February 20, 2020

Executive Interview: Empowering Women in Engineering

By Cherreka Kiel
Categories

Women are underrepresented in some STEAM careers, particularly engineering. Here’s how Valassis supports and empowers women in technology.

Cherreka Kiel, executive director, people at Valassis, has more than 20 years of experience in talent acquisition and human resources by connecting people, policies, and growth to company culture. She answered some questions and discussed the steps the company is taking to support women in engineering and other STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) careers.

Women are underrepresented in some STEAM careers — particularly engineering. However, as a company that wants to be inclusive and sees value in every aspect of diversity, Valassis would like to highlight the steps we’re taking to support women in technology through proactive hiring and recruiting and understand what we can be doing better to empower and support women engineers.

Q: Describe the culture of the engineering team that we’re trying to create at Valassis and why it’s important.

Our engineering team has exploded into this group of change agents who, together, have built a culture of transparency and accountability. The team meets twice a year to calibrate performance, and members host quarterly hackathons that are open to the entire organization for collaboration and idea-sharing.

In case you’re unfamiliar with this event, Hack Overflow is a two-day hackathon challenge in which participants from across the company come together to build new products or improve existing products. As a company, we’ve received many great ideas outside of regular participants, which is the kind of cross-team camaraderie these events promote. These dedicated events also offer unique opportunities to facilitate a diversity of ideas and input — regardless of role, title, or location in the organization.

Q: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 14% of all professionals working in the architecture and engineering fields in 2016 were women. How can we inspire women or encourage girls to consider engineering as a career?

We must start early and engage often. There are a number of organizations across the country that are geared toward attracting and engaging adolescent girls and young women in STEAM. I am personally involved with FEMMES (Females Excelling More in Math, Engineering, and Science) at Duke University and Healthy Girls Save the World at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In addition to making young girls aware of STEAM careers, we need to commit to the continual support of and engagement with them through college. In my experience partnering with universities for intern and new graduate hiring, we witnessed sharp declines in women’s enrollment in computer science programs from freshman to senior year. Most of the feedback showed that they never found their place.

According to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics, 30% of women who enter college to pursue a STEM degree end up switching majors. It’s important for the classroom experience to feel inclusive. Women need to know that there’s a place for them among their male counterparts who may come into the program with more advanced experience.

Q: Could you share some insights into how we can empower women at work with the confidence needed to thrive and remain in engineering roles? How is Valassis emphasizing this?

We’re regularly looking for ways to increase our engagement with women in engineering at Valassis. At our company, women hold 29% of positions in engineering and tech and 24% of the leadership roles in those areas. That’s really impressive when you look at the industry as a whole, but it’s not good enough.

Our goal is to continue to grow this number so women in engineering make up an equal part of our workforce — as diversity of ideas and approaches is what ultimately moves the needle. To help us get there, we offer a mentoring program that matches employees with more senior associates who can help them uncover skill sets, increase their confidence, and build their leadership capabilities.

As part of our Diversity and Inclusion program, Valassis has Business Resource Groups (BRG), which include the Valassis Women’s Network (VWN). The network supports women’s career growth and professional development. It focuses on the challenges women face in the workplace by partnering with businesses and working toward representing the voice of the female shopper, developing skills, and introducing career development opportunities. We also support local meetup groups and participate in campus recruiting activities.

Q: What advice would you give to women trying to get their start in engineering?

Find a mentor who is a professor, an older student, or a professional in your field. He or she can play a pivotal role in your success, and that person can provide help and direction on challenges or career advice.

It is equally important to build your network. Young women in school and the professional world have an unprecedented opportunity to create and manage professional networks with the help of technology and numerous platforms like LinkedIn, Reddit, and Meetup.

At Valassis, STEAM is one of our corporate social responsibility pillars. As a marketing technology company, we believe we have a responsibility to empower and equip the workforce of the future for long-term success in their careers.

If you would like to learn more about the culture at Valassis and access currently open positions, check out our careers page.

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