Trailblazing a Path for Women in STEM Careers
Jill Tietjen is a fireball of energy and excitement. She has an unceasing passion to talk to anyone about engineering and why she feels that more young women need to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and math, fields known collectively as STEM careers.
“I want to make sure that every young woman knows that if she has the skills and the aptitudes, she should consider engineering as a career. I want somebody to mention it to her,” Tietjen, a client of Northwestern Mutual, says. Maybe that’s because Tietjen’s own path to becoming a woman in STEM wasn’t as smooth as she would have liked.
Figuring It Out on Her Own
In 1969 a court order forced The University of Virginia to open its doors to female undergraduates. Tietjen enrolled in the third class of women a few years later in 1972. “My father was a PhD engineer who spent his entire career at what today is called NASA, and my mother was college educated as well. We were always told we were going to college,” laughs Tietjen.
“But I didn’t start in engineering, where I belonged. I started as a math major! Nobody, not even my father, said I should consider engineering as a career,” Tietjen explains. She fell in love with the field during her first semester at college. She called home to tell her parents she’d transferred, “and my mother said no,” she recalls. But her father was ecstatic.
Since there weren’t many women at her university, Tietjen says it took her until she’d joined the professional world as an electrical engineer to realize there weren’t other women in STEM jobs and, specifically for her, engineering. She joined The Society of Women Engineers, and that’s when her love of engineering ignited a passion for helping other women learn about opportunities in STEM jobs. She adds, “I was annoyed that no one had ever said anything to me about engineering as an option. I want to make sure every young woman today is provided with that knowledge. Somebody should mention it to her.”
Today, Tietjen has more than 40 years of expertise under her belt working or acting as a consultant for electric utilities. In 2001 she began her own firm called Technically Speaking, Inc., where she continues to act as a consultant for electric utilities; but she also writes books, does speaking engagements and sits in leadership roles on corporate boards and nonprofit groups (including a tenure as the CEO of the National Women’s Hall of Fame). She also serves as a trustee at the University of Virginia.
Tietjen does not take her opportunities and success for granted. She says she’s trying to live each day by her personal mission statement: “I serve as a role model. I tell the stories of great women. I inspire and motivate an army to change the perception of women around the world.” And for Tietjen, this mission statement is most often lived out in ways that attempt to influence other women to consider opportunities in STEM fields.
“In college, I was a young woman without coaching and without advice. I’m just not going to let that happen to anyone else if I can help it,” Tietjen says. Now she makes sure to talk to as many young women as she can, sharing what she sees as the keys to being successful: passion, determination and persistence. She argues, “Everyone can do that.” She also shares with them the ways she sees engineering and STEM careers changing the world in tangible ways.
Tietjen also encourages her colleagues who are currently in STEM careers. “I nominate women for awards. I believe there can’t be no women or one woman awarded in a particular field. To change the world, you bring their stories out, and you talk about them.” She continues, “I tell my peers the awards are not just for them. The awards are for all the young women seated at the awards dinner and all the young women who read a magazine article about it. They need to read your story and say, ‘Yes, I can do that.’”
Four decades after she began, Tietjen knows that women are still nowhere near achieving parity to men in STEM careers. “It tells me that what we’ve been doing is necessary, but not sufficient,” she says. She wants more Americans to know who engineers are and what they really do. While Tietjen doesn’t plan to put down her advocacy torch anytime soon, she knows that for a real sea change to occur, she can’t do it alone. That’s why she’s so passionate about trying to inspire other women into action. “It takes only one person to make a difference, and anyone can be that person.”