On Monday night, NYU Florence students Yana Chala and Alice Huang kept the ball rolling on student led dialogues with their conversation, “Empowering Women in STEM”. The event brought together a panel of three women in tech: Caroline Dahl, Patrizia Guitani, and Svetlana Videnova. The panelists were of varying ages, from different countries across Europe, working in different fields and companies. Yet, it was remarkable to see these three women who had never met before share their common experiences and challenges of being a female minority in the tech field.
Alice Huang kickstarted the event with the dichotomy between Nichelle Nichols’ progressive idea of science, and the continuing reality of female underrepresentation in science that seems to lag behind Nichols’ aspirations for the field.
“Science is not a boy’s game, it’s not a girl’s game. It’s everyone’s game. It’s about where we are and where we’re going.” – Nichelle Nichols (former NASA Ambassador and actress)
A longer list of statistics and studies was then presented by Caroline Dahl, the CTO and co-founder of Ortrud Medical, in her overview of women in STEM. A few of the findings included:
- Twice as many females are hired when gender is unknown
- Women are often not credited for collaborative research with male colleagues
- Men receive higher pay than women for the same job
- Discrepancy in pay begins at their first job after graduation
Yet, perhaps the most striking finding was that as the number of men working in tech continues to rise almost to the point of doubling, the number of women in tech has remained stagnant. Guaitani echoed this issue by saying “it’s really strange” that there were more women studying computer science in her university in the ‘80s than there are now.
Why are women continuing to be excluded from STEM fields? Dahl suggested that “the lack of women in STEM is a self-fulfilling prophesy”. Without female role models in STEM to look up to, women self-select out of the field. Videnova agreed, and noted that she believes it is important to introduce girls to coding and engineering as young as possible, as many European education systems require students to start selecting classes and specializing as early as in Middle School. The role of a girl’s family in reinforcing gender stereotypes was also raised by Guitani, sparking a fruitful discussion to try to get to the root causes of the issue.
“Helping to organize the dialogue and seeing these women fighting for diversity in STEM made me realize that it is an issue that a lot of females struggle with, not just something that occasionally appears in the textbooks.” – Alice Huang reflecting on the event
One of the strengths of the dialogue was its intimacy and personal tone. Videnova brought up the struggles of navigating the fine line between humor and offence. “You don’t want to be reporting every single sexist joke, but there’s a point when you have to say it’s wrong.” Similarly, Dahl lamented on the wasted time and energy she has had to put into overthinking how to dress, speak, and present herself as a woman in her male dominated workspaces. “If I didn’t have this minefield that I was walking across, what could I have put my energy into?” Yet, the successes that the panelists have achieved even within their male dominated fields are testament to the capabilities of women in STEM. They also noted that standing out in their workplace is not necessarily a weakness, as it can be used as a positive tool to be noticed and heard.
“We, even as women, can do whatever we want” – Patrizia Guitani (Panelist)
The audience was comprised of one of the most diverse groups I have seen at a dialogue; there were students, postdoctoral researchers, a gender studies professional, and a retired physics teacher all in attendance.
“It was incredible to see the speakers engage in conversation about science, women and technology with an audience of such different backgrounds. It created a dynamic discussion that encouraged learning and awareness not only about how it feels to be a woman in STEM, but also how the gender imbalance can be fixed”. – Yana Chala reflecting on the event
While the issue of underrepresentation of women in STEM continues to be salient, the diverse audience (noting, that there were almost as many males in attendance as females) indicates a high level of engagement by different members of our community. Perhaps Nichols’ vision of science as “everyone’s game” can be attained after all.