Women in STEM Recap

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While an increasingly larger number of women are choosing to pursue degrees in the traditionally male-dominated STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) the percentage of women actually working in these fields has not changed much in the last three decades. There has been much research into the reasons behind these stagnant numbers, yet many of the forces keeping women from progressing remain invisible from the outside. With the recent rise of movements like #metoo and #timesup, issues of blatant harassment and discrimination have been brought to the media spotlight.  But there are also deeper, more implicit issues embedded within organizations such as gender stereotyping, implicit bias and even women holding themselves back.

As I walked out of the elevators into the beautiful space provided by Telus Digital for the STEM Panel hosted by Young Women in Business, I couldn’t help but wonder: What am I going to learn today that I don’t already know?

After my pre-event duties as part of the organizing committee, I settled into my seat amongst the crowd which, I happily noted, was very diverse. People of all ages, genders and career paths had come out to listen to the wisdom departed by the panelists.

This, to me, was enough evidence these issues we tend to associate with women actually indirectly affect everyone. It speaks to the importance of having colleagues and friends from all walks of life in one’s support system. At the front of the room sat our accomplished, professional panelists – Dr. Ilana MacDonald, Abhilasha Bhatia, Barbara Robinson and Dr. Sarah Mayes-Tang.

Who were the panelists?

Check out these blog posts to learn more about the panelists:

Ruth Fernandez, MAPC
https://ywib.ca/toronto/blog/women-in-stem-ruth-fernandez

Dr. Ilana MacDonald
https://ywib.ca/toronto/blog/women-in-stem-dr-ilana-macdonald

Abhilasha Bhatia
https://ywib.ca/toronto/blog/women-in-stem-abhilasha-bhatia

Barbara A. Robinson, M.A.Sc., P.Eng.,
https://ywib.ca/toronto/blog/women-in-stem-barbara-robinson

Dr. Sarah Mayes-Tang
https://ywib.ca/toronto/blog/women-in-stem-dr-sarah-mayes-tang

The conversation, moderated by Ruth Fernandez, covered a wide range of topics that ranged from anecdotal experiences of discrimination in the workplace, to tips and strategies on how to overcome these obstacles in the workplace. Amidst jokes about sewage systems, Barbara talked about starting off as an engineer and eventually becoming so good at her job she was able to start a company of her own. That, to me, is the definition of perseverance and her passion for her work is something that I strive to have in my own life.

When the impressively-dressed Dr. Sarah Mayes-Tang mentioned she second guesses the way she dresses out of fear that she won’t be taken seriously, I wanted to stand up and say “hey me too”. As ridiculous as it might seem, it made me realize women tend to think about things that wouldn’t even cross a man’s mind! The conversation continued with Dr. Ilana MacDonald confirming that, “No, all astrophysicists do not act or talk like the guys from the Big Bang Theory”.  Dr. MacDonald went on to discuss all the stereotypes she constantly has to dispel around both astrophysics and being a woman in astrophysics.

While I learned something from each panelist, the one thing that resonated with me the most was when Abhilasha Bhatia was asked how she handles being an introvert in a job that requires collaboration. She gracefully replied, “You don’t have to be loud to do your job, right?”  The applause from the audience was awe-inspiring and reaffirmed for me that there is nothing wrong in being yourself, as you are. I think this is something women especially tend to struggle with and will often change how they behave to fit certain expectations in the workplace. In fact, I have even been told to speak up more during meetings at work because “that’s what great leaders do”.

As I walked out of the event that day, I thought to myself, I should have more discussions about these kinds of topics with both male and female colleagues. I might just surprise myself with all there is to learn and how shared our experiences can be.   


Parting thoughts

The panel noted how everyone, even accomplished women, will suffer from imposter syndrome quite often. They said that we all need to tell each other how great we are doing, and the great job we do everyday, and to recognize each other’s efforts as often as possible.

The panel reinforced the need to have a support network. Whether they are your friends, family or like-minded colleagues, they recommended to rely and uplift one another. They noted that there will be difficult times when you’d want to leave the industry altogether, but that having this support system and sounding board will help you persevere in the field you love.


Learning More

YWiB created a handbook with resources to support you, our community, as you continue to forge ahead and take action in your career. The dropbox link is below:

https://www.dropbox.com/s/veynf19oekidx8m/YWiB%20Toronto%27s%20STEM%20Resources%20Handbook.pdf?dl=0

Please also utilize this folder containing resources from Canada Business Ontario.

https://www.dropbox.com/sh/qwztldaf25srlxb/AAC01k_X63R61VOIgqaQr715a?dl=0

You’re welcome to share this information with anyone.

