Alumnae give professional advice for femmes in STEM

The Career Development Office hosted a panel on women and femmes in STEM. Panelists included Vicki Tanovan ’93, Wendyliza Gonzalez ’03, Naomi Alpert ’12, Silvi Dore ’16 and Alex Alcantara ’17./ Courtesy of Clark Xu

Along with the struggle for equal pay and equal  rights, proportionate representation for female-identified individuals in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers and leadership roles remains a major goal for those striving to create a more just and equitable society. Last Sunday, April 22, six alumnae spoke about their STEM work experiences with students on the Careers in STEM panel, hosted by the Career Development Office (CDO) and the student organization Femmes in STEM.

“With this panel, we wanted to bring role models back on campus whose experiences are important and should be valued,” explained President of Femmes in STEM Olivia Fiol ‘20. “We had hoped that they’d bring advice and kindness, which they most certainly did! We also knew that it would be inspiring to see woman-identified individuals as successful STEM professionals.”

Professor of Psychology Michele Tugade ’95 moderated the panel and announced, “This is a really important gathering of brilliant and important women…If we can look at our audience today, this is the future of women in STEM.” Panelists included senior clinical research consul-tant Vicki Tanovan ’93, bilingual speech-language pathologist Wendyliza Gonzalez ’03, biostatistician Naomi Alpert ’12, clinical research coordinator Silvi Dore ’16 and software developer Alex Alcantara ’17.

Speaking to imbalances in workplace diversity, Dore described the homogeneity of the Heart Center in Poughkeepsie and reflected, “Our practice has 36 cardiologists, and four of them are women…One of my managers is a woman, the rest are men.” Female-identified employees at the Heart Center are concentrated at the support level, staffing the front desk and computer back rooms, and very few fill medical or supervisory roles. Dore continued, “We haven’t fully broken the ceiling; there are some limitations to change.”

Tanovan, who works at ClinSolutions, a medi-cal consulting company, agreed: “In pharmaceuticals, it’s similar. The top levels are mostly male— the CEO, the VP, the ones who make the decisions are male. There are few women and they do work harder than men, we see that.” Addressing women and femmes seeking leadership roles in STEM, Tanovan advised, “If you have ambition and want a high-level effect, you have to come in from the highest end, PhD, MD, and then you have to come in and push hard.”

The panelists gave a diverse range of insights to current woman-identified students with aspirations in STEM. Pre-med student Brynna Gleeson ’20 said, “I was surprised to hear commonalities between all of their experiences, even though they were from different majors, class years and careers.” Considering advice by panelists for women STEM students to be more assertive, Gleeson add-ed, “I’m never really sure if it’s internalized patriarchy or if I just lack confidence because classes are really hard, since I also don’t have confidence when I talk to other women about classwork.”

The Vassar alumnae/i network can also provide key support for STEM students. Gonzalez remembered her early experiences in the field, recount-ing, “While I was here, I reached out to an alumna in speech language pathology … I did a shadowing experience. Later, when I was interviewing, she was the one who interviewed me, and we reconnected.”

At New York Medical College, Gonzalez makes an active effort to represent herself well in order to combat prejudices about her intelligence and work ethic from male supervisors and patients. Gonza-lez observed that since women fill the majority of roles in speech-language pathology, negative stereotypes have developed around the field as a soft and fuzzy science. Despite the potential challenges in facing workplace stereotypes, Gonzalez reiterated, “Your reputation at Vassar will precede you… You want to maintain and protect that reputation. No matter what you do, do your best.”

In the field of statistics, Alpert, who works at the Icahn School of Medicine in New York City, said, “My bosses, mentors and coworkers were all women … I’ve actually found it to be really wonderful that I found a ton of women in leadership positions … I’m sure it’s not universal, but it is good to know that things are changing and [STEM industries] are not as male-dominated as they used to be.”

Moderating the data science panel last Saturday, Associate Professor of Mathematics and Statistics Ming-Wen An contemplated areas of progress for the representation of women in mathematics. There are a few parallels between academic departments for statistics and Alpert’s experiences of the biostatistics industry. An responded, “In terms of degrees in statistics or biostatistics, the percentages granted to women for Bachelor’s, Master’s and Doctorates in 2016 are just over 40 percent, nearly half, and just over 40 percent respectively.”

