Patricia Woody Reeves, retired chief engineer of the U.S. Naval Surface Warfare Center at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, is making her second career count — working to draw more women into jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math.
“When I began my career in 1982, there were approximately 10 women in STEM fields, out of about 1,200 people at NAVSEA,” Woody Reeves said, referring to Naval Sea Systems Command, the largest of the Navy’s five systems commands. “When I retired in 2016, there were approximately 300 women in STEM fields — primarily engineering but also mathematicians, chemists, computer scientists — out of about 1,400.”
At NAVSEA, she said, she worked on “fun stuff,” including propulsion and machine controls systems testing for the SeaWolf submarine, a DDG-51 destroyer (Arleigh Burke class), and the DDG-1000, the newest destroyer for the Navy, and its all-electric propulsion system.
Today, Woody Reeves, 57, runs her own defense-consulting firm, PWR Consulting in Glen Mills. She’s also an adjunct engineering professor at Temple University, serving as a role model for women in the classroom, too.
“One young woman from Bangladesh recently came up to me in tears after class, to tell me how happy she was to finally meet a real-life female engineer,” Woody Reeves said.
In 1960, according to Bloomberg data, women held 27 percent of computer and mathematical jobs. In 1990, they held 35 percent of those positions. But by 2013, the numbers had fallen back to 26 percent.
A 2016 survey of women in STEM fields by the Anita Borg Institute, a nonprofit founded on the principle that “women are vital to building technology that the world needs,” showed that at 60 of the largest U.S. companies, women held about 21 percent of technical jobs, including hardware, software, information services, and consulting. That figure was up only slightly from a year earlier.
According to Bloomberg, women account for about half of all U.S. employees in private industry yet only 32 percent of workers in computer-systems design. Their share of engineering jobs inched up to 12 percent in 2015, from 11 percent in 2000. On average, women are paid 89 cents for every dollar a man earns in STEM positions, Bloomberg says.
In May, Woody Reeves hosted a networking event called “Women in Defense, Liberty Chapter Networking” in Bridgeport, the inaugural event for a new Women in Defense Philadelphia chapter. She’s looking to host another event in the fall.
“Our mission is to empower and advance women in all areas of the defense industry, academia, government, and the armed forces. WID provides personal and professional growth through networking, mentoring, career development, and educational programs,” she said.
She also hopes to get other women involved with her at STEM organizations such as the Society of Women Engineers, Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania, Penn State’s Center for Engineering Outreach and Inclusion Advisory Board, and the Villanova University College of Engineering Advisory Board.
“I did a lot of events with George Washington Carver High School, showing the girls how their cellphones work, what kinds of classes they’d need to take to understand that, like calculus and physics,” she said.
At Penn State, in particular, Woody Reeves encourages young women not to drop out of engineering majors if they struggle at first. She serves on the board of the university’s women-in-engineering initiative, which aims to attract women to the field and keep them there.
“It’s important for these young women to stay in the classroom, even if they get their first bad grade and immediately feel they’re not good enough,” she said. “They think it’s not the field for them. That happens to both boys and girls, but boys don’t care as much.”
That’s borne out by research published in Science magazine showing that women are underrepresented in fields where they believe raw, innate talent or brilliance is the requirement for success, rather than hard work.
“Women are graduating in much higher numbers in medical and law school. Why is it lagging in engineering?” she asked. “Young girls and women need more role models, and it’s my life work to do that.”
Woody Reeves herself never hesitated about studying science and technology. The Aston native, who graduated from Sun Valley High School, followed her big brother into engineering after he graduated from the Naval Academy and captained a submarine.
“We were very close and naturally competitive. I had taken a lot of math and science in high school, and thought I’d be a doctor or an engineer like him,” she said.
Other key factors? “My parents were very encouraging. I got into Penn’s chemical engineering program, and there were only four women in my class out of 52 students.” But there, the professors and male students treated her equally.
After graduation — in the real world, that is — “the guys at NAVSEA would come down the hall to see ‘the girl who was an engineer.’ It was hilarious,” she recalled. So Woody Reeves resolved to change things.
“It wasn’t welcoming, and that’s what drove me to change it over time. In the last decade I was there, I had more ability to influence hiring, recruiting, promotions.”
She earned a master’s degree in engineering at Drexel University, and by 2006 was in charge, promoted to chief engineer of the Naval Surface Warfare Center and overseeing an $800 million budget. Her official title: senior scientific technical manager, machinery research and engineering.
She was one inspiration for a book written for young girls considering STEM fields.
“Helping girls discover the relevance of STEM in everyday life stimulates curiosity and problem-solving skills,” said Ellen Langas of Haverford, author of Super Science Girls!, the latest in her Girls Know How book series.
“Women continue to be underrepresented in STEM fields, compared to their male counterparts. We want girls to know that with hard work, perseverance, and passion, they can achieve anything. But we found that girls learn differently – they prefer to problem-solve specifically,” said Langas, a resident of Haverford.
Each character in Super Science Girls! is based on a real-life successful female role model such as Woody Reeves, who added:
“Girls are as naturally inquisitive as boys, and if they are exposed to science at a young age, they are likely to embrace it.”