Gabriela González with high school girls at a science camp in Peru.

Gabriela González

Gabriela González’s improbable journey to lead federal STEM panel

Barely 3 years after arriving in the United States from Mexico at the age of 13, Gabriela González was facing a precarious future. She had moved out of her mother’s house in Bellingham, Washington, and was living on her own while attending high school. Her grades were good and she wanted to continue her education, but college seemed out of reach.

“Have you ever thought about engineering?” the youth minister at her church asked her.

“Will it pay for college?” she answered.

“Maybe,” he responded.

“Then OK,” she replied. “I’ll consider anything that will let me go to college.”

That life-changing conversation 3 decades ago put González on a path to a successful career in engineering manufacturing. Today, she is an executive with Intel in Chandler, Arizona. She’s also writing a doctoral dissertation on the barriers to girls who want to pursue engineering careers. And last week she became chair of a new top-level advisory panel charged with shaping the U.S. government’s $3-billion-a-year investment in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education.

But González hasn’t forgotten the barriers she’s had to overcome. And she’s determined to make it easier for subsequent generations of minority women pursuing STEM careers. “If we don’t make some very transformational changes in how we think about correcting this inequality,” she warns, “then we might as well just give up.”

Who’s accountable?

The current statistics are grim. Only about one-fifth of undergraduate engineering degrees awarded in the United States go to women. Their share has “flatlined” for the past 2 decades, says González, despite the considerable investment by government, industry, and the nonprofit sector in attracting more women to the field.

She thinks that lack of progress is unacceptable. “In the corporate world you don’t stay on the same path for 20 years if it’s not working,” she says. “So why are we, as a society, not asking questions and holding anyone accountable?”

González will have the opportunity to ask lots of questions as chair of the new STEM Education Advisory Panel. The body was created as part of 2016 legislation reauthorizing programs at the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Alexandria, Virginia, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology and STEM education activities across the federal government. One of the last bills that former President Barack Obama signed before leaving office, its intent was to give the community a voice in setting STEM education policy across the federal government.

The 18-member panel includes senior members of the academic and research communities, professional societies, school teachers, and experts in informal science education. Nominees were screened by four federal agencies—NSF, NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Department of Education—and the panel reports to CoSTEM, a White House committee with representatives from 14 federal agencies operating STEM education programs.

The panel’s first job will be to review a new 5-year strategic plan for STEM education being prepared by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Last month, 170 local and state education officials came to Washington, D.C., to provide input and get a peek at the plan, which emphasizes the need for a tech-savvy workforce and gives industry a major role in strengthening STEM education through such mechanisms as apprenticeship and certificate programs. The 2013 plan, developed by the Obama administration, paid more heed to improving STEM instruction, training more STEM teachers, and graduating more students with STEM degrees.

NSF Director France Córdova, whose agency will staff the panel, says she chose González because of “her rare background that combines industry experience with a clear passion for expanding and diversifying STEM education. It is important that [CoSTEM] receives the perspective of industry” as it prepares the new 5-year strategic plan, she adds.

González is not well-known across the STEM education community and acknowledges her status as an outsider. “I’ve never served on a federal committee or at the federal level,” she says. She also stresses that she will be serving “in her personal capacity, not as an employee of Intel.”

The panel’s vice chair, David Evans, represents the other side of the coin, bringing both extensive government experience and institutional clout to the panel. Evans is executive director of the National Science Teachers Association in Arlington, Virginia, and its 50,000 members have a huge stake in federal STEM education policy. Trained as an oceanographer, Evans previously was undersecretary for science at the Smithsonian Institution and served for many years as a senior NOAA administrator.

Evans, who also participated in last month’s White House meeting of state STEM leaders, says he hopes the new panel will press CoSTEM to flesh out its strategic plan. “The first step is to identify how well we have done since 2013,” he adds, referring to an upcoming OSTP assessment also mandated by Congress.

A different message

Despite her lack of experience in the capital, González has spent much of her career working in STEM education, both as a role model and in formal programs to promote diversity. After graduating from the University of Washington in Seattle in 1992 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, she spent 8 years at Xerox before joining Intel in 2000. As she moved up the corporate ladder, she also became “the go-to person within Intel for anything has had to do with promoting STEM for girls.”

She says she enjoyed playing that role but eventually decided that she needed to do more. In 2011 she began a Ph.D. program in the human and social dimensions of science and technology at Arizona State University in Tempe. Her dissertation examines the role that nonprofit organizations have played in attracting middle school girls of color into STEM activities. In line with those new interests, she shifted earlier this year from manufacturing engineering into the Intel Foundation, the company’s philanthropic arm.

Her graduate work has given her a broader perspective on the scope of the problem. Most researchers, she says, “are focused on fixing the girls or the women, asking what’s wrong with them and what we can do to make them want to do engineering and STEM. But it’s not the people we need to fix, it’s the institutions. That’s where the barriers lie.”

One example, González says, are programs aimed at attracting girls into STEM that stress the importance of loving math and science and excelling in them. She feels that emphasis is misguided, if not harmful.

“We have to start changing the stereotype of who belongs in STEM,” she explains. “I didn’t love math, and I didn’t do well in it at college. But I still became an engineer. And the reason is that math is only a tool. You don’t have to love the tool to become an engineer. You just need to learn how to use it.”

She thinks that appealing to a student’s altruism would be more effective. “We should be telling them that engineers love to solve problems and love to make the world a better place. If you also like those things, then you should think about a career in engineering.”

A sustained commitment

Although motivation is important, González says, having the means and the support to achieve one’s goal is also critical. And that help is needed at many levels.

“It’s not enough to expose people to these opportunities if they can’t afford to go to college or get vocational training,” she warns. Once in college, she adds, students will also need help in overcoming the obstacles to obtaining their degree. “And even if they graduate with an engineering degree and get a job, they’re not going to stay in the field very long if they have to face a work environment that is not welcoming.”

González thinks the federal government could move the needle through greater accountability. If the goal is to boost the share of women earning 4-year engineering degrees, she says, then agencies that fund such programs and universities that receive the money should be required to show how their programs are helping the country attain that goal.

She hopes the advisory panel, which plans to convene this fall and then conduct two meetings a year, will be a forum to discuss such ideas. But she’s going in with her eyes open. “I’ve agreed to do it for a year, although there’s an opportunity to serve a 3-year term,” she says. “And my approach will be go in and learn as much as I can about the federal process. My intent is not to change government, but to provide input.”