We still need to empower women in STEM

Girls’ early enthusiasm can get dampened by cultural norms

Nada Anid, vice president for strategic communications and external affairs at the New York Institute of Technology, says women are a great, untapped resource for the science and technology industries—we just have to help them all realize it.
Long an advocate for women pursuing education and career opportunities in STEM fields, Anid’s efforts in this area include her recent book, The Internet of Women: Accelerating Culture Change (River Publishers, 2016), as well as articles for Forbes, University Business and the Huffington Post, among others.
Anid will present at the Women Leaders in Technology Summit at the UB Tech conference in Orlando, Fla., in June. “I’m going to address the state of women in tech, and where the opportunities are,” she says. “I’m going to suggest strategies for women to succeed and advance. It’s going to be empowering.”

Ten years ago, you became the first woman dean at the New York Institute of Technology’s School of Engineering and Computing Sciences. Was that a challenge?
Oh, yes, absolutely. There were—and still are—very few women engineering deans in North America. It’s getting better, but back then, I was number 16 in North America out of 375 or more female deans. The percentage of female deans is still less than 20 percent, so we are still the minority and we have a long way to go. Was it challenging? Yes, but that was the exciting part.

What problems did you encounter in those early years?
They weren’t any different from what other women experience. I won’t call them problems, but they are the challenges of being the only woman in the class as a student, or the only woman in a meeting—you just get used to it. If you have a goal in mind, you should just pursue that goal and don’t let the fact that you’re the minority be an obstacle to your progress. That’s how I managed it.

Women earn 60 percent of bachelor’s degrees, yet they account for only 13 percent of computer science graduates. Across all industries, women hold just 25 percent of STEM-based jobs. That’s eye-opening.
Yes. You asked me how things were 10 years ago? They have not improved much. I commend University Business and UBTech for having this conference for women in the business. Women need role models and they need the tools and the resources, but most important, they need a network.

Girls excel in math and science in early grades, but then their interest falls off dramatically. Do we know why?
We see that drop around age 11. Their bodies start to change in middle school and research shows that it affects their self-confidence.
Teachers unwittingly play a big part as well because they tend to call on boys more than girls. A related behavioral characteristic of girls is that when you ask them questions, they tend to think before giving you answers. That’s perceived as hesitation, whereas boys will raise their hands and give any answer, and the teacher thinks, “Oh. We don’t want to embarrass the girl.” All that comes into play and affects their confidence in math and science.

It took many years for Barbie dolls to stop saying, “Math is hard.”

At that age, there’s also a cultural aspect, in which a girl doesn’t want to appear “too smart” for a boy.
That’s my life story. You don’t want to be perceived as a “miss-know-it-all,” so you pretend you’re dumb or dumber than what you are. You tend to keep quiet. And it happens in relationships as well because you don’t want to intimidate the other person.

You have long advocated for women pursuing STEM fields. What can colleges and universities do to create more opportunities for that?
It’s all about building the pipeline, and it’s something we have to start earlier and earlier. As you said, there’s a point where we know that girls falter. We need to work with primary schools, but then put out efforts in middle schools and create an awareness around tech, so that girls can choose that as a field or as a career without fear.
We should be working with middle school teachers and with high school principals, and creating an awareness campaign about gender differences and how to approach them. There is such a huge demand in the tech workforce that we need these girls, we need minorities, we need everyone to contribute.
Corporations should work more with universities on this outreach because they are the ones in need of employees. It has to be a partnership. We don’t have the resources in the universities. The corporations have to lend us a hand, and the government needs to assign special programs and special scholarships to encourage these underrepresented groups in all STEM fields. The opportunity may be there, but we need resources to make it a reality.

There have been efforts to promote women in technology, such as in the movie Hidden Figures and in recognition of Margaret Hamilton, who developed the onboard flight software for Apollo missions. What else can be done?
We need to influence pop culture more, and to give women more prominent roles when it comes to images of scientists or of engineers. We’re starting to see that in some ads from GE and others and in movies, but what about toys? It took many years for Barbie to stop saying, “Math is hard.”

How is NYIT helping to further these goals?
We’re starting a new initiative this March—a Women’s Corporate Council. Our goal is to bring together female leaders from all over the U.S. to inspire other women to follow in our footsteps, and to give them the resources they need in partnership with the government and the corporate world. We’re working with high schools and middle schools on different events, such as “Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day,” where we have our students present demos to the girls. It’s learning about engineering through some fun activities with college students. We’re also working with a company to create a hackathon event. We’ll have about 250 high school students, girls and boys in teams, working on coding problems. Every team will have at least one girl, but we also encourage teams with only girls. They just need to see that it’s possible, that it’s OK, that there is no difference.

What do you hope that UBTech attendees take away from your presentation?
There is hope. I’m not the kind to just dwell on a problem and make everyone feel like a victim. It will take generations, but we need to be more vocal. We need to be more proactive, and we need effective programs and advocates to be able to see progress. Progress will not come if we don’t work for it.

Tim Goral is senior editor.

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