An continued, “In terms of leading figures in statistics, many of these have been women. These women have in turn served as valuable mentors to raise future generation of women statisticians.” A prominent example for An is University of Michigan Professor of Statistics Susan A. Murphy. Recognized as a 2013 MacArthur Fellow and the 2016 Henry Seely White Guest Lecturer for the Vassar College Department of Mathematics & Statistics, Murphy conducted pioneering work in the use of mobile devices to facilitate micro-randomized trials in clinical research. Students in attendance were intrigued by the complexities of the perception and representation of women in STEM. Secretary of Femmes in STEM and Biology Major Lauren White ’20 elaborated, “I  really liked how Gonzalez brought up the point that even though there can be women-dominated fields in STEM, there’s still a lot of stereotypes around them … It’s not the fact that there are women in the field and we can stop worrying about it, but we need to keep the conversation going.”

Some of the disparities in STEM industries have parallels with imbalances in classes at Vassar. Neuroscience major Parveer Kaur ’20 reported, “Being a neuro major, my classes are pretty femme-dominated, so I kind of relate to Gonzalez. But I’ve also taken computer science and I’ve seen the huge disparity.” Kaur noted that women are vastly outnumbered by men in computer science classes.

Fiol added, “Based on my own experience, it has been very easy to feel alone and excluded in some of my STEM classes, mostly by my peers. I believe that it’s incredibly important to have diverse role models because without them, it would be hard to visualize my goals.”

As an employee in the digital technology leadership program at General Electric, Alcantara corroborated, “In both of my teams, both at Glen-Allen and Niskayuna, they’re all men. I’m the only person with my perspective, both as a woman in STEM and as a Latina.” Alcantara also spoke to the importance of self-confidence, especially in meetings where male colleagues choose not to respect her voice and to talk over her.

Citing an experience that inspired her to work in information technology, Alcantara continued, “One of the biggest things that led me to where I am now was going to the Grace Hopper conference … It gave me the job opportunities, networking opportunities that gave me what I needed to work in STEM.” Alcantara recommended that Vassar students continue to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, an annual conference in the U.S. that emphasizes research and innovation by women in computer science.

Addressing this point, Professor of Computer Science Jennifer Walter said, “I have been fortunate to be able to attend this conference with fe-male Vassar students for the past 16 years. I started by taking two Vassar women in 2002, eight in 2007, and more than 20 in each of the past three years.” With over 20,000 women projected to be in attendance this year, Grace Hopper was started in the 1990s by Anita Borg to address the underrepresentation of women in information technology at a time when personal computers were gaining prominence.

Walter recalled, “For me, it was very difficult going through undergrad and then grad classes in which I was the only woman in the room. Computer science was not an easy major for me, not only because of the complexity of the material, but also because I mistook the male students’ confidence to be superior understanding of the material … I was definitely encouraged to go for both an undergraduate and graduate CS degree by my female professors and mentors. I seriously doubt I would have done it without their support.”

The formation in Nov. 2017 of a Task Force on Sexual Assault and Harassment in the American Statistical Association and stories published in 2018 by the Caucus for Women in Statistics reveal challenges that women in mathematics continue to face. An detailed, “Unfortunately there are still stories of harassment at all levels, from undergraduate training to postdoctoral training and even in the workplace. Along with the MeToo movement, women statisticians seem to be increasingly opening up to share their stories.”

In order to foster connections between students and alumnae/i, the CDO has helped organize over 45 events this school year. The events this past weekend also included panels on management consulting and data science. Associate Director of Alumnae/i Outreach and Partnerships Jannette Swanson elaborated, “It’s worth noting that much of this programming is collaborative—to help connect students to alumnae/i around career-related matters.” Swanson’s role is a new addition to CDO operations, and she encouraged students and faculty to reach out with any plans for programming related to Vassar’s alumnae/i network.

Swanson expressed, “My hope is to make many of these programs more interactive in nature so that students are working with alumnae/i in a more applied setting while they are on campus and to get our students to visit our alumnae/i through more site visits and industry immersion trips to companies, organizations and particular cities.” For example, many graduating seniors continue to seek advice and keep in touch with mentors they found at Sophomore Career Connections. Swanson concluded, “Our alumnae/i are deeply invested in Vassar and want to contribute to the success of our students, and I see the events I organize as an opportunity to get these relationships started.”

In terms of advice to students with aspirations in STEM, An concluded, “Seek mentors whom you trust and respect, and who have your best interest in mind…Find a program where you have community, not only of great mentors but of fellow trainees. These people will support you through challenging times, and will also become lifelong friends.”

Urging students to develop a strong sense of personal identity and achievement, Gonzalez similarly reflected, “It took me a while to find my voice. If there’s any regret that I had [it] was that I didn’t use Vassar to develop my voice. So use your time wisely in that sense.”

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