GE strives to increase number of women in its technology ranks

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John Cropley

Daily Gazette

As it works to transform itself into a digital industrial company, General Electric is also working to boost the number of women doing the research and development that shapes the company and its products.

The company, which employs roughly 300,000 in 180 countries, has set a goal of having 20,000 women in engineering and other technical roles by the year 2020, and is taking steps worldwide to add women to what historically has been a male-dominated field.

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Locally, the headquarters of GE Power in Schenectady and GE Global Research in Niskayuna are fully engaged in making the vision a reality.

GE Vice President Danielle Merfeld, who is general manager of the Niskayuna Technology Center, as the Global Research campus is called, explained that the initiative is the right thing to do — and a good thing for business.

“As a leader, I can appreciate the diversity we’ve brought,” she said.

Women, she said, have different ways of looking at things than men, so having both genders on the team increases the team’s effectiveness.

“It’s not like either one is right or wrong. It’s just different,” she said.

Merfeld holds a doctoral degree in electrical engineering and began her GE career researching LEDs and sensors. But she was offered opportunities for management training and leadership experience, and jumped on them.

“I think what I loved more than the actual hands-on work was the big picture,” she said. “I loved telling that story and pulling together teams.”

After a succession of gradually larger leadership roles, Merfeld became head of the 2,000-person operation in 2015.

As her professional duties expanded, so did her personal responsibilities — her family grew to include twin daughters and a son, now in middle school and elementary school, respectively.

She lives right in Niskayuna, so family and work are in close proximity. (The day before she spoke to The Daily Gazette for this story, she gave a presentation on renewable energy in a classroom at Rosendale Elementary School.) But even with the short commute, she relies on the atmosphere GE creates for its employees that allows her to keep everything in balance.

“A big part of improving the culture for everyone … is really to improve some of the most basic processes within the company,” Merfeld said, citing things including parental leave, promotion and retention.

BLEND, NOT BALANCE

Kristen Brosnan, the technology operations leader for metals at Niskayuna, is in a situation similar to her boss, with a lot to juggle at work and home — twin 5-year-old boys and a 3-year-old daughter, plus a 15-year-old stepson — but she avoids the term “work-life balance.”

“Balance,” said Brosnan, implies tradeoffs.

“It’s not work-life balance, it’s work-life blend,” she said.

“My work is absolutely a passion, and a calling, too. It’s a constant dual life — it is a blend that I do want to include my family in my work. It goes both ways.”

Brosnan credits the company for maintaining a culture that encourages employees to develop professionally regardless of gender, and to maintain personal lives as well.

The Niskayuna resident said in her time with General Electric, she has encountered no obstacles to career advancement from her superiors, nor any hostility or discrimination from her peers.

She has, however, encountered cultural gaps from time to time at the highly diverse workplace, and they have led to perhaps-unintentional slights.

“I don’t know anybody who hasn’t,” she said. “When I do run into them, I try to approach it as, ‘What was the intent behind it.’ Most people have good intentions.

“I’m an optimist at heart. … I try not to take it personally.”

New arrivals at GE Global Research are generally judged by their peers more for what they know and can do rather than what they are, Brosnan added.

“It’s more about establishing yourself as a scientist or a technologist, and then it’s gender-blind,” she said — for both men and women.

Ironically, Brosnan had no intention of needing to balance or blend family and work when she submitted her resume.

“When I started here, I didn’t want kids, I was Career Woman,” she said. “I was going to be chief scientist at GE someday.”

As an operations leader, she has the ability to foster an atmosphere of equal opportunity, and she takes advantage of it.

“I think as a leader, too, I think it’s important to model that,” she said.

GROWTH OPPORTUNITY

Laura Hudy, formerly a lab leader at GE Global Research, went west in February — four miles west, to GE Power, where she is a senior engineer.

She is now learning to understand the larger picture of how an electrical power plant works, and the economics of it, rather than just focusing on the design of its components.

It will make her better at her work and it is a professional boost she appreciates.

“That was nice on my end, that GE has afforded me that opportunity to do that,” Hudy said, explaining that she is essentially in training now, and peppering her supervisor with questions.

She intends to keep learning and growing at GE, and move toward a management role, perhaps back at Global Research.

“I don’t see any obstacles for the direction I want to go,” she said. “If anything, I think I have been afforded many opportunities at GE to succeed.”

GE was a breath of fresh air after college, which wasn’t bad, but was different. Like many female engineers, she remembers being in a “distinct minority” on campus, and the subject of subtle bias.