Women in STEM: Ruth Fernandez, MAPC

Meet our panel moderator: Ruth Fernandez. Ruth is a Managing Consultant for IBM Global, and has worked in both journalism and technology implementation. Her passion for diversity and gender equality makes her the perfect moderator our Women in STEM panel discussion. We can't wait to hear what what questions she has for our panelists and how she continues to forge ahead!   

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What made you want to participate in this panel discussion?

I have always been interested in gender equality issues. The topic of women in STEM was the subject of my Communications Master’s degree research project. I examined how technology companies today are trying to attract girls, and women, to STEM education and careers respectively, and what implicit biases can be found in the language and images used in their ads. Research on the lack of women in STEM consistently highlights the need for women to SEE the women working in STEM and to identify potential mentors. This panel, where the audience can interact with female STEM professionals is, therefore, invaluable.

What are some things you do outside of work to help you develop personally and professionally?

I have a variety of interests outside work including photography, viewing movies and watching my favourite TV sitcoms, and the space program (I follow the Mars Rover @MarsCuriosity on Twitter!). I am also a voracious reader gobbling up every type of fiction from romance to science fiction.

I am energized by interacting with others, so I love spending time with friends and family including being a referee during some raucous game nights!

As a management consultant at IBM, I help clients adopt new technologies, and I use a variety of tools to keep my skills current; namely, following thought leaders, reading up on new technology or latest innovations, and asking subject matter experts a lot questions. I try to lead by example -  willing to work in new ways, with new tools that we are advocating.

What has been the biggest learning curve in your career?

Be forever changing. I cannot think of one occupation that is untouched by innovation of some kind. To succeed I had to accept change and ambiguity in my work. Going from the typewriter to the computer to the tablet or smart-phone has meant giving up the feeling of comfort with the way things are. I remember when I had to get up to change the station dial on the TV.. tomorrow something new will be launched and we’ll need to adjust. 

I started my career in journalism at a time when newspapers started their decline, and reporting jobs were dwindling. To make a living writing, I needed to quickly broaden my horizons to write for a variety of industries and objectives – research, marketing, healthcare and technical writing. For the last 20 years I’ve worked in technology implementations helping clients cope with changing technology and ways of doing things. I still see my job as informing and educating people, but about technology and processes rather than the nightly news.       

When you think about your journey thus far, what would you say was the one trait that helped you get you to where you are today?

Adaptability. I quickly learned that I needed to be adaptable and not box myself in as one thing or another. It’s not something we are taught when we choose our area of study, or think about when we decide what we want to be when we grow up. The world is changing rapidly, and one must be open to the possibilities. Being open to how I could apply my skills and constantly learning new things has been the key to my career success.

I left university in my 20s thinking I might break a Watergate-like story, but now I work on digital transformation projects and explain cognitive computing!

What advice would you give to other women working in STEM?

Some colleagues recently asked me how I got such plum assignments.  My answer: I applied for them, then worked hard to learn while in the role and live up to my commitments. Raising your hand to take on a new challenge is the first step. Do not put limits on your skills or your ability to learn.  It took me a long time to take bigger risks (ok sometimes they are calculated risks!). As one of my rock heroes, David Coverdale, of Deep Purple, said, “Be safe, be happy, and don’t let anyone make you afraid.”

Who do you look up to, and why?

I’ll start with the obvious: my parents for immigrating to Canada more than half a century ago. Their sacrifices including leaving behind everything they knew so their kids were born and raised in such a wonderful country where we can be whatever we want to be. Beyond that, a colleague once told me that you should have at least five mentors. So, there are teachers, colleagues and loved ones who I go to for their various expertise or traits. And these days I often crowd-source advice from them all! Finally, I look up to Jennifer Yetman who became my Little Sister through Big Brothers and Big Sisters 20 years ago. She is now an incredible woman, a family counselor and educator. I’ve witnessed her struggles and admire her positive attitude and love of life.

Ruth Fernandez, MAPC, is a Change Management leader and scholar known for her ability to inspire and motivate multigenerational, ethnically diverse, and geographically dispersed teams. She completed a Bachelors of Arts in Journalism at Ryerson University, and her Masters Degree in Professional Communications at Royal Roads University. Her research project examined how technology firms leverage advertising to attract teen girls to STEM careers. Her study uncovered the counterproductive patriarchal discourses hidden in the ads and its potential damaging consequences. As an IBM consultant, Ruth focuses on creating and implementing strategies to enable and empower employees to adopt new behaviours and new technologies. Dedicated to the mentoring of girls, Ruth is an active member of the Big Brothers and Big Sisters organization in Montreal where she serves as a local chapter board member and was responsible for the chapter’s first social media engagement strategy. In her free time, Ruth Fernandez enjoys travelling, spending time with family, attending hockey games, and being a role model for her nieces.
 

