Q&A with MDE Secretary McIlwain, Celebrating Women’s History Month

Secretary Serena McIlwain, from the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), shares her thoughts on the role women have in shaping the future of Maryland’s clean energy economy.

View Sec. McIlwain’s Interview as PDF

What does Women’s History Month mean to you and/or MDE?

What I have found in my 10 plus years in the environmental field, working for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the California EPA, and now in my role as Secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), is that this sector is full of amazing women. This level of representation and leadership is a testament to how far women have come and showcases the range of skills and perspectives we offer in the work of environmental protection. Women’s History Month makes me feel proud. As we have spotlighted throughout March, MDE has incredible women working across all facets of our agency’s mission-based work, including in the Air, Water, and Land Administrations. I want to continue championing these contributions as we work together to ensure a healthy environment for all Marylanders.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women in STEM careers lag far behind the potential for opportunities, accounting for just 27% of STM workers, despite making up 48% of the workforce. In your opinion, what needs to be done to encourage more engagement?

We need to continue providing young women every educational opportunity, including through mentorship and coaching, to realize their potential in STEM. Many young women today are still under a mistaken impression that boys are good at math and science and girls are good at other fields of study. The women who currently make up 27% of the U.S. STEM workforce show us that some girls did not believe this fallacy and pursued a career in STEM anyway. Unfortunately, other young women did believe that they were not good enough and went into other careers. We need to elevate the voices of women in STEM careers so they can be heard loudly by everyone. I want young women to know that if they have the academic potential and the interest. STEM is for them too.

Who are your female role models, and how have they inspired or supported you personally and/or professionally?

I did not have many women in my life who mentored me professionally. Instead, my role models are all the female leaders I’ve seen and studied throughout my career. Over time, I’ve witnessed the number of women in CEO and COO positions rise. There are also more women leading public agencies and more women in the White House. I’ve witnessed so many women moving up in their fields and fighting the stereotype that women are not leaders. I’ve always had a passion for environmental protection, and these women regularly demonstrate to me that you can move forward in your career with ambition and focus, and one day, you will reach that glass ceiling and you will break through it. These women are daily reminders that I never have to question my worth in this work simply because of my gender.

What advice would you share with girls and young women interested in careers with environmentally focused organizations, or state agencies like MDE?

Environmental careers are diverse. In an agency such as MDE, environmental protection involves setting and writing policy, research and engineering, ensuring compliance through inspections and enforcement, and more. Good environmental policy is also science based. Therefore, it is important for young women entering environmental careers to match their passion for environmental protection with technical skill and experience, so that they can better understand environmental problems and help us identify sound solutions to complex challenges like climate change. Here at MDE, we have a unique opportunity to work with both our federal partners and local governments to ensure clean air, water and land is enjoyed by all Maryland communities. We welcome all passionate and skilled young women to join us in this work.

However, no matter which career pathway they take, I want to encourage all young women to believe in themselves and to be ready to take that next step forward. Sometimes women can hesitate and question whether they are truly ready for the next opportunity; but, informed by experience, exposure, and preparedness, they can take that next step in their careers and they can get to that next level of influence and impact.

MCEC is a non-profit corporate instrumentality of the state with a mission to advance clean energy and energy efficiency products, services, and technologies. MCEC strives to create a more just Maryland by addressing energy needs and providing clean solutions that eliminate energy burdens and protect our environment.