Poonam Gill started out in STEM thinking that if she could just get to a playing field at a high-enough level, there would be women there with her. After graduating from Purdue as an electrical engineer in 2003, she was hired by a global manufacturer out of Chicago. But there were still very few women in the room. After being surprised for a little bit, Gill took action. “After about a year I approached my manager about ‘Introduce a girl to engineering day.’” They liked this idea and told Gill to run with it. Gill explained, “we partnered with local schools to show middle and high school girls about innovation in engineering.”
As Gill puts it, “With that, my spark was lit.” After five years she began teaching children ages 4-14 about engineering concepts and problem-solving skills, and then transitioned into nonprofit leadership. “Having the engineering background lets me use my voice and my experiences to close the widening gender gap in STEM,” said Gill. Shel is currently a graduate student in Learning Design and Technology at Purdue University. She says, “My hope is that my professional and personal goals will bridge a gap between engineering and education.”
As part of our 20th Anniversary celebration in August 2019, Women & Hi Tech awarded Gill a Nonprofit Executive Leadership professional development grant. “I believe Women & Hi Tech is looking at investing in the next generation of leaders and I’m really grateful,” Poonam said. “I got involved with Women & Hi Tech because I wanted to be part of an organization where I knew their efforts included outreach to introduce young girls to STEM.” Through volunteering with Women & Hi Tech last year, Gill got to lead a group of female middle school students through the Ignite Your Superpower activities and answer their questions about STEM professionals, life, and college experiences.
As much as these interventions are essential, Gill believes that one-off events don’t close the gap with consistency. Gill further explained, “Women & Hi Tech does a great job of getting equitable opportunities to girls across central Indiana to see role models in STEM and share access to STEM. But in school, if those opportunities aren’t reinforced, it won’t stick.” In partnership with other organizations, such as Women & Hi Tech, Gill is also a member of Every Girl Can STEM who is championing a project to start an all-girls STEM school in Indiana.
“We can improve engagement for girls in STEM through instructional interventions,” Poonam says with confidence. “We need to focus on encouraging a growth mindset for girls and celebrating hard work and persistence. It’s okay to fail, and that’s also part of the engineering design process. You test and improve over time.”
Gill explained how even addressing the gender disparity in STEM is a process of learning and experimentation. “Over the last 5-6 years especially, there has been more emphasis on opportunities for women and for more inclusion. But data shows the gender gap persists. That is why everyday messaging to girls in the classroom, versus a few exposure opportunities a year, is so important.”
Poonam is excited to stay involved with Women & Hi Tech because she knows developing the current and future talent pipeline is a mission she shares with the organization. “If we really want to permanently change the landscape, that includes being focused on building the pipeline of future females in a really thoughtful and strategic way.” As resources like digital conferencing and events make it more possible to bring people together across great distances, Gill sees even more potential for STEM professionals to share knowledge in ways that advance their goals. “We need to build a pipeline for the future and also help women today get to leadership and decision-making roles,” she sums it up. “There’s a lot of work to be done, but we can do it together.”