“I did have some experiences in college where I did have to speak up,” she recalls, like when the boys were assigned to do the technical work and the girls got to do the presentations.

“At the same time, professors definitely knew my name,” Hudy added — she stood out in a sea of male classmates.

Like Brosnan, she finds some unintentional slights at Global Research.

“It doesn’t just surface for women. … It also extends into other cultures, too,” Hudy said.

“I think more of what you experience now is an unconscious bias,” Hudy added, recalling a team leader who wouldn’t call her “Laura.”

“I was referred to as ‘her, her, her.’ ​I mentioned this at one point and said ‘I have a name.’”

A lot of cultures and traditions come together in some GE facilities, creating greater opportunity for situations such as these to arise.

“GE does an excellent job in terms of hiring the best people in the world,” Hudy said. “Different cultures have different views and practices.”

Hudy works to help other women advance professionally, particularly through the GE Women’s Network, New York Capital Region, which she co-leads with two other women. It raised $47,000 for nine scholarships last year and is marking its 20th anniversary this year.

“Our hub is about 1,200 individuals, male and female,” she said, and hosts about 100 events a year.

It also works to increase opportunities for (and interest by) young girls in science, technology, engineering and mathematics education.

“I did not know what engineering was in high school,” Hudy said. “What’s great to see these days is the amount of programs available in the community. I think that’s so critical to develop that interest at a young age.”

SECOND-GENERATION

One GE researcher who never lacked for encouragement is Heather Chan, a computer scientist at Global Research.

Her mother holds a degree in chemistry and her father was a Global Research scientist for 29 years, retiring as a senior electrical engineer in 2016. Plus, she is a product of the Niskayuna Central School District, with its large complement of GE children.

Just as other female engineers recall, the landscape shifted for Chan when she shipped out to Brigham Young University to start her college career.

“My first day in computer science, I walked in, and there were 80 people in the room, and I was the only woman,” Chan recalls. “I wasn’t really aware that there were fewer girls in math and science.”

That said, she never was told she couldn’t or shouldn’t do something because of her gender — in school, in her career or in life.

At age 30, she never has been told she had to prove herself, but she sometimes feels she must.

“Some of it is … imposter syndrome,” Chan said. “I’m proving myself.

“When there’s fewer women around, you stick out more,” she added. “Anything you do is amplified.”

Chan has been offered the chance at management training but declined, at least for now. Not because she sees any barrier, but because she likes being hands-on in the lab. Her work now is in bioelectronics and imaging, and she does the research and development knowing that it will yield not just a better device, but something that will help people live healthier lives.

“I love that — there’s real people out there. Someone’s trying to help them understand what’s going on.”

Chan has worked for GE for seven years and is an alumna of the Edison Engineering Development Program, an intensive two- to three-year initiative whose participants rotate through three or more disciplines at GE, learning about each and gaining feedback on their professional development from mentors.

It’s one of the key tools GE is using to increase the ranks of its female scientists.

STEPS TAKEN

Merfeld, the GE vice president in charge of the Niskayuna campus, said the company has set a goal of 50 percent female participation in the Edison Engineering Development Program.

It’s an ambitious goal, given that women are less than 20 percent of the enrollment in some academic settings.

But GE managed to take the program from 20 percent to 50 percent female in one year — and increase the average grade point average of its incoming participants — by casting a wider recruiting net.

“If we were just looking at a few schools … we’d run into the law of averages,” Merfeld said.

Another step is recognizing the biases that exist — not just about women, but by women themselves. Merfeld gave as an example a study that found men are more likely than women to apply for a job for which they feel only partially qualified.

In such a situation, a recruiter could reach out to potential female recruits who look more qualified than they feel, she said.

A crucial stage in all this comes much earlier than recruiting day on the college campus, or that first internship — it’s in the elementary schools, where a foundation of learning is established and an interest in science germinated.

It’s in the third-grade classroom Merfeld spoke to about renewable energy in June.

The problem, said Brosnan, is that there aren’t enough Niskayunas, with a large population of scientists urging girls — and boys — to follow them. Too many places are like the Adirondack town where Brosnan once lived, where not a single parent who came to speak at the school’s career day did anything scientific for a living.

For its part, GE Global Research runs a girls camp, but its geographic reach and numbers are fairly small.

“In some areas, unfortunately, it’s gone backwards,” Merfeld said. “Between fourth and sixth grade is where we start to lose them.”

Finally, once women are recruited, they need to be retained, which can prove even harder than recruiting. This is where the culture the company has built is put to the test.

“We want to make sure the company we are creating is a fair and equitable place,” Merfeld said.