Spokane’s Women in STEM Town Hall kicked off with a speech from a man. And the first words out of his mouth were: “To the women in my engineering classes: While it is my intention in every other interaction I share with you to treat you as my peer, let me deviate from that to say that you and I are, in fact, unequal.”
You could hear the two hundred people who gathered for the Spokane STEM Network’s January event to strategize increased involvement for Women in STEM draw in a collective tense breath. We all exhaled when he went on to say “Sure, we are in the same school program, and you are quite possibly getting the same GPA as I, but does that make us equal? I did not, for example, grow up in a world that discouraged me from focusing on hard science. Nor did I live in a society that told me not to get dirty, or said I was bossy for exhibiting leadership skills.”
Eastern Washington University undergraduate Jared Mauldin was quoting from a letter he wrote to his student paper that went viral, receiving hundreds of thousands of likes and shares on social media. It set the tone for a powerful afternoon focused on the realities women in STEM fields face and what everyone can do to support women’s success in STEM.
The event, presented in partnership with Women’s Funding Alliance, Washington STEM, and Greater Spokane Incorporated, featured three women STEM professionals sharing their perspectives and advice to the crowd, which included almost 50 female students from fourth grade through college. As with the Bremerton Women in STEM event, the professionals shared many insights on stage and during discussions after. Below are just three.
1. Make connections with other women.
McKinstry engineer Mireya Fitzloff states “I hope to break down the stereotype that engineering is a man’s world.” Mireya spends her days inspecting construction sites and problem solving, and she’s devoted to making sure other women are able to have these sort of opportunities. Part of this work involves connecting with other women professionals to network, support, and advocate. These connections communicate a clear message to the younger generations. Said ten year old Libby, who wants to be a baker or scientist, “I learned from this event there is nothing girls can’t do just because they are a girl.”
2. Acknowledge, recognize, and talk about challenges.
Heather Rosentrater, an electrical engineer at Avista, opened up her speech by sharing research that demonstrates men and women are biologically and culturally different than each other. She emphasized that the trouble doesn’t rise when talking about differences – it rises when judgement is placed on these differences. As a result of these judgements, many women feel pressured to alter communication styles, family priorities, and even career paths – perhaps explaining why some women enter STEM fields but don’t receive the support they need to stay in STEM fields. How do women move past these challenges? By recognizing them, grappling with them, and working together. “I came to this event as a small way to help young women get into engineering,” said Cindy Brower, an engineer at Coffman.
3. Action Item: Introduce one girl to STEM this year.
Dr. Michele Moore entered Spokane Falls Community College looking for a second career. She thought she’d go into psychology, but then she realized that she loved science and math and wanted to continue to pursue her studies. Continue she did – receiving a PhD in Materials Science in Engineering from Washington State University.
Dr. Moore credits mentorship and advocacy from other STEM professionals as key to her success, and she now teaches at SFCC, encouraging others to enter the field. One of her students, 20 year old Christine Forseth, was present at the event and said that Dr. Moore’s classes in math and physics helped her realize there were opportunities out there. Even though Christine is often one of only two female students in her pre-engineering classes, she feels engaged, supported, and encouraged – saying “I’m going to ace these classes because I love math.”
Dr. Moore challenged everyone in the room to reach out to at least one girl this year to let them know about the possibility of careers in STEM fields. Most people in the room started this discussion right at the event – one table of women engineers and female students stayed for an hour after the event to network and share ideas.
The conversation started at Spokane’s Women in STEM Town Hall is already continuing for many of those who attended the event, traded e-mails, and made coffee dates. It’s something we can all replicate in our community so we can support women getting into STEM and staying in STEM. Do you have more ideas on how to support women STEM professionals? Leave a comment!