Women in STEM: Dr. Sarah Mayes-Tang

We are so excited to announce that we will be holding a Women in STEM panel discussion on September 13! With that said, we are proud to introduce our first panelist: Dr. Sarah Mayes-Tang, a Mathematician and Professor at the University of Toronto. Given her knowledge and documentation of the experiences of women teachers and students in math classrooms, we are very excited to hear her take on how women in STEM can continue to forge ahead! But until then, here is a little about Dr. Sarah Mayes-Tang.  

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What made you want to participate in this panel discussion?

Hearing the stories of other women and being able to share my own in an understanding environment have been a huge source of support as I have progressed in my career.  Even if we “know” about unique challenges that women face in fields where they are underrepresented, there is something special that happens when we share and talk about our experiences.  I am also excited for the opportunity to connect with other local women in STEM.

What are some things you do outside of work to help you develop personally and professionally?

Reading. I try to read widely, but am not afraid to put down any book that I don’t enjoy, even if I think it would be beneficial. Physical activity. My exercise routine looks a lot different than it did a few years ago, but ensuring that my body functions well is important in ensuring that I am able to do my best work. Restoration. I am understanding the importance of rest and relaxation in developing a successful career more and more each year.  Some of my favourite ways to unplug include baking, playing piano, and exploring new places with my husband.

What has been the biggest learning curve in your career?

The biggest learning curve in my career was at the beginning of my first continuing faculty job.  Up until that point, my success had always seemed to be based largely on the quality of my work; if I worked hard I would find a way forward.  Suddenly, I found myself in a position where good work wasn’t enough, students seemed to be comparing me to their vision of what a mathematician “should” look like or be, and it felt as though I had hit an impenetrable wall.  Eventually, things got better as some students began to trust me and word spread that I was a good teacher. I became successful in my position.  Through this experience, however, I learned that we don’t always have control over how others perceive women in STEM and that it is important to surround yourself with a supportive community.

When you think about your journey thus far, what would you say was the one trait that helped you get you to where you are today?

My strong drive to learn has been instrumental throughout my journey.  Loving learning and discovering new things is key to making it through graduate school, but plays an even bigger role in being a faculty member.  I see this as an essential part of my job as a professor;  whenever I get away from learning new things my work becomes stagnant.  Although I am a mathematician, I prioritize learning about a variety of subjects (education, history, medicine, computer science, leadership, sociology, etc.).  I am constantly surprised about where I stumble upon connections to, and inspiration for my work! 

What advice would you give to other women working in STEM?

Find people with whom you can talk openly and honestly about the struggles that you face in your career.  Having friends or colleagues who will be reliable cheerleaders when things get tough can be a tremendous support.  They do not need to be in STEM themselves - some of my greatest professional supports are not - but you should be able to rely on them to accept the barriers that you face.

Who do you look up to, and why?

I think that I could write a book about all of the people that I look up to! Here are three, in brief.  A friend, Bianca Brigidi, is one of the wisest and most eloquent women I know - she always seems to know exactly what to say in difficult situations. My mom, Ann Mayes, has built communities and a family with grace and is a pillar of strength in my life.  My PhD supervisor (aka my “academic mom”), Karen Smith, is a tremendously accomplished mathematician but she spends a great deal of time and effort supporting young mathematicians, particularly those from underrepresented groups.

Sarah Mayes-Tang received her undergraduate degree in mathematics from Queen’s University, and her Master’s and PhD degrees in pure mathematics from the University of Michigan.   Her dissertation was in computational algebra and algebraic geometry, and investigated questions about infinite collections of polynomials. After receiving her PhD, Dr. Mayes-Tang joined the faculty of Quest University Canada, a liberal arts institution in British Columbia dedicated to undergraduate education.  While there, she developed and taught innovative courses in both traditional and non-traditional areas including calculus, abstract algebra, cryptology, creativity in mathematics, and knowledge.  She also initiated and led several University-level projects. Following four years at Quest, Dr. Mayes-Tang moved to the Department of Mathematics at the University of Toronto.  She currently leads a team of instructors and TAs as coordinator for the University’s largest-enrollment calculus sequence.  Her current projects include documenting the experiences of women teachers and students in math classrooms, developing programs to support TAs, and helping students to develop positive attitudes towards mathematics.