrell: Black women provide a unique perspective that companies can utilize to provide better service for customers of color.

We also provide a leadership style that can be crucial to getting things done on increasingly diverse teams.

Clark: Society typically undervalues black women. That is why we are so valuable. 

Our perspective is so uniquely different. We see the world so differently. We understand people and see what’s possible, not what’s easy. That’s our journey. We’re used to obstacles and challenges. We solve problems and develop solutions just to survive.

We are typically humble but tough as nails. We are kind without arrogance. We treat people with respect — without expectation. We can solve the world’s most difficult challenges.

Longitudes: Who are your role models? And why?

Felix: Dr. Etta Falconer, my undergraduate research adviser at Spelman College. She devoted 37 years to research and teaching mathematics, established the Computer Science Department at Spelman, served as Chair of the Math and Sciences Departments at Spelman and was the 10th African American women in the U.S. to receive a PhD (from Emory University).  

She once said, "My entire career has been devoted to increasing the number of African American women in mathematics and mathematics-related careers." 

I’m very fortunate to have been one of those women she devoted her time and attention to guide and encourage in the pursuit of an engineering career. 

And then there’s Dr. Sylvia Bozeman, Chair of the Mathematics Department at Spelman. I spent many hours in her office with other young women at the board doing mathematical proofs. There’s a reality about young girls and young women being willing to “go to the board” and show their work, particularly in math and science classrooms. 

Dr. Bozeman provided a safe environment for young women to build their confidence so they can master math and science and have great careers in the STEM field.

Harrell: My role models are any and all women like myself who entered a STEM field, proved their worth, became successful and did meaningful work in spaces where they are rarely valued and understood.

“Engineering is a field that marries creativity and innovation with math and science for transformative results.”

Longitudes: What are the benefits of being in a STEM-related field at UPS?

Clark: It is a lot of fun. It is a place that you learn something new every day. You get to work with really smart, innovative people. You get to bring creativity to the job every day.

Felix: UPS develops and utilizes some of the most amazing technology solutions. We have to understand business strategy, models and processes, industry trends and market demands, customer needs and service models — essentially every facet of the business — and then determine how best to leverage the evolving technology landscape to support and transform our business for competitive advantage. 

This positions you to confidently move into any area of the business and contribute successfully.

Longitudes: What should companies that want to hire black women in STEM fields do differently? Where should they look? What messages they should convey?

Harrell: Companies that want to hire black women in STEM usually want to hire them for one reason: They feel they don’t have enough. They need to ask themselves why that is before they do anything else.

Is the company environment toxic to black women? Are they recruiting in spaces that don’t attract black women?

Black women, like anyone else, want to work in a workplace that values them and treats them well. Make sure your company is equipped to do that before you hire us because we talk.

Felix: I think when recruiting women of color it’s about being more deliberate in ensuring the candidate pool we create is diverse. 

Diversifying professional organizations is another good avenue to diversify recruitment pipelines. Also, ensure the recruitment teams are diverse and include technologists so students see they will be a part of a diverse team.

Clark: They should start with the women they have and ask about their friends in STEM. Where do they work, and what do they do?

They should affiliate themselves with organizations that support STEM fields. For example, I serve on the board of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering. This organization gives scholarships to disadvantaged minority students in STEM fields. 

You also have to develop relationships with colleges and universities. You can’t solely depend on HR to provide you with talented resources. You must find them for yourself.

“Companies that want to hire black women in STEM usually want to hire them for one reason: They feel they don’t have enough. They need to ask themselves why that is before they do anything else.”

Longitudes: What is your message to black girls considering a STEM focus in school?  

Harrell: Go for it! But be prepared to be unicorns in your academic spaces. Look to those who came before you for advice on navigating homogenous spaces.

Clark: Go for it! You can do it and achieve success. The hidden secret is that it is also a lot of fun.

Felix: Engineering is a field that marries creativity and innovation with math and science for transformative results. So while it does take hard work in school, the end result is creating amazing things with that STEM foundation. 

It’s important they can see that vision and know in their hearts they can do it. I’ve had so many sponsors and supporters in my life and career that provided that inspiration for me, and I want to pass it on to as many young girls as I can.

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Longitudes explores and navigates the trends reshaping the global economy and the way we’ll live in the world of tomorrow: logistics, technology, e-commerce, trade and sustainability. Which path will you take?

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