Katlyn, thank you for giving H2 View your time. We’re celebrating the women working in hydrogen this International Women’s Day. So, what first sparked your interest in hydrogen and working in this industry?

Katlyn Conaway (KC): Thank you for having me! As a chemical engineering student, I took a course on alternative energy which first sparked my interest in a career focused on alternative fuels such as hydrogen. After that I took an electrochemistry and fuel cell course which really solidified my interest in working on zero-emission hydrogen fuel cell solutions to help us reduce air pollution. I really like being a part of the Plug Power team working on improving technology to create a cleaner environment for future generations!

What’s something that has surprised you about your chosen career path?

 KC: Even as progressive as the world is today, the reaction I often get to hearing that I am a chemical engineer is still usually surprise, wonder, and awe. To me this shows that we still have work left to do to eliminate the bias that still exists for women in engineering. Even though these biases still exist, I have been very fortunate in my career to have many equal opportunities to my male colleagues. At Plug Power, I am currently in an engineering manager position which is giving me the opportunity to learn how to grow my leadership skills.

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is #BreakTheBias. What does this mean to you? And what advice would you give to women experiencing bias and unconscious bias?

 KC: For me, #BreakTheBias means we need to break the bias that women are not engineering material. We need to continue to encourage kids from an early age that anyone can choose an education and career path in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields. I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to participate in FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics growing up, which helped me decide later to go into engineering.

I will never forget the day when I was helping one of my fellow high school students (and robotics teammates) with his math homework and his response to hearing that I wanted to go to college for chemistry or chemical engineering was that girls can’t be engineers. I was shocked because math and science (especially chemistry) were my strong subjects in school and always came easily to me. Needless to say, I told that classmate he was wrong and became an engineer anyway! My advice to women experiencing bias and unconscious bias is to not give up and to make your voice be heard. I am excited for the day when women in engineering is seen as the norm.

What are the challenges facing women in hydrogen today, especially the generation?

KC: In this industry women are still very much a minority. For women in the STEM fields, we often are faced with the challenge of proving we are competent by being assertive and direct. Striking the balance of being assertive enough to get your point across and not overly assertive where it’s perceived negatively can be difficult to navigate.

Tell us about one woman who has positively impacted you in your career? What lesson did she teach you?

KC: I have been fortunate to have a few role models who have really positively impacted me in my career. One woman who really stands out is my mom. Both of my parents started off their careers at the Eastman Kodak Company without college degrees. While working there they both went to night school to get their bachelor’s degrees in engineering, all while raising three kids (which we often didn’t make easy!). In those days my mom was faced with the challenge of proving she was serious about her career because a lot of people thought once she had kids she was no longer dedicated to her work. She also experienced a large gender pay gap for the majority of her career.

It is women like her that struggled through the difficult times and faced these challenges head on who helped pave the way for a better future for the next generation. Despite these challenges, she was able to make significant progress to close the pay gap before she retired by showing how valuable her contributions were. The world has come a long way since then and I am happy that I am able to say I have not had all of these same experiences. It really shows how much progress has been made over the years and that we can continue to change for the better.

Finally, what’s the key message you’d like to get across for International Women’s Day?

KC: We have made a tremendous amount of progress for women in the STEM fields. We need to continue down this path by promoting equal pay for equal work to help encourage women to go after the STEM curriculums. In summary, we need to keep making progress until all biases are gone and diversity is both celebrated and appreciated! I hope that one day my daughter feels welcomed in the field she chooses and there are no stigmas around any perceived gender within certain fields.