Joyce Gustafson has a lot of experience being a woman in a STEM field. In her current role for the Jackson Laboratory as the Director of Process Development and Improvement on the East Coast, Gustafson helps ensure that laboratories around the world get the testing components they need so that they can fight diseases. To achieve this role, she originally trained as a cellular biologist and then moved into recruiting with a Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt at Eli Lilly.
Throughout her career there has been one organization that has really helped her grow as a professional woman working in the sciences. “Being involved in this organization helped me feel confident in my leadership abilities so that I could create, grow, and lead an organization that would be successful. It gave me the confidence to pursue those types of leadership opportunities in my professional career and hopefully it’s done the same for others.”
The organization that she is talking about is Women & Hi Tech, and she knows a lot about the impact it has made on not only herself but the Indianapolis community at large, because she is one of two co-founders of the organization.
The foundation of Women & Hi Tech was laid when Gustafson struck up a conversation with Georgia Miller in 1994, while Gustafson worked for Eli Lilly. “Georgia and I met at a local conference in Indianapolis about Business Development. We were trying to develop more of a culture for tech companies to come to Indianapolis.” They knew that if Indianapolis wanted to become a tech hub, that the companies that already existed needed to think a lot about diversity. “There's this huge room with lots of people and only a handful of women and very little representation outside of middle-aged white guys.”
Miller and Gustafson bonded over their shared experiences of what it’s been like to be a woman working in STEM. However, this conversation never stopped but grew into what we know as Women & Hi Tech today. But it didn’t happen all in one day. In fact, the organization sprang from humble beginnings. “I knew quite a few women who felt the same way, so we just started to bring women together to say, ‘Hey is there room for an organization for professional women in the Sciences and Technology?’” The answer to that question was a resounding yes.
As they started this endeavor, they found that there was a welcome place for it within the Indianapolis community. Gustafson elaborated, “Not only were we accepted, we had a lot of interest from the start. I think that the time was right for quite a few companies who came on board fairly early. They saw the importance and the need to get more women involved and interested in STEM careers as we started out.”
As they dove in, they discovered that the lack of involvement of women in STEM was no coincidence. It was actually deeply rooted in the culture and affected girls at a very young age. “We realized that our recruiting process shouldn’t stop at women who are currently in the field. We needed to go back as far as we could by getting young girls interested in math and science.”
Gustafson saw a way to not only get these young girls interested in STEM but inspire them as well. “One of the studies show that one of the main reasons that girls weren’t getting into STEM was that they didn't have role models. They didn't see women in anything except for traditional careers. If you looked at the media and even in the schools, there wasn’t a lot of exposure to women who were in science or technology.” This was why it was important for Gustafson to start recruiting the people who would be the mentors for the next generation. But, this proved to be a bit more difficult than she thought.
“Recruitment was kind of difficult because women weren't staying around in careers where they felt like they had very limited opportunities for advancement. Our goal was also to make companies aware that they were missing out on talented employees by excluding 50% of the population.” She has seen more women take on leadership roles at many major companies in the area. A lot of these same women take time out of their day to help at Women & Hi Tech.
Gustafson has been thrilled to see the number of talented women who have stepped up to fill key roles within Women & Hi Tech, “One of the things that gives me the greatest degree of satisfaction about what we’ve done is that it's 20 years later and the organization is still there and to realize how many incredibly talented women have stepped up taking a role.” Gustafson knows that each one of these women are making a big impact, which comes with the sacrifice of their own precious time and energy which is, as she puts it, “amazing.”
When asked what she wanted to see happen with the organization in the next 20 years Gustafson hopes that true equality can be achieved and that there won’t be the need for organizations like Women & Hi Tech at all. However, Gustafson recognizes that this is still something we need to fight for. In the meantime, “I would just like to see the organization grow and continue to support women at every stage of their STEM journey–whether they're in grade school, graduate school, entering their first job, moving to their first leadership position, or running their own company.” Thanks to the efforts of Joyce and her fellow co-founder, charter members, and founding members, girls and women have the opportunity to start on all those paths when they get involved with Women & Hi Tech.