When Jacqueline Northcut began her 18-year career at a major accounting firm, at most three of the firm’s 80 partners were women, she says.
By the time Northcut herself made partner at the former Arthur Andersen, the numbers in the C-suite were still far from parity. “But the good news is, by that point, we were recruiting 50/50,” she recalled. The pipeline was starting to be built.
“I think people were very cognizant of the need for more women in leadership roles in that industry,” says Northcut, who is now the president and CEO of BioHouston. “We need that awareness in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields.”
That experience, in part, led Northcut and BioHouston to kick off its “Women in Science with Excellence,” awards five years ago. The WISE lunch has featured 21 women for their leadership at energy and life sciences companies and institutions, as well as NASA.
This year’s honorees include Mary Estes, a molecular biologist at Baylor College of Medicine whose research is headed to clinical trials to treat rotaviruses and noroviruses that cause illness around the world and death among children in developing countries with bad water. Lynn Elsenhans, a former Sunoco CEO, had long careers with both energy and biotech companies and is also being honored. The third awardee is Bonnie Dunbar, a former NASA astronaut who now leads the University of Houston’s efforts to boost STEM education.
“It’s not just exposing young girls to science,” Northcut says. “You’ve got to start with their parents and their aunts and uncles, and their teachers and mentors. This is how we help Houston on the science stage.”
That’s the sort of multi-generational crowd that will be in the audience today at this year’s WISE event. Industry professionals in biotech and life sciences will be seated near high school and college students, some of whom will be awarded scholarships.
BioHouston is also working on a collaboration with the Girl Scouts as well as a dedicated website for the WISE sorority in order to spark conversations on how best to encourage girls to pursue careers in STEM fields.
Right now, only a quarter of STEM jobs are held by women, even as the number of those positions has grown at three times the pace of other jobs in the past decade, Northcut says.
This growth is expected to continue in the years ahead, but without special focus on the women in STEM jobs—as well as the girls who might take them—the gender disparity won’t be alleviated.
“The more we can highlight success of women in STEM, the more people will be cognizant of their own hiring and promotion practices,” Northcut says. “It will make them be aware of their own shop, look around, and say, ‘hey, why don’t we have these sorts of women here?’ ”