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STEPHANIE: Hello, everyone, and welcome to this episode of our podcast. I'm today's host, Stephanie Slowik. I've been an intern with Abbott for five summers and serve as an Abbott Campus Ambassador. Abbott has always encouraged me as a young woman in STEM and I credit that to having so many female STEM role models across the company. Today, I have the honor of interviewing one of those role models, Lisa Earnhardt, who leads Abbott's medical device division. Could we start Lisa with you talking a little bit about your education and background in the STEM fields, and maybe why you were interested in engineering in the first place?
LISA: Yeah, Stephanie. So I grew up in the cornfields of Illinois, not too far from Abbott headquarters and just north of where you are at school. I, you know, gosh, my first job was detasseling corn. And I guess the one thing I learned then that was my internship, I guess, in high school, and I learned there the value of hard work and education. I always loved math and science. And my big brother was an engineer. And so I decided, gosh, between the combination of those two, it made a lot of sense. I did some summer programs exposing me to engineering and made — in high school — and made the decision that yeah, that seemed like the field I wanted to study in college. So I made the leap there. And I think one thing I love about engineering, it's really about applying sort of problem-solving skills to a lot of some of the most challenging issues that we face in the world. So it's been a, it's been a great career to build from.
STEPHANIE: So moving from corn to healthcare, you've been now in health technology for 25 plus years, have you noticed any changes, big or small, regarding women in science and that field? For example, maybe opportunities for women in leadership or career development?
LISA: Yeah, you know that the field has changed quite a bit. I mean, I just think about even when I was in college as a female engineer, and I remember it was oftentimes there was, you know, probably a quarter of the class that was maybe female, and that was probably at the high end. And so as I think about sort of my early days in working in healthcare, and in particular medical technology, there was definitely more of a dominant male culture. I think things have changed pretty, pretty significantly. Just even if I go to colleges today, I'm guessing the makeup of the classroom is very different than what it was when I was in school. So I think we've come a long way. But we have a long way to go both in terms of recruiting talented females into STEM fields, as well as retaining them and continuing to see their careers flourish over the years.
STEPHANIE: I'm sure because of people like you and others across the country, I've probably had a little bit easier experience than you might have. And I'm glad that it just keeps getting better and better. And those women in STEM keeps on increasing. And that's actually a great segue to my next question. In doing some research for this podcast, I came across an article by the Pew Research Center about the phenomenon known as the leaky pipeline, which definitely relates to what you were just talking about retaining women in STEM. So, the research study said women with a college degree in engineering are less likely than men to actually be working in the field of study that they had studied throughout college. Based on your experience, what do you think is needed to recruit and retain that next generation of female scientists and engineers?
LISA: Yeah, you know, the recruiting piece, I think we're doing a reasonably good job of and that sort of reaching in and identifying, you know, high potential individuals earlier, making sure they understand the benefits and role and impact they could have in the STEM fields. I think the challenge for us is really retaining at this point. And I think there's a couple of things there, one of which is really identifying potential early individuals. And so making sure you're taking a really purposeful career planning exercises with folks who develop promising talent. And so not letting it just happen by chance but being very purposeful about career development for high potential women. And then I think also providing support. So we all go through life stages. It was very different when I was young and single and could move anywhere and could travel anywhere and all those types of things. Well, things changed when I had my son, right. And so and just recognizing that it isn't a female, like there are uniquely some things that we do better, or we're the only ones who do it, like having children, right. And so or bearing children. And so there's some things that will need to be different. And just recognizing those differences and providing support around it, you know, surround women, whether it be, you know, resources, like childcare, or certain policies that really promote women at every stage of their lives. So I think there's a couple of different things to really help with that retention. I think it's something that, you know, not just at Abbott, and not just the med tech industry, but we're still working towards, how do we make sure that women are, you know, we're giving them a sort of a fair and equitable shot at some of the top jobs? Because we have to recognize there are differences in terms of their life's path and we need to celebrate those and support those.
STEPHANIE: That's a great point. I know that right now, in college, having a family and doing those things aren't really in my immediate point of view. But looking ahead, I think that's really important. And I know, I've seen plenty of articles about Abbott being really great for working mothers. And although it's far out, I think that that's really encouraging. So, the next question, I noticed that our society tends to add the adjective female in front of important terms like CEO, engineer, and leader. How do you think we as a society can change our language to encourage women to hold these roles, yet not discredit their success by focusing on their gender?
LISA: Yeah, it's so interesting, you never hear male CEO, right. So I think it's a little bit of a double-edged sword. By calling it out you're highlighting the achievements of women. You're setting forth a role model. You're celebrating the success. But then also calling it out by using that female as an adjective, you know, it's different than what you would typically do with an exceptional CEO. You might call them visionary CEO or impactful or world-changing or top-performing CEO. And so I do think, you know, the issue is, both, you know, it's as simple as sort of word choice, right. But because we treat women CEOs is a bit of an anomaly, because there aren't as many leaders in that role, we focus pretty strongly on who those individuals are versus what they've done. And so I do think, as we move forward, it's important to recognize that, you know, don't just focus the conversation on the fact that an individual is female. And, and, you know, what a unique set of circumstances just, you know, it's not bad to acknowledge it, but at the same time, you know, moving the conversation away from sort of femaleness and make it sort of more acceptable to talk about other traits that make them a successful leader or a role model in their own right.
STEPHANIE: How do you think you would want to be described? What are those adjectives you'd rather have than just female?
LISA: Yeah, it's a great question, Stephanie. Maybe visionary, engaging, inspiring. There's lots of other words, you know, once again, I don't mean to take away from being a female CEO. And I do recognize it's, it's important, to me it's important for folks to recognize that women can be CEOs. They can take on major, you know, roles of responsibility, but at the same time, that's not it, right. It can't just be female CEO.
STEPHANIE: I'm looking for adjectives, as goals for my career. So I thought I'd pick your brain a little bit there. So thinking back into your career, can you think of a time where you were feeling challenged. And maybe your decision or expertise was doubted as a woman in STEM, and maybe now as a leader?
LISA: Yes, Stephanie, there's probably more situations or samples than I would like to admit, especially earlier on in my career. You know, but I think a part of that is not so much that, you know, was it that my decisions or expertise was doubted, or did I doubt myself. I do think this is probably, self-doubt is probably a more common trait with at least that I've seen in, in women. And I'll give you an example. So, at one point in my career I was tapped and offered a job to run a national sales force. And I remember when I got the call, I had asked the individual, who was a male, who I would have considered a mentor at the time, I'd asked like, 'You really think I'm ready for this, like really me?' And he said, 'I never want to hear you doubt yourself again.' So you know, it just was so great that he called me out on it. Because I just, it was such a natural thing saying like, 'Gosh I'm not sure I'm quite ready for this.' And he said, 'I never want you to, to think like that. I wouldn't be offering you the job if I didn't think you're ready and you were capable and competent and that you would do a fantastic job.' So it's interesting. So as much as I think, yeah, absolutely, there were situations where I felt like I wasn't, maybe I wasn't heard. And maybe, you know, I would make a suggestion and then literally, some male colleague would make the same suggestion 10 minutes later, and they'd be like, 'Great idea, Joe.' But I think part of which, too, is just my own self-doubt. And just remembering that you didn't get to where you are by accident. It doesn't happen that way. So sometimes that own inner voice can be our worst enemy.