Kathleen Perkins left behind a career as vice president of sales and marketing of Revlon back in the tri-state area to relocate to Tucson in the early '90s. She's now the CEO of Breault Research Corp., an optical engineering firm based in Tucson, and a board member of Bio5 Institute, an organization designed to bring together workers in the fields of agriculture, medicine, pharmacy, basic science and engineering. She recently spoke at a forum addressing how women can enter male-dominated fields such as science.
What's Bio5 all about?
It's a collaboration between five disciplines. The development of medical treatments and cures is not a single discipline anymore. I'm not even sure that it ever was. But the things that they're learning in one department are important to another department.
For example, a physicist looks at a problem with optics and physics and equations, and a physician looks at a problem very differently. They'll come at a problem from different directions but they'll find a middle ground and that's when science gets pretty spectacular. That does not happen nearly as often as it should because people are busy or they don't have the opportunity. A lot of times there's not enough networking. For example, the UA does not have a faculty club.
One of the areas that you're interested in is encouraging women to pursue high-tech engineering or software careers. Why are women less likely to pursue those opportunities?
That's been mulled over and discussed and I'm sure there are studies. In my first-hand experience, I think there are two parts to that question. Becoming a scientist is typically a decision you make when you're pretty young. You have to take the math and science. Those young women are on a path by the time they're 10 or 15 years old to go down that road. For example, I went to Catholic school and math was not encouraged in the '70s, so consequently my direction was pretty sealed up. That was just not a priority. It has nothing to do with intellect or desire, but you don't decide to become a physicist at age 20 and not have done algebra. That's why it's important to deal with the cultural, socio-economic and all of the issues about how a child thinks about what they can do. Because if they miss the math curve, I don't think they pick it up at age 20.
What's the second part?
I'm in science and technology, but I'm not an engineer. There's a significant opportunity to work in that realm if you're not intimidated by it and you're given the opportunity to pursue it. For example, I never, never thought I was going to run a high-tech company in Tucson. It was not part of the plan, but it's been wonderful.
What are some strategies for encouraging young women to pursue these fields?
You have to show by example, so it's putting yourself out there in whatever way you can. That's the responsibility to the next generation and to gender, if you will. Beyond that, I think you have to make sure that the obstacles are identified and removed. You've got to make young girls aware of these career choices. And then there's a larger macro-problem, and that's just a misconception about women and science--that it's lonely, that it's not exciting. They're misconceptions, but some of them are rooted in something real, like that it's male-dominated. That is real. So it's not a misconception, but it turns some young women off because they're not sure what that means. Does it mean it's going to be hard? Is it going to be unfair? Am I not going to enjoy it? Just think of how we all were when we were 18 or 20. The world is big and scary and then if you throw in young women who don't have the family support or they're coming from underprivileged backgrounds, that's another hurdle. So I think you have to make it accessible. You have to put it out there and let them know it's an option very early on.
With technology being more a bigger part of people's lives, are more women being lured into the field?
There's more opportunity. You can do your research more easily and there are more opportunities to play and contribute. There are different ways for women--and all people--to look at participating in a high-tech workplace. You need the good writers, you need the good graphics people, you desperately need creativity. Technology is another business and it needs to be well-presented. People looking for jobs should not overlook it because they believe it means they're not going to understand the technology or the jargon. You can handle that learning curve anywhere from six weeks to six months.
What advice do you have for women who are just starting college or graduating and starting a career?
Learn how to sell. Once you learn about how that interaction takes place, you can take that and expand on it. I'm not saying everyone should be a salesperson. What I'm saying is that product exchange is at the baseline of any company. If you do not have sales or purchase orders coming in, if you don't have customers who want to do business with you, you don't have much of a business.