Breaking Down the Barriers for Women in STEM
Women have historically been underrepresented in STEM fields. But that does not mean there are not fierce advocates for better representation.
At CBIA’s May 19 When Women Lead conference, a group of leaders from the education, engineering, and manufacturing sectors joined to discuss barriers facing women in STEM, and pathways to find meaningful careers.
Moderator Diana Alejandra Daury, a principal engineer at Hartford Steam Boiler, highlighted STEM’s reputation as a difficult sector to enter as a major factor discouraging women from exploring the field.
Coupled with a culture that thinks “hard things are for boys,” women are rarely inspired to explore STEM fields, Daury said.
So how can these topics be brought down to earth and more welcoming?
At Westminster Tool, vice president Hillary Thomas said children in grades K-3 are invited to the facility to do problem-solving challenges.
“What we say is, ‘how many of you like making stuff?’ And everyone raises their hands,” she said.
“And then we say, ‘cool, we get paid to make stuff.'”
Thomas said the work is complex, but framing the concepts simply resonates with children as something they could do.
At Hartford Public High School, teachers provide students with accessible opportunities to learn about the field, principal Flora Padro said.
And while the topics may not always be easy, “difficult is not impossible,” Padro said.
She also encouraged discussion among students about what a scientist “looks like.”
Typically, students picture scientists as a Caucasian male with glasses, Padro said, so the goal is to open their minds and show that any of them could be a scientist.
Lisa Roy, director of government and community relations at The Jackson Laboratory, wants to make the idea of being a scientist a more tangible idea to students.
That includes providing role models for students to engage with and to learn what exactly a scientist does to see if the STEM field is for them.
“Engage girls in opportunities to be together in a safe space,” she said.
“When they’re surrounded by their female peers they can learn about things together, they can reinforce those things together, and that speaks to giving them a little more confidence to be vulnerable to learn new things and try and fail.”
Padro also spoke about her time in student engagement as an assistant principal in the New York education system.
Her greatest success was creating an all-female geometry class.
The class was composed of troubled students who were suspended and engaged in conflicts.
But once they joined the geometry class, the students engaged in noticeable behavioral changes and started collaborating more effectively.
“They began seeing themselves as part of the community,” Padro said.
“It wasn’t isolation anymore. Now they had a sense of belonging.”
Westminster Tool has overcome obstacles for women in STEM through their hiring practices.
“In 2014, we started hiring for character and training for skill,” Thomas said.
“It’s that concept about hiring a human, not filling a need.”
This hiring practice has resulted in the company being 35% female, and growing.
Roy agreed, and said the hiring of women in STEM needs to be intentional.
“You don’t have to be one type of person operating one type of way to be successful,” she said.
“You have to make an intentional choice to do formal mentoring, to do upskilling, to do career development training, and really teaching the women at our organizations that they’re welcome, and that there’s a career path and a commitment by their organization for them there.”
Daury described the disheartening cycle of women not seeing themselves represented in STEM, not joining the field, and having the process repeat.
“You cannot be what you cannot see,” she said.
“A person cannot imagine something they don’t see. A young girl can only imagine what an engineer or molecular scientist looks like when they don’t see a woman at the center.”
Padro experienced this issue firsthand.
“Representation matters. I was that kid that did not feel worthy,” she said.
“And if you pair that with issues around housing, poverty, insecurities with food and basic needs, you don’t feel like you ever belong in an academic setting.”
But a relationship with a lead female scientist at a museum set Padro on a different course, as she brought kids on field trips and introduced them to role models.
“The more we’re able to offer those opportunities, the more likely they are to see themselves in these roles and to feel successful and confident,” she said.
Along those lines, Thomas encouraged women to “be real.”
Having recently become a mother, Thomas acknowledged added stress in her life. But she also has refused to hide it from her colleagues.
“I come to work some days, and I look like a hot mess,” she said.
“But I got out of bed, I got my daughter to my mom’s house, and now I’m at work and I’m going to have a good day.
“You might not be able to see it, but we need to be real that getting to those places of confidence is possible.”
Roy mentioned that many women experienced issues with childcare throughout the pandemic, and highlighted the leadership role CBIA has taken in heading a private sector coalition to tackle these issues.
“They’re trying to figure out how to address that childcare issue, and they’re coming up with creative ways to make this available to employees.”
What was their best piece of advice for women looking to enter STEM fields?
Padro reiterated the mantra “difficult is not impossible.”
“We come from communities with a lot of challenges, but we have resources, we have people that care, and we can help you navigate those challenges,” she said. “Reach out.”
Thomas said to “stay true to yourself.”
“Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean you can’t be it,” she said.
“When you are developing your pathway, it’s not what everyone else thinks you should be.
“If it’s science that’s your passion and you don’t think it’s possible to get there, there are grants, there are loans, there are people who are willing to pay for that for you.
“Really focus on what it is you want to be.”
Roy advised each woman to be their own promoter.
“There’s a school of fallacy that by working hard somebody will recognize it,” she said.
“That does not always happen.”
Roy referenced research saying women have been uncomfortable highlighting their achievements, but said it is crucial to promote your wins and make yourself known.
Daury echoed that sentiment, saying “nobody knows you better than yourself. Nobody knows what you’re capable of, what your habits are, and what you have accomplished.
“You have to speak up, because nobody else will,” she said. “You can do it with humility, but don’t be shy.”
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