Q&A: Eileen Claussen and Being a Woman in STEM

Women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) occupations remain significantly underrepresented. While the percentages have increased since the 1970s, men still are employed in the STEM fields at twice the rate of women.

Still, remarkable women are making powerful contributions to STEM, and one of those women is Eileen Claussen, the executive-in-residence at Elon University’s Martha and Spencer Love School of Business. Claussen founded and served as the first president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, formerly the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

Claussen has made science her life’s work. Before founding the Pew Center in 1998, Claussen was the assistant secretary of state for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs. She also served as a special assistant to the president for global environmental affairs at the National Security Council and as director of the Office of Atmospheric Programs at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  Currently, Claussen is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Singapore Energy Advisory Committee and the Advisory Board of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at the University of Oxford.

Claussen will be visiting the Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School as part of its Dean’s Innovation, Science, Technology and Environmental Policy Initiative. She will give a public talk on March 3, at 4:30 p.m., in Dodds Auditorium, Robertson Hall. Her talk fortuitously occurs during women’s history month.

In the following Q&A, Claussen answers questions about her career and the obstacles she faced and provides advice for other women in the field.

Q. What sparked your interest in the environment?

Claussen: Three things really sparked my interest. I have always loved the outdoors. Growing up in South Africa, with its temperate climate, gave me many opportunities to enjoy and love both the country side and the wilderness. I also like a challenge. Solving complex problems in an interdisciplinary setting has always been exciting to me, and protecting the environment presents those challenges in spades. Finally, I perceived early in my career that this was a relatively new field and likely to be hospitable to women. It seemed to be a field where I could make a difference.

Q. What advice do you have for women looking into STEM fields, and for women in general, regarding the workforce?    

Claussen: I have two bits of advice. First, don’t be intimidated by anyone or anything. Understand who you are and what your strengths are and have the confidence to take risks and try new things. It is hard to make a mark if you shy away from challenges or are afraid to fail And second, surround yourself with those who are as smart, or smarter, than you are. You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room. But it really helps to be around those who are!

Q. What challenges did you face as a female in a typically male dominated field?

Claussen: The greatest challenges I faced were the pressures to work longer hours than I felt were productive and to always be available for meetings that lasted long into the evening hours. Because I have two children, I always felt that it was important to be home by 5 p.m. at the latest. My male colleagues, on the other hand, had no difficulty staying in the office as late as they thought necessary. So I made it clear early in my career that I would leave the office at a set time, even if that meant missing a meeting with a superior. (I did make an exception for White House meetings, though.) And what I found was that it really didn’t affect my career at all! I always managed to get my work done, even if I took some of it home. Those that I worked for respected my hours, and meetings where I was an important player were miraculously scheduled earlier in the day.

Q. How did your undergraduate and graduate work help mold your career path?

Claussen: When I began my undergraduate studies, I imagined that I would study political science. After all, my ambition at that point was to become secretary of state! But I soon switched to English literature for both my undergraduate and graduate degrees. I loved to read; I loved analyzing poems and novels; and I loved writing. The analytical and writing skills I acquired served me well throughout my career, although I never gave up on my interest in working with those in other countries to solve difficult issues. And although my career path was really atypical, I did manage to become a diplomat and serve as an assistant secretary of state.

Q. Who served as your mentors?

Claussen: I believe being a mentor is one of the most valuable tasks I can now perform. But as I   look back on my career, I don’t believe I had any particular mentors. What I did have were groups of very engaged and supportive colleagues that I listened to and learned from. My colleagues and staff became my mentors.

Q. What would you say is your proudest accomplishment?

Claussen: Everything I have done throughout my career has been guided by my desire to make a difference, to leave the world in a better place than I found it. As I look back, two accomplishments stand out. First, I played an important part in the international effort that resulted in the Montreal Protocol and its implementation in the United States. There were many important players in that effort, including Norway, Canada, Brazil and from many other countries. But I believe I played a significant role, and that I can take a little credit for what we achieved. Second, I believe that building the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, later called the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, was an important accomplishment. We were able to conduct thoughtful and timely analyses of the science, policy and politics of global climate change, and we were able to build and maintain a vibrant partnership with the progressive business community. And the organization has been named one of the top environmental policy think tanks in the world.

Q. As the founder of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, what challenges did you face starting your own nonprofit?

Claussen: When I founded the Pew Center, I had absolutely no experience whatsoever in starting an organization from scratch. I had a good idea of what I wanted to accomplish, and I was lucky enough to have the Pew Charitable Trusts provide funding. So I began asking for advice. I asked a lawyer who I knew if he would help with the legal requirements. I asked an accomplished economist to help me build a first class economics program. I hired some highly skilled people, some of whom had worked for me in the past, and all of whom were energetic and committed. And I went to my list of companies that I had regulated in the past to help build our Business Environmental Leadership Council. We learned as we went, and we laughed at ourselves when things went awry. But we kept on, and I think we built a successful organization.