Be so good they can’t ignore you: Women and girls in STEM

Joanne Wilson STEM career