The past, present, and future of women in STEM

Authors: Ashley Karr
Posted: Mon, August 26, 2013 - 4:02:21

Take away: An impactful way to make lasting, positive change for women in STEM is to constantly adjust in small, simple everyday ways. In other words, change starts at home.

A very brief look at the past

  • The word scientist was first used in reference to a woman, Mary Fairfax Somerville, and one of her published works entitled On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences.

  • Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, was the first computer programmer and the first person to realize computing’s potential—it would transcend mere calculation and change what it meant to be human.

  • Programming languages are based upon natural language rather than machine code or related languages due to the wisdom of a woman, United States Navy Rear Admiral Grace Hopper. Her nickname was Amazing Grace due to her rank and breadth of accomplishments.

I have my master’s degree in engineering and a career in human-computer interaction (HCI), but I did not know about these amazing women until a few months ago when I began volunteering for the Anita Borg Institute (ABI). ABI is a non-profit organization that seeks to increase the number of women in technical fields and to encourage the creation of technology by women. Looking back, I am disappointed that my education did not include at least an overview of important contributions made by technical and scientific women. I can’t help but wonder if adding information like this to our basic curriculum would help improve the odds for women to complete their education and enjoy long careers in STEM. The fact that countless women, who made important and influential contributions to STEM over the centuries, have been overlooked by history is, to be quite honest, rather offensive. I know I am not the only person working to rectify this and give credit where credit is due.

A walk through the present

I recently reviewed scholarship applications for the Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) of Women in Computing. GHC is an annual conference put on by ABI and the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) that brings the career interests and research of women in computing to the forefront. When I read the applicants’ essays, I felt an immediate bond with these women as I observed that our stories as women in STEM held many parallels. Here is a rough sketch of these common themes:

  • We feel isolated because we are different from the men we work and study with and the women we socialize with. It is difficult to find the social support that we, as humans, require.

  • We feel like we have to prepare ourselves for unfair treatment. If we confront the inequities or try to fight back, we fear our careers will be damaged.

  • Our appearance, dress, and abilities are commented upon and questioned at regular intervals.

  • We feel like we are imposters and are constantly pushing ourselves to be better to prove that we belong in STEM.

  • We feel shocked, surprised, and relieved when we find other women who have had similar experiences, and the same shock, surprise, and relief when men understand and support us.

  • We want to do something to change this, but we don’t know what to do, so we reach out to other women in STEM through organizations like ABI and conferences like GHC.

  • Despite these challenges, we remain in STEM because we love our work, and we want to make things better for other women like us.

After reading the GHC scholarship applications, I was moved to act—to do something that might actually make a difference sooner rather than later. I started talking to friends, family, and colleagues about this and asked them what they would do to change things. What most everyone I spoke to recommended was not a massive and noisy movement. They suggested continuously speaking and acting in encouraging, supportive, positive ways toward women in STEM. Their suggestions reminded me of something I have learned from working in STEM: the small, mundane, everyday things that we interact with frequently and or for long durations might be often overlooked and taken for granted; however, cumulatively, these little things have huge impacts on our lives. 

The following is an overview of some of these small, subtle, daily actions we can undertake: 

  • Engage in the Golden Rule. Treat others the way you would like to be treated. Everyone wants to be treated with respect, supported, encouraged, and valued for their efforts and accomplishments. If we are in a situation that lacks any of these elements, we can be their harbingers.

  • Self-reflect. We should be very honest with ourselves and notice our own biases in thought and in action that may suggest a woman might be less competent, less mature, or less capable than her male counterparts.

  • Listen. When someone brings up an issue regarding the challenges that women in STEM face, we should listen to what they have to say. We should listen before, during, and after passing judgment. Then, we should listen more.

  • Talk. We should discuss our biases, good or bad, with people who will listen and suspend judgment.

  • Self-reflect again. We should notice how our biases play out in our everyday lives. For example, in your family, when someone needs help with their computer, is a male relative or female relative asked for their expertise? Are the males the ones called upon to handle anything technical? We all can change this starting now, and we should.

