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Women in STEM: You Belong

Last week marked International Women’s Day. Recognizing such an important day allowed me to reflect on what it means to be a woman in the 21st century. I’ll be even more specific and think aloud about what it means to be a woman in STEM.

Within this universe, my professional experience is quite diverse and spans three countries. I did my undergraduate and graduate work in mathematics in Bucharest, Romania, my Ph. D. in mathematics in Magdeburg and Trier in Germany, and my professional life in psychometrics in the U.S., in New Jersey and Iowa.

In Romania, I was lucky to have access to an amazing education where many of my best professors were women. I fondly remember my first course on the mathematical underpinnings of computer science, which was taught by a very young female prodigy. She was intelligent, just had a baby, and one of the best professors. I, alongside my peers, were in awe.

Women made up about 20 percent of the professors in the mathematics faculty during my studies. To my shock, there were none in the mathematics or in the psychology departments in Trier. In the U.S., I have been fortunate enough to work for two organizations where about half of the employees are women, and where the leadership teams have a significant number of strong women.

However, once we narrow to the most technical areas, the distribution is skewed again, including in my own group, ACTNext where two of my teams that work on Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning have no women. 

So, what helped me along my career path in STEM, and how can I share this knowledge to support others?

I believe it all starts with the need for role models. This is true for every one of us, regardless of gender, or race, or socioeconomic status. We look around and ask, "Is there anyone out there who shares my experience and is successful in an area to which I dream of belonging?" If the answer is yes, then one can see a possible path. If the answer is no, one will always doubt whether they truly belong, even if successful.

I was fortunate enough to learn early on that I belong. A (male) teacher told me that I was one of the few people who “could create something out of nothing.” I was 14. When I was anxious about my test scores for admission to university, my other (male) teacher said, “If you don’t get in, then who would?” In other words, I was told that I belong. This is what I remind myself even nowadays, if I ever get anxious about anything. It’s that powerful!

As the senior leader of a technical group and an adjunct professor of psychometrics, it’s important to be the kind of role model I had. “Paying it forward” is my job. 

I look to build a path forward for my team, my students, and for colleagues from our community.

For someone who veered off a traditional path, obtaining a Ph. D. is a personal success. For someone who struggled to write, producing a new paper is a success. For my colleague, earning a scholarship is a success. In all of these instances, I not only tell the individual they belong, I really try to ensure that they believe it. 

There are many ways of belonging. When we lack variance in role models, we don’t see the realm of possibility. Can I belong in STEM and love girly-girls dresses? Can I get a Ph. D. and have three children? Can I study math and find a husband? Can I be the boss and enjoy shopping, or do I need to talk about golf, football, and baseball? Believe it or not, I hear these questions from my students. These are not superficial questions. They reflect the very real struggle that women face to build an authentic identity. 

We often hear that women are perceived as being less confident. We, as a society, especially in America, need to learn to disentangle confidence from real knowledge and ability. Confidence is nothing more than the coherence of a personal story (Kahneman, 2011). The story can be ridiculous and the confidence high. However, the story is more coherent when you weave it from a place of belonging, from a place of safety. We need to teach our girls the power of a coherent story by providing the assurance of belonging, and we need to look closer into their story to understand what’s behind their apparent lack of confidence.

Our society needs women’s perspectives everywhere, in order to be whole, especially in STEM. First, it’s a matter of numbers: we hold up half the sky.

Second, it’s a matter of insight. Some women have very sophisticated insights into complex situations. A talented woman can change the knowledge map around a given problem, even if she doesn’t always have the evidence to support it. This can add tremendous value for innovation.

Third, it’s a matter of collaboration. On average, women try hard to be attuned to other people’s contributions. There is strong research evidence that teams who have many women are more successful (see Woolley’s research). 

Fourth, women tend to have a different way of assessing risks. They take into consideration the social consequences of risk management, which is valuable for a team. A team is better off having both the daredevil and its mother when making decisions. See Huston’s book for an interesting overview on how women make decisions.

Fifth, women tend to care more about improving the lives of others. We need more psychometricians who are willing to take their knowledge and build solutions for education.

Last but not least, all humans have the right to variance; the right to be who they are, and the right to choose. Some women are successful in STEM jobs. Some are successful doing something else. This is true for men, too. Our job is to help all those around us be the best they can be at whatever they choose to be, and to ensure that they belong.

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ACT released its fifth annual STEM report on March 8, which indicates that female students continue to lag behind males in STEM readiness, despite equal interest in STEM careers between the two groups. Learn more.