Resisting STEM’s leaky pipeline: Ann McGregor ՚84
Picture a scientist. Who do you see? Ann McGregor ՚84 broke out in tears when listening to women scientists tell their stories in the 2020 documentary, “Picture a Scientist.” We’ll get back to why in a minute but first, let’s talk about McGregor’s accomplishments.
She earned her Bachelor of Special Studies (B.S.S.) in computer science and biology from Cornell College. One Course At A Time, where Cornell students take one class per 18-day block and only that one class, was still relatively new at Cornell but McGregor felt from the student’s perspective her professors took full advantage of the block plan, allowing students to dive deep and stay focused on their studies
Block plan pace like the real world
“One Course At A Time is a lot more like real work-life,” McGregor says. “You are going to have intense periods of time where you are focused on one thing and that made me better at working in technology and eased the transition from college to a career. It helped me focus, taught me how to plan, and how to deliver results on time.”
The block plan drew McGregor to Cornell from the beginning. What sealed the deal for her was comparing the University of Wisconsin-Madison with its large number of students to Cornell’s block plan and small community and she knew what was right for her. Her visit to campus confirmed her desire to attend Cornell and the William Fletcher King Scholarship put a Cornell education on an equal financial footing with a large public university.
STEM plus the liberal arts equals a good combo
Computer science draws people with a strong affinity for logic and order; people who see problem solving as iterative steps in a process, McGregor says. But to be successful in STEM, you also need to be comfortable with disorder because often you are tasked with getting the various pieces of a problem into working order. McGregor attributes her problem-solving skills and strong communication skills to her liberal arts education at Cornell.
“I received a wider education which helped me become a strong communicator,” McGregor says. “I can take a technical process and explain it so anyone without technical knowledge can still understand it.”
These skills enabled McGregor to move from one tech-oriented career to another with greater ease than her less communicative peers.
Women in technology
While at Cornell McGregor felt very supported by the faculty, staff, and her fellow students in a field of study that did have more men than women in it. She wasn’t the only woman in her computer science courses, which was part of the Department of Mathematics at the time, but the men did outnumber the women. At Cornell, she felt she fit in and this gender disparity did not register strongly with her.
“It didn’t really hit me how few women worked in technology until I got into the workforce,” McGregor says.
In her 20s, she worked in the automotive industry in manufacturing systems, programming the robotics that built vehicles and testing the same systems. A systems engineer, McGregor says, is similar to the plumber and electrician of technology. You integrate the programming into real-world applications, which she enjoyed doing.
Her struggles came not from the work she was doing but with the culture she worked in.
“It was a real struggle to be in that big corporate technology environment in the 80s,” McGregor says. “There was so much misogyny that I didn’t even recognize and I thought I didn’t fit into the culture.”
Why women leave STEM careers
Recently, McGregor watched “Picture a Scientist,” where the concept of a leaky pipeline was explored. At colleges and universities, women seem to be taking on in equal measure STEM fields of study but as they move into the workforce, over time, a leaky pipeline develops; and women leave.
McGregor reflects on her early career as a systems engineer and realizes that the issue was not that she didn’t fit into the culture, it was the culture that pushed her away and that culture was wrong.
“I had a boss tell me I should wear more makeup and fix my hair better,” McGregor says. “I had a manager tell me that I should withdraw my name from a promotion because a man who was not as experienced as I was had a wife and I was just obviously looking for a good engineering husband and would leave as soon as I found him. I worked in assembly-line plants that were half a mile long and the whole half-mile of walking from one end of the plant to the other, I’d get catcalls. When you hear these things all day long, you end up resigning from your job.”
Resisting the culture of misogyny and winning
Not to be defeated, however, McGregor decided she would create her own consulting company (Radiant Life Productions or RadTec) and work under her own parameters. This move was a 180-degree shift for her in how she was treated. McGregor says that when Apple Computer came to her company, they evaluated her company’s end product and she finally felt it was her work that was being judged not her gender.
Today, McGregor works at Johns Hopkins University as a supervisor in the computer science department for the Center for Talented Youth. She’s been writing online Java programming courses. She thinks of her students as she develops course content with her team, asking the question she knows students have, why do I need to learn this? True to her Cornell roots, she develops courses that are modeled after real-world projects found in the workforce so the classes are relevant.
“Remembering back to being one of the earliest computer science majors at Cornell,” McGregor says, “and still working as a woman in tech today, is pretty amazing!”