  • Act. It’s amazing what happens when words turn into action.

A glimpse into the future

As a result of taking my own advice, I started making a stand with my family. When a request for technical support would move through the ranks, I would volunteer, pointing out that they have an engineer in their midst, and we should put my degree to use. At first, I met with a lot of resistance. My relatives were not used to relying upon a woman for technical support, but they conceded, and now I have more requests than I can manage to set up projectors for post-holiday slide shows and troubleshoot misbehaving computers.

The most astonishing result of my attempt to support women in STEM starting at home came one Friday night while I was working overtime on a project. I had settled myself at the kitchen table after dinner and was working away on a prototype for a website that had to be completed within the next few days. My five-year-old niece, Emily, wandered over an asked what I was doing. I showed her my prototype and explained to her a little bit about my career. I thought I had bored her, because she very quickly wandered out of the kitchen, and I went back to work. About an hour later, she returned to the kitchen table with her very own, handmade paper prototype of a laptop computer. She set it down next to mine and started typing away on her keyboard. She told me, “Auntie Ashley, this is my computer.” I asked her what she was doing on her computer. She said, “I’m making dot com’s, and I have to type really hard because I have to think really hard.”

The future of women in STEM looks very bright.

Despite the strides we have taken in recent history to support and encourage women in STEM, we must remember that women tend to face far more challenging familial, cultural, regional, national, and global barriers than men when it comes to pursuing any type of education and career. Imagine what would happen if we could move past these barriers and harness the potential and intelligence of all people, regardless of gender, socioeconomic status, cultural background, genotype, and phenotype. The world would very quickly become a much better place. I hope that a at least some of the people reading this article will feel compelled to make their own small, subtle, daily changes for the better. I am thankful for the thousands of other women and men in STEM actively involved in ABI, GHC, and other organizations and events that are part of this change engine. I am honored to be part of it, and I hope you are, as well. Please feel free to comment below or send me an email to tell me your stories about challenges and triumphs you or those you know have faced as women in STEM. I look forward to hearing from you.

Posted in: on Mon, August 26, 2013 - 4:02:21

Ashley Karr

Ashley is a UX instructor with GA and runs a UX consulting firm,
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@Ashley (2013 08 29)

This is interesting. Apparently, the “impostor syndrome” is more of an issue than I realized.

@Jen (2013 09 08)

I think the small daily actions here are great. Its particularly nice to read your examples of what can happen if you change your own behaviour, rather than waiting for the world around you to change. I think those personal, positive stories are important, so I’d like to share one.

I was recently invited onto a careers panel session at an event for end-stage PhD candidates. I’ve a PhD in computer science, had a short but successful academic career and now run a training consultancy business. The panel was entitled “What do employers look for?” and having previously been both a postdoctoral employee and employer I had much to offer.

There were 5 people on the panel and I was the only women. The first question was asked and I had some thoughts to share. But I waited for one of the others to answer first. Then, probably for the first time in my life, I noticed myself doing this - stepping back to give the guys a chance to speak first. It was like a bolt of lightening striking. The next question I had some experience to share so I jumped straight in. My response sparked a meaningful discussion and this gave me confidence. For the rest of the session if I had something to say I didn’t wait for the others to have their say first, I just spoke up. No one was offended, no one reigned me in and on several occasions I heard the other panel members saying “I agree with Jen…” or “Jen’s absolutely right…“and then giving their answers. At the end of the session I was happy that I’d made several important contributions and this was confirmed by feedback from the participants and my colleagues on the panel.

Now I can’t remember ever being explicitly told to wait and let boys speak first, but perhaps I’ve picked up cues as I was growing up that this is how I should behave? Anyhow, now I’ve called my subconscious out on its sabotaging behaviour I’m looking forward to the next opportunity to speak over it.

@Ashley (2014 01 10)

Thanks, Jen!

I am very impressed 😊

Happy 2014.

@Annaka Johnson (2014 03 09)

Were you able to go to her room and see if she had any design process edits that didn’t make the final version she showed up w/? Were their other prototypes? Could you see her thought process thru those pieces?