Move over Silicon Valley, Triangle wants your STEM women

Nan Jokerst still remembers the sign on the bathroom door when she arrived at Georgia Tech’s electrical engineering department to interview for a faculty role.

The door read, simply, “Faculty.” It was 1988, and there was no need to get any more specific than that – the faculty consisted entirely of men. In a sign of changing times, the department hired Jokerst as their first female faculty member.

In the decades since, Jokerst, who today serves as J.A. Jones Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Duke, has helped pave the way for women to advance in science, technology, engineering, and math, also known as the STEM fields.

Still, despite the rising number of women studying STEM subjects in graduate school, a recent study found that, on average, nearly three-quarters of STEM faculty at American universities are men. Even more concerning, the study found that male faculty members don’t necessarily believe research that shows systemic biases against women in STEM.

With much work left to do, Jokerst is part of a group of about 60 prominent female business, education, government, and nonprofit leaders in the Triangle seeking to accelerate the success of women in traditional STEM fields and also in closely related ones, including healthcare, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, economics and finance. They gathered on Tuesday for an inaugural meeting of the Triangle Women in STEM initiative that was convened by IBM and Duke and hosted by Fidelity. It was supported by an IBM Impact Grant that provided consultants to facilitate the workshop. Representatives from Meredith College, N.C. State, N.C. Central, UNC and Wake Technical Community College were among those there.

The group’s ambitious vision calls not only for making the Triangle a top destination for women in STEM but also a national model for recruiting, developing and retaining talented women in the field. Sally Kornbluth, who began her career as a cell biologist and now serves as Duke’s first female provost, is also a key player in the Triangle initiative.

She recalls being fortunate to have mentors – male and female alike – who supported her career growth. “My experience in that regard should be the norm,” Kornbluth says. She’s well aware that it’s not.

The recent “Elephant in the Valley” study surveyed more than 200 women with at least 10 years of experience in Silicon Valley. Eighty-four percent reported being told that they were too aggressive, 66 percent felt shut out from important networking opportunities because of their gender, and 60 percent reported unwanted sexual advances.

“There’s a lot of opportunity to position the Triangle as a place that seeks and respects women and wants to partner with women who want to work in these fields,” Jokerst says. “We want their talent here.”

While the Triangle STEM initiative’s plans are still being developed, organizers say there will be a focus on landing some short-term wins and building out a longer-term strategy. Short-term actions include promoting the Triangle to female job recruits nationally and internationally, forming welcoming groups and mentoring programs, and placing women on local boards. Longer-range plans are likely to include outreach to K-12 programs throughout the region to nurture girls’ interest in STEM fields at young ages.

Opportunities for forming professional and personal relationships are particularly crucial for recruiting and retaining women in STEM. Recently, Jokerst recalls, she and her husband were both out of town when their daughter became ill at a summer camp. Jokerst reached out to her network of friends – and within 20 minutes a half-dozen had responded that they could pick up her daughter and keep her until she returned to the Triangle. “This community is one of the key reasons that my friends and I stay in this area,” says Jokerst, who came to Duke in 2003.

The idea for the Triangle STEM initiative started with a conversation between IBM Senior State Executive Fran O’ Sullivan and women leaders at Duke. Organizers hope it will inspire similar efforts throughout the state, bolstering North Carolina’s overall reputation for women in the field. Charlotte, for example, has a growing number of STEM-based learning opportunities for K-12 students that will help build the talent pipeline here.

“Our goal is to create an ecosystem in the Triangle that is known globally as the premiere destination for all women in STEM,” says O’Sullivan, who began her career as an electrical engineer. “The Triangle is where women will come to lead, knowing they can have a fun and fulfilling life in STEM and can change the world, too.”

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives. Stephen Martin is deputy chief of staff at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro. They can be reached at and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.