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Interviews with Real Working Women

Wednesday 22 July 2015 at 2:07 pm.

I interviewed 14 women working in STEM professions. I had acquired an overwhelming amount of personal stories and opinions, these are a few of my favorite snipits of the most inspiring interviews.

Neem Serra, geneticist

Did you face any obstacles or hardships going to college or being in your career, as a women?  

"There are about 6 female developers out of about 200 developers total. They recently made a push to hire more which is why there are 6 now.  I haven't ever worked on a team with another female developer.  My science courses in college had a lot of females but my computer science classes had 2-5 females per 100 students....All the time. I hate to say it feels like it's every day. 

When I go to conferences, someone asks me if I came with my boyfriend or if I am in sales.  The worst was when I was at a conference at 3AM waiting in line for a keynote, and some guy thought it was okay to grill me on my technical knowledge because he refused to believe I was a software developer.  People at work rank the females in order of hotness.  People at work "fall in love" with me and then get mad when I don't return it.  They tell me that I'm "shrill" or "bossy" when I speak up.  People think that my level of knowledge as a developer is indicative of all women developers (so if I don't know something, all female developers are bad at their jobs). When I was in college, I had a programming class where you did paired programming.  None of the boys would pair with me or if they did, they'd tell me to sit there and "look pretty" (also happened at work)" 

Why do you think we need more women in STEM fields?  

"My team is building a webapp that helps people apply to jobs. We were trying to decide how to make unique users, and someone suggested that people never change their names, so we should use names.  As a person who changed their name for marriage, I spoke up and said that there should be a field for maiden name, and that name didn't make sense for this purpose.  I think as a woman, you bring a different perspective to the team.  I have vastly different experiences so it's easier for me to poke holes in things like half of the population would do.  When the HealthKit came out, it touched on important health issues but it completely missed out on tracking women's periods -- something integral to a woman's health.  I think you need these perspectives when trying to make apps that are for the general public."

Lindsay Patteson, host of tumblecast

How did you find an interest in math or science?

"Throughout my entire time in school, I considered myself to be "bad" at math and science, and good at English and social studies. I've always been a writer, and numbers were difficult for me. Math and science were not interesting to me, and I didn't see how they applied to my life, so I just tried to get the best grade that I could manage and move on.

But after I graduated and started working, I had the opportunity to freelance for a radio program called Earth & Sky. In my very first interview with a scientist who was studying green roofs, I finally understood what I had not understood in my 12+ years of science classes. It was a really basic lesson: Scientists were working on real life problems. Science was not just what was written down in a textbook, or the questions on the test. Science was interesting, relevant, and important to solving the world's problems. I was hooked after that.

I wish that I had been inspired by the curiosity and exploration that's behind science, rather than being focused on learning facts and getting good grades. Unfortunately, I know it's really difficult for teachers to find time to encourage this kind of curiosity, because they have to teach to standardized tests. It's sad, but I think kids have to find that spark outside of schools. That's why having a fun podcast, or YouTube series, or TV show, or whatever can be so important and impactful. Programs are great but media is usually much more accessible.

Is there any advice that you could give to a young girl who doesn’t think math or science is for them?

"You don't have to be a mathematician or a scientist when you grow up. But that doesn't that it's not valuable to learn about math and science. Having a basic understanding of how math and science work will help prepare you to be a smart grownup who can think critically about the world's problems. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who try to argue against science, and it's hurting our future. When a new generation understands and demands that science be valued in decision-making, the world will be a much better place."

Megan Baker, computer programmer with a physics major

Can you describe any careers experiences as a software engineer or former physics major? Were there any obstacles or barriers that you had to go through. 

"One thing that people don’t talk about as much, is the internal barriers. The way the US career system is set up, is self-confidence is one of the most important aspects. It’s harder to feel confident in yourself when you know that other people think of you as an outsider, or might think less highly of you. That some how translates to you feeling less highly of yourself, or being more scared to do things. That was something that I struggled with. I didn’t apply to some companies that I probably should have or at least wanted to have a chance or the opportunity to try to work for. You have to deal with the fact that you hold yourself back in a lot of ways. That, I think, is one of the hardest things. But the antidote to that is to do things that scare you. That’s the idea that my generation and your generation have to grapple with. My parents raised me to be cautious and not to put myself out there too much. The truth is, in any kind of remotely competitive environment you have to do things that scare you because that’s the only way that you’ll grow. After a while being scared isn’t that bad, you get used to it. It gets to be exciting and sort of scary."

What do you find so exciting about computer science and engineering.  

"I think it’s just cool to make stuff. If you have an idea in your head about any kind of way to move information around or present it, like to calculate the effect of football game victories on local house prices or any crazy trend that you want or information you want to have you can do that. It empowers you in a really amazing way. Even if you’re an awesome chemist, there’s probably some awesome chemistry experiments you can’t do because you don’t have the right equipment. Computer science isn’t like most other sciences were you need millions of dollars and a state of the art research facility to answer some question that pops into your mind. It’s basically if you can dream it you can do it. That’s really amazing. The idea that you’re only limited by your imagination. That’s a pretty unusual field to work in. One in which individuals have that much power."

Is there any advice that you could give to a young girl who doesn’t think math or science is for them? 

"Experts who study this have shown time and time again that there’s this idea that people have an innate ability in math. Some people are good at math, and others are bad at math. If you’re born with or without it, you have to live with that. That’s completely wrong. It turns out that math is one of the areas where practice is the most important factor in determining who does well. People who practice at math get better, and they keep getting better. If there’s a young women who doesn’t like math because she doesn’t do well at it, she should try it some more. People should also understand that the way that math is taught in elementary and middle school, and even through high school, isn’t how real math is. Real math isn’t adding a bunch of big numbers or learning how take big square roots by hand. It’s way more interesting, and weird, and complicated. If you like logic puzzles, geometry, cool shapes and figures, rubix cubes, almost everything involves math. There’s so many interesting things you can do with math. It really gives you that power to understand so many different aspects of the world. If you can approach problems with that kind of logic and foundation. Understanding math can give you an incredible amount of power. It gives you the ability to give back to the world in really big, important ways, that you can’t do without math. For a lot of women, they want to spend their lives doing something good for society. There are tons of incredible things you can do without math skills, but if you have a good set of math skills you can reach farther, help more people, and do more incredible things."

Do you have any advice to young women who are looking to start a career in STEM?  

"The most important thing to remember is that these careers can be hard for women because they’re hard for everybody. Especially in software engineering, there are a lot of people who are trying to “one up” everybody else, who want to feel smarter than everybody else. The truth is that that affects men and women. Everyone ends up questioning their ability to do things well and to do their job well. Despite all the evidence that is accumulated to the contrary. Even if you’ve been really successful up to a certain point, it’s really easy to follow into this idea that all of that was just a fluke or I’m not really good at doing well, or i’m just scraping by. Everyone ends up having those feelings. The best way to overcome that is to find allies, who really willingly, openingly and honestly talk about it. A lot of times, the best allies are the ones you feel most comfortable with. That often times means someone your own age or a friend. My roommate is a phD student who is studying mechanical engineering and building these crazy bug robots. She is also a young women studying science and working at a really high level in a very male-dominated male field. She’s really great to have as a friend and as an allie. Having somebody else you can talk about this with, or someone who is experiencing it themselves, or even a really great mentor. Try to find someone who helps you understand that you’re not alone, and who’s inspiring you to keep going, because if it was easy you wouldn’t be growing"