Reversing the under representation of women in STEM

Hajim School Panel Discussion on Women Leaders in STEM
Aidymar BigioMargo GeorgiadisWendi HeinzelmanLisa NorwoodDonna Strickland
Aidymar BigioMargo GeorgiadisWendi HeinzelmanLisa NorwoodDonna Strickland

Lisa Norwood ’86 ‘95W(MS) was fortunate to grow up in a family where it was expected that she and her sisters would go to college—“that we were just as good as anybody else out there, and that we could do anything that we wanted to do if we set our minds to it.”

Including a career in science, technology, engineering, or math.

“My dad was a computer programmer for IBM, so he was my first STEM role model,” says Norwood, now assistant dean at the Hajim School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the University of Rochester. “All of my girl friends in high school went on to major in STEM fields, so during college we called upon each other, we wrote letters to each other, and supported one another.”

Unfortunately, not enough young women in the United States are getting that kind of support. Women remain severely under-represented across most STEM disciplines in the United States. And that bodes ill—especially now that COVID-19 “has laid bare the critical importance of technology in every aspect of our lives,” says Margo Georgiadis P’18 P’23, president and CEO of Ancestry who participated with Norwood in a Hajim School panel discussion on Women Leaders in STEM as part of its Celebrate 2020 initiative.

We need to think about how scientific and technological products, solutions and innovations can help solve the many challenges the pandemic has brought in nearly every aspect of our lives, Georgiadis says.  “From how we work, collaborate and create remotely to how education and healthcare are delivered, we need change. And women, as the primary caregivers, are seeing a lot of needs that men are not seeing. ”

So, women’s viewpoints clearly need to be represented in the redesign and implementation of those technologies, Georgiadis says.

“If half of the world’s population is not being actively included in that re-imagination, then those solutions are not going to work as well or cover all the critical needs around us.” 

Aidymar Bigio ’93, a senior director of engineering with Facebook, and Donna Strickland ’89PhD, a professor of physics at Waterloo University and co-recipient of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics, also joined in the discussion, moderated by Hajim School Dean Wendi Heinzelman. Much of the discussion centered on why under-representation of women—and minorities—persists in STEM fields in the US, and what needs to be done to turn that around.

Part of the problem is “really about what society puts its weight behind,” says Strickland. In Europe, for example, televised coverage of the Nobel Prize awards is widely followed; in Asia, “scientists are heralded. But in North America, unless it’s Einstein, there’s no scientist who we would recognize. Just look at the TV shows, it’s the doctors and lawyers who have the exciting lives.”

The situation is further complicated because, unlike in many countries, young women in the US--even today--are often made to feel that they cannot compete with men in math, science, and engineering. “Studies have shown that by the time girls reach middle school, they are already starting to doubt their ability in math and science,” Norwood says.

So, what can be done? 

How parents can help

Parents—even those without a background in science themselves—are perhaps in the best position to recognize early on a daughter’s interest in STEM, and to then support and encourage it.

“There are so many great resources you can turn to,” Georgiadis notes.

Online programs like Made with Code , for example, provide experiences to help students learn basic computer science and other technology skills. Colleges and universities often sponsor STEM programs for young people. (The Society of Women Engineers student chapter at the University of Rochester has traditionally sponsored twice-a-year themed science exploration days for young girls, for example, and the University has also helped sponsor First LEGO League competitions.) Fictional movies like Contact and historical movies like Hidden Figures and the Courage of Knowledge show women and their contributions to science.

When your daughter agonizes over what her project will be for a science fair, Norwood says, “tie it to her world”—help her find a project about something she’s really interested in. One year, for example, one of Norwood’s daughters was interested in fashion. All the kids were wearing light-up shoes that year. “I asked her, ‘how do you think those shoes work? Do you think it’s pressure or something else?’” Norwood says.

“Even little gestures help,” adds Bigio. “If a neighbor has a young girl, and I have an opportunity to give her something for her birthday, you can bet it’s going to be something STEM-related.” 

Norwood says she was “dismayed” when her parents insisted on coming to campus with her for orientation at the start of her first year. “They made a point to meet everybody on campus, including the dean of students, Jody Asbury,” Norwood recalls. “On my first day back to campus Jody came looking for me and eventually we set up an arrangement where we would chat with each other once every couple of weeks.” That led to connections with other mentors who “always knew when to appear and needle me, and challenge me,” she says.

She now realizes how important that was. Her parents are still “my biggest cheerleaders,” she adds. “Even yesterday my mom called to give me a pep talk for today’s panel!”

Keep building supportive networks

It is important for women who choose STEM fields to continue building networks of mentors. 

Georgiadis thinks of them as a “personal board of directors”—people who can help her see the “possibilities and potential in myself.” Often, they have been peers just a few career steps ahead of her, the clear leaders in their field, or interesting people in adjacent fields that Georgiadis thought she might want to explore.“Successful people don't get lucky, they put themselves in the path of opportunity by surrounding themselves with people who are pushing boundaries,” she adds. “It’s all about being pushed and challenged.”

One of the first people to do that for Bigio was Roger Gans, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Rochester, who hired her as an undergraduate teaching assistant for his fluids laboratory class. “I know I was not at the top of the class,” Bigio says, “but I think what he saw in me was I was willing to work hard, and even though he could have picked the top student in the class, he gave me an opportunity and a chance.

“And that started me on my journey.”

The key is not being afraid to ask for help, Bigio says, and being sure to invest time in building a mentor relationship. “It is a two-way relationship. Mentors can often learn from you, as much as you learn from them.”

Mentors can also help women in STEM cope with subtle—and not so subtle—instances of sexism.

If you can’t find someone to help with situations like that in your current institution, “look outside your institution,” Norwood suggests.  “Join the Society of Women Engineers, or the local professional organization; volunteer in your community, doing the things that you like to do and you’re going to end up finding people who will support you and work with you on finding solutions.”

Women’s networks in STEM will give you an opportunity to not only learn from your peers, but actually rehearse coping skills with them, Georgiadis says.

She urges women in STEM to do three things:

  • Practice talking about yourself in a positive way; don’t be afraid to talk about your accomplishments.
  • Speak in declarative sentences—“I am”, “we do”, “it is”; avoid qualifiers like “you might want to consider” or “maybe” language such as “I hope”, “I try”.
  • Find a meeting buddy – male or female—to speak up for you if you find your input is being routinely ignored in meetings.

Be open to change

Norwood initially studied for a career in oceanography.  Georgiadis has served in multiple corporate leadership roles with Ancestry, Mattel, Google, Discover, and McKinsey and Company. Bigio has worked as a mechanical engineer, product manager, and now engineering team leader with seven different companies.

In other words, be open to change; think of your career not as a linear ladder you are obligated to climb but, as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg describes it, a “jungle gym” that may have a lot of zigzags along the way.

“Don’t be afraid to take leaps of faith, or stretch yourself, or be uncomfortable,” Bigio says. “That has been the key for me in my career. Sometimes I’ve taken positions where people are scratching their heads, ‘well that seems like a step backwards,’ but in my mind it's a journey. It’s a journey of learning.”

Above all, “look inside, and see what you want to do and what you’re good at,” Strickland says. “We’re all good at something and so you just have to find that and own it. And if you do that, no one can take it away from you.”