How Can We Inspire More Women to Work in STEM?
Ada Lovelace was a 19th-century mathematician and writer, who worked to create and program the world’s first computer. Today, she is still celebrated as a pioneer in science and technology, and a role model for women working in STEM fields.
As an all-female team, RE•WORK are strong advocates for supporting women in technology and science, so we celebrated Ada Lovelace Day 2016 by talking to leading women in STEM, to learn more about how we can all work to make science and technology industries more inclusive. How can more women can be encouraged to work in these fields?
Read on for insights and advice from fantastic women working at Universidad de la República Uruguay, Google, Microsoft, the Royal Astronomical Society and Twitter. You can continue the discussion on Twitter with #ALD16!
Jana Rodriguez Hertz is the first ever female Full Professor of Mathematics in Uruguay, where she is currently Professor of Mathematical Sciences at Universidad de la República. Jana is also a Simons Associate of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Italy, and activist for women’s rights and the role of women in science, frequently sharing insights with media on the struggles faced by women pursuing a career in science. This year she was elected Vice-President for Latin America & Caribbean region at the Organization For Women in Science For the Developing World.
Elizabeth Churchill is Director of User Experience at Google, and has a background in psychology, AI, cognitive science, human-computer interaction and socio-techncial systems design, with extensive experience including past roles at eBay, Yahoo and PARC. Elizabeth has a passion to provide the best tools and frameworks for those who are designing and developing our technology futures, and equip makers so they can build a world we want to inhabit.
Hanna Wallach is a Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research NYC and an Adjunct Associate Professor in the College of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Hanna, who in 2014 was named one of 35 Women Under 35 Who Are Changing the Tech Industry, is also co-founder of the annual Women in Machine Learning Workshop, as well as other women in tech projects, all with a mission to address the under-representation of women in computing and software development.
Sheila Kanani is an astrophysicist and the Education, Outreach & Diversity Officer for the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), following her role as a Planetary Scientist at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory working with data from the Cassini Spacecraft, the first probe to orbit Saturn. Outside of the RAS, Sheila is a teacher and mentor at Space School UK, a STEM Ambassador, and space comedienne, often holding talks and workshops with the aim of inspiring future scientists, engineers and mathematicians.
Vinu Charanya is a Software Engineer at Twitter where she works with the Cloud Infrastructure Management team, following a Masters in Computer Science and Engineering at SUNY. Vinu also donates her time to several different Women Who Code led projects and is a core member of the tech team, bringing new ideas to the platform, as well as designing, building and implementing new products. Research and development in new technologies, solving hard problems, and programming are her passion.
What inspired you to begin your work in technology and science?
Jana: I liked Math and logic games since I was a child. When I was 15 and started seeing more abstract topics at high school, I decided I wanted to become a Mathematician. I wanted to learn and do research about Math. It was something very clear to me.
Elizabeth: Human reasoning is incredibly powerful, but often flawed. Science helps us take a step back, reflect, and build better stories about potential and risk in a world where opinion can be contagious just because of the personality of the narrator. Good science is systematic and accountable. Good science builds evidentiary support so we can refine and hone our ideas, our hunches, and better understand our past theories while we ground our imagined futures. I like to think that science helps us be systematically critical and to better understand where we should invest our time and energy as individual scientists and technologists. I was a scientist first, an experimental psychologist, and a technologist second. Working on interactive technologies is an amazingly wonderful place to apply scientific principles, to use them effectively and also challenge them. Right now in the technology world, we have an enormous opportunity to help people extend their potential, we have an opportunity to build better technologies that enhance and augment our very human capabilities. Not replace then, augment and enhance them. That’s exciting to me.
Sheila: I have come from a science background so medicine and biology were always in my blood. When I was young I wanted to be a vet but then when I was 13 I saw the film adaptation of Apollo 13 and realised I wanted to go in to space! I read a lot about the astronaut Michael Foale and he did a PhD in Astrophysics, so when I was 13 I decided that that was what I was going to do too! My PhD opened the doors to many areas of science that I didn’t know about when I was 13, although I’ve not made it in to space yet!
What do you find exciting about your current role?
Jana: As a scientist, I find it very exciting to study the topics I’m devoted to: partial hyperbolicity and ergodicity. It is very nice to read the mathematical literature about the subjects you love, and try to figure out how to solve the problem you are in. Actually the mathematician’s job is pretty cool. Your working tools are in your head, and basically with an internet connection you have all you need to do your job. Also, you get to travel a lot, and can be a co-author to nice people all around the world. You meet old friends at congresses!
As Vice-President for Latin America and the Caribbean of the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD) I have the opportunity of getting in touch with women and realities of very different countries, and try to build networks that can help us to be stronger, and more visible.
Vinu: I work in the Cloud Infrastructure Management team at Twitter, and I am currently building the internal cloud platform. We recently launched a product called Chargeback — a system that provides visibility and accountability for infrastructure utilization and computes cost. This product enabled us to reduce inefficiencies around resource utilization and improve the overall efficiency of our infrastructure.
I’m very excited that in my current role as a software engineer I’m being able to solve challenging complex distributed systems problems. I’m also very proud being part of the Women Who Code organization where I get to help thousands of women and bring a change in their life through technology and programs.
Hanna: Although I’m a machine learning researcher by training, much of my recent work has been in the interdisciplinary field of computational social science. This means that I get to collaborate with political scientists, sociologists, science and technology studies scholars, historians, journalists, among others. I love this — on a daily basis, I get to tackle so many interesting questions, with so many interesting people! That said, it’s not easy — before you can even begin to collaborate, you have to figure out how to effectively communicate. And this can take years. But, ultimately, it leads to work that neither I or my social science collaborators could have produced single-handedly, and that’s really exciting to me!
Sheila: I enjoy that every single day is different. One day I might be giving a public lecture to 100 adults, the next I’ll be teaching GCSE Astronomy, the next I’ll be up to my elbows in glitter making galaxies with primary school students! I love making people excited about space because I feel that space is a real hook — I’ve never met anyone who isn’t interested in space! And you find that if people get involved in things like astronomy then they become more interested in STEM as a whole which is excellent!
What can we do to ensure equality in science and tech, in academia as well as industry?
Hanna: The single biggest thing we can do is to make sure that EVERYONE is working toward this goal, not just women and minorities. We need the majority of the STEM workforce to fight for equality, even when it’s difficult and unpleasant. Otherwise nothing will change. We also need to educate parents and teachers. If we wait until college, it’s too late — children form their opinions about STEM much earlier, often via implicit attitudes and feedback from the adults in their lives.
How can we inspire and encourage more women and girls to become involved in STEM fields?
Elizabeth: It’s a hedge, but attracting students is only step one. Women and girls love science and technology. Very smartly, they don’t love being made to feel like an annoying interloper. So how do we keep women and girls in the world of STEM and STEAM after we have attracted them? There are at least 2 angles. First: people, being smart as mentioned, women and girls know where they are not nurtured. Again, very smartly and unsurprisingly, they move on to other things when they find themselves in places they feel uncomfortable. Who wouldn’t? As humans we are very sensitive to moments of inclusion and exclusion/rejection. So, let’s all be more sensitive about, and fully address, macro and micro moments of rejection and exclusion.
Second: let’s find active roles where young women and girls are given the opportunity in a supported way to define the agenda, where they are leading. Let’s set up structures where women are given the mandate to lead and are supported in that leadership, where their achievements are collectively recognized and promoted. We need to move from a predominance of rewarding individual contributors/contributions, from celebrating the individual, to celebrating teams, to celebrating those who give an “assist” and those who enable others to succeed, to celebrating those who would like to be recognized for their achievements.
Jana: Bias — I think many things can be done, and are yet to be done. One is making more visible the bias existing at school. Teachers unconsciously have biases that prejudice girls. Studies such as Lavy-Sand (2015) show evidence of this. This is not about punishing teachers, of course, but to become conscious of the situation in order to be more aware, so that these situations are avoided. Pay special attention when a girl wants to comment something in Math class, give her the space, appreciate her participation. When she asks a question, don’t make her feel silly. Many times teachers are not aware that situations like this are happening in their own classroom. Lavy-Sand studies show that teachers tend to evaluate differently boy’s and girl’s performances at tests.
Expectation — DO expect great things from girls. We are for great achievements. Parents, teachers and adults in general should express their expectations to girls. It’s really annoying that society expects girls to be pretty. This has nothing to do with what we are here for. We are for achievements, adventure, discovering, and more.
Contact with women in Science and Technology — it would be good that more of us women in STEM get in touch with both boys and girls at scholar level, so that they know we are there, that our job is cool, that we enjoy it and we are pretty good at it. We can answer questions, and tell little secrets about our everyday life as scientists. Olympiads (in Math, in Physics, in Chemistry) could have a special program for recruiting girls. And enforce programs such as Girls in Tech.
Editathons on Wikipedia — a nice activity for high-schoolers is to organize an editathon about women in STEM in your country / state. Taken as a long term activity (organized by a high school), it would teach students skills such as editing Wikipedia, doing research about women in STEM in their environment, doing interviews, etc. It is not easy to have an article approved by Wikipedia. Getting your article approved has the motive of pride for a high school student. Besides, you’re contributing to human knowledge!
Sheila: I think women and girls need to stop thinking that STEM subjects ‘aren’t for them’ or that there are no jobs associated with STEM subjects. If you do a physics degree you can do anything — the world is your oyster! If you are proactive you can achieve so much. It is also great to have as many female role models in the STEM fields as possible because then women and girls might look at them and think ‘if they can do it so can I’!
Vinu: Like many women in the industry, I too suffered from the imposter syndrome. This coupled with random gender bias encounters made it quite difficult for me when I was starting off in the tech industry. That said, I am extremely glad to have been part of Women Who Code from very early on. I met a lot of amazing women, was able to get the mentorship and the support to help overcome the challenges. I learned that in order to motivate and inspire others, you have to share your story, both the lows, and highs. You have to tell people that they are not alone and that there are others to help. I do this by giving talks at various conferences and meetup events. I also try to make it extremely easy for other women to reach out to me or my team for questions, advice, connections, etc. We need to reach out to young women not just to share how important and exciting STEM industry is, but to make them realize that they are stronger and smarter and with passion they can make their dreams come true.
What do you think the biggest barriers are for women entering STEM industries? How can we overcome these?
Vinu: In my experience working in this industry, I have found two key problems:
1. Unconscious Bias: There is an inherent bias to associate women to jobs other than engineering. Thus when it comes to hiring a woman or promoting a woman there is more scrutiny when compared to a male. Unfortunately, these biases also influence daily interactions between co-workers which may lead to a toxic workplace.
2. Lack of support for work/life balance: Many times women decide to quit their jobs in the technology sector to pursue better work/life balance (for example, when you become a parent). Sadly, not all organizations have favorable policies.
The above problems have 2 effects — stopping women from entering the STEM industry which breaks the pipeline, and existing women leaving their positions. Companies recognize the importance of diversity and are prioritizing efforts to help identify issues and improve it. Many a time the root cause is simply the lack of education. If companies spend the time to educate employees on unconscious biases and how it creeps in — this itself is a great first. Couple this with policies and process to further eliminate biases once and for all.
For instance, Twitter offers live Inclusion & Unconscious Bias Workshops for all employees around the world and is refining recruiting and hiring practices to attract more diverse candidates. Twitter also supports numerous employee resource groups (ERGs); Twitter Women, for example, focuses on creating a safe space for women in the company to share challenges and seek mentorship — overall enabling a support community. They also host professional development workshops, mentoring programs, leadership dinners, networking events, and speaker series.
There are also external communities such as Women Who Code, Girls Who Code, Girl Develop it, Women TechMakers, TechWomen, etc., who are trying to bring a change in the industry by focusing on the problems women face in the industry and helping them through encouragement, education and moral support and how to overcome these challenges.
What advice would you give to someone starting a career in technology?
Jana: 1. If STEM is something you like, and it makes you feel happy, don’t let anyone make you feel otherwise about it.
2. Failure is not the end of the process, it is part of the process.
3. Don’t ever EVER give up. You are good at it.
Elizabeth: Your career is a 3-dimensional labyrinth, characterized by progress that comes in batches — batches that could look like three steps forward, five steps back, 2 steps up, and a hop, a skip and a jump forward rather than step one that is followed by step 2 that is then followed by step 3… A career is not linear despite the desire for us to make it so. Don’t be discouraged when you are on the fifth step backward or the hop up or the jump down. There are always more opportunities. There are so many are courses online that you can pick up skills as you need them if you care to. Most importantly, if when you are alone when no one else is watching, you still love what you are working on, don’t give it up. If you feel you don’t belong in your school class, your workplace, your social group, but you still love what you do with and around technology — don’t give up. Find your group and change the stage upon which you are sitting, don’t change yourself.
Hanna: Read “Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics” by the AAUW. It’s incredibly valuable reading — many of the topics covered in it affect everyone, not just women. Plus, by reading it, you can get a head start on thinking about how to make technology more diverse, which ultimately benefits everyone. Beyond that, I recommend learning about “grit” and a “growth mindset.” Grit — a combination of passion and perseverance — is probably the single most useful trait to have in the technology sector. Developing a growth mindset — the idea that intelligence and abilities are not fixed, but can be improved over time with effort — is one way to cultivate grit. Finally, I recommend reading “Steal Like an Artist” by Austin Kleon. Much of the advice in there is relevant for any creative endeavor, including writing code, doing math, and doing research.
Vinu: Technology enables you to reach millions of people and has a significant impact from anywhere around the world. One doesn’t need to be formally educated in this field to be successful. The barrier to learning programming has become extremely minimal thanks to products such as Coursera, Udacity, etc. I personally recommend using these tools to take on a project to help solve a problem you face in your day to day life. For example, one of the first applications I built was a simple problem for myself — An Expense Manager.
You have to be passionate about the problem you are solving. If you are starting your career in technology, choose a path that will fulfill your love and passion for the problem.
Check out our Women in Tech & Science series for more Q&As.
Are you working in emerging areas of science and technology, or know of someone who is? Suggest women in STEM fields to speak at a RE•WORK event here.