“We need to change the world by changing the focus.”
With that quote, Rebecca Blanton, executive director of the California Commission on the Status of Women & Girls, kicked off the first-ever California State University, Dominguez Hills Women in STEM Conference on April 30.
Blanton joined numerous well-known female speakers and practitioners in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) from around the United States at the conference, which was designed to address, assess and make recommendations on the current state of women in the sciences, and how to bring more women–especially minority women–into the fields.
The one-day conference was part of a week-long series of activities leading up to the investiture ceremony of CSU Dominguez Hills’ 10th president, Willie J. Hagan, on May 2.
Rod Hay, dean of the College of Natural & Behavioral Sciences, recounted during his opening remarks how women make up half the workforce, but cited statistics from the White House that show that less than a quarter of those in the STEM fields are women. He urged women to get involved in the STEM disciplines to help bridge that gap, with Blanton in full agreement.
“Women for so long have been considered a problematic black box in the field of science,” said Blanton, who spoke about her own personal struggles with a mystery illness, and gave an example of how a male physician once dismissed her, diagnosing a serious medical condition in “less than 75 seconds” as simply a lack of exercise. Blanton was dumbfounded by his lack of understanding, especially as she routinely runs 20 miles a week.
“We are not just ‘smaller versions of men,’” said Blanton, who used her own example as just one of many instances when women are dismissed because of the lack of research that has been done about their bodies. “For too long, men have been deciding what will be researched, and that often means issues that affect women’s bodies are ignored. We need to take charge and refocus on what’s important to us.”
Blanton was joined in a morning panel by Lee Ann Kline, president and founder of the STEM Advantage, a scholarship-mentorship-internship program offered to minorities, especially women in STEM majors. Twelve CSUDH majors are currently recipients of the program. Kline, who has worked extensively in the technology and consulting field for corporations such as IBM and MetLife, stressed that “there has never been a better time to be a woman in STEM.”
“Multinational companies like Toyota, Sony Pictures and DirectTV are realizing we need more women in the technology and engineering sphere,” Kline said. “They’re begging for diversity and we just need to encourage more women to apply for the right scholarships, take the internships and mentor them.”
Kline spoke about how in the past, she would often work with companies whose IT departments were virtually free of women or minorities, and how she “could count on two fingers” the number of women, African Americans and Latinos she worked with. Though that’s started to change incrementally, Kline stressed that there’s still a long way to go, and spoke directly to the students in the audience to implore them to consider a career in STEM.
“If you’re studying a STEM field, you’re not only doing a great service to yourself, but also to your community,” she said.
Blanton and Kline were joined by numerous other successful women in panels during the conference, including engineers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, senior research scientists and a strategic partnership manager for Facebook, Bree Nguyen, who also happens to be a CSUDH alumna with a degree in business finance. Nguyen started out making websites and being involved in computer coding before switching to the business world and making a name for herself in the technology industry.
“Though I work with celebrities and musicians more on the marketing side of things now, there’s no way I could do my job without the computer skills I know,” Nguyen said. “Facebook has a billion users, so we use math and statistics constantly.”
The conference’s keynote speech was given by Dr. Wanda Austin, president and CEO of The Aerospace Corporation, a leading architect for the nation’s national security space programs. The company has nearly 4,000 employees and annual revenues of more than $850 million. Austin spoke at the conference about giving women the confidence to enter the sciences and how often fear stops people from pursuing their passion.
“Fear happens to everybody, and you know what, you’re not always going to have success,” said Austin, who went on to detail how despite her years of experience, there were still projects that didn’t succeed as she thought they would. “But the key to that is preparation. It gives you the confidence to tackle any issue, and you have to believe that you are creative and smart and you cannot be afraid to ask for help.”
The fear of failure or the unknown should never turn you off, Austin told the audience.
“Don’t count yourself out, don’t take a step back, but do take a step forward,” she said “You’re just as able as anybody else of solving a problem.”
Austin has been the CEO of the company since 2008 and is committed to inspiring the next generation to study the STEM disciplines. Under her guidance, The Aerospace Corporation has undertaken a number of initiatives in support of that goal, including participation in MathCounts, US FIRST Robotics and Change the Equation, all of which seek to improve learning in the STEM fields.
The event ended with workshops for young women interested in entering the STEM fields, pairing them with experienced mentors. This included breakout sessions that helped young women in high school and college prepare their resumes and gave insight and tips when interviewing for a position in the particular fields. Career advancement, chemistry presentations by high school students in the surrounding communities and a Q-and-A rounded out the conference.
Bobbi Lee Smart, a graduate student in sociology here at CSUDH, raved about the conference and how inspiring it was to see so many role models in the world of STEM.
“I really liked how they were honest about what we as women face in those fields, and it wasn’t sugar coated,” she said. “It was inspiring to see that despite all the challenges they faced, they didn’t let culture or socialization stop them from doing what they wanted to do.”
The conference was sponsored by the California STEM Institute for Innovation and Improvement (CSI³), the College of Natural and Behavioral Sciences and the Office of the Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs.