Women Talk Tech and Science at MIT Panel

–University of Liverpool, Creative Commons/flickr

There are, it seems, three constant storylines out of Silicon Valley: Nifty gadgets, billions of dollars, and a worrying lack of gender diversity.

Over the course of the last year, a number of prominent tech companies—Facebook, Yahoo, Google, Twitter—have disclosed their workforce diversity numbers. The results: men make up a wide, wide majority of the engineers at these giants.

And just recently, a Fortune article found that 625 out of 716 former female tech workers say they have no interest in returning to the industry.

The data is stark, but it’s not surprising. It’s no secret that women, and especially women of color, are underrepresented in STEM (Science Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields.

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As for why, we have to turn to personal stories. A few were offered on Friday, at an MIT panel about women in STEM, offered that opportunity. A common thread between them? The women who spoke Friday didn’t just feel discouraged from getting into tech, they also were made to feel like they would never belong.

“I didn’t know women didn’t belong in engineering.’’

—STEM Strategist at Intel Corporate Affairs, Gabriela Gonzalez

Gonzalez grew up in Mexico. She always knew she’d go into engineering and no one ever questioned the path there, she said.

By the time she turned 13 and moved to the U.S., however, she said things were different.

“I didn’t know women didn’t belong in engineering,’’ Gonzalez said. “In high school I was told [by my guidance counselor and my teachers] to pursue something that was a little bit less demanding.’’ At the time, Gonzalez was taking advanced classes and performing extremely well in math, she said.

She even experienced these sorts of biases from her managers, Gonzalez said. Before getting a job at Intel, she said, past supervisors were skeptical of her abilities.

“I clearly remember my (former) supervisor when he met me. He said, ‘Oh, I thought I was going to get a different person,’’’ said Gonzalez. “He said, ‘Women don’t do well in my research group.’’’

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Gonzalez said the pressures from people who told her she didn’t fit the part gave her motivation to prove them wrong, she said.

And when she left that earlier job for Intel, she said, that manager had a change of tune.

“He said, ‘You have dispelled so many myths about how I should think about people and not as a group… but as individuals.’’

“I realized that acting like a man myself seemed to improve things.’’

—Jean Yang, PhD student at MIT

Growing up, Yang said she often felt left out as a girl who was interested in computers. Other adults would tell her parents: “’Your daughter doesn’t really look like a scientist, I don’t think she’s going to do very well,’’’ Yang said.

In attempt to fit in, Yang tried acting more like the guys.

“I realized that acting like a man myself seemed to improve things,’’ she said. “I spent some time thinking about how to do that. I got a short haircut at one point. I’ve since learned that’s not the way to go.’’

Yang dived into research about the different ways men and women communicate. She found that men use facts more often, while women tend to give more compliments.

“That’s the thing I learned to do,’’ she said. “I’d show up, state the facts and give the compliments later.’’

Men don’t usually have to worry about how they come across to their peers, Yang said. Women in STEM careers, however, may feel pressure to present themselves in a certain way just to be acknowledged or recognized, she said.

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“It’s really exhausting to try to fit in,’’ Yang said. “As a woman I really had to go in thinking, ‘What do men act like, how should I act like a man but not too much like a man so they don’t think I’m strange.’ When you spend all your time thinking about that, it’s really hard to do much else.’’

“Everyone knew that I worked really hard, but at the same time they still undermined me.’’

—Tami Forrester, MIT senior

When Forrester found out she was accepted to MIT, classmates told her she only got in because she was a woman of color, she said.

“Everyone knew that I worked really hard, but at the same time they still undermined me,’’ she said. “They still didn’t believe that I deserved to be there. They felt that I had taken someone’s spot who was more qualified.’’

When Forrester arrived at MIT she felt like she needed to prove to everyone, including herself, that she deserved to be there.

She said the school wasn’t always welcoming. Forrester said her computer science classes were not welcoming. There were a few advanced students who spoke up regularly. Because she didn’t participate as much, she thought the other students viewed her as lazy.

She said she was lucky to have a supportive group of friends and family members.

The support encouraged Forrester to remain in the field. She later landed an internship with Facebook. Her mentors there went out of their way to make sure she felt comfortable.

“A major stumbling block for minorities and women is that it’s just this huge chasm that we have to cross,’’ she said. “You have to work really hard for people to take you seriously…We really need to make sure that women have the privilege to move forward in any field we want.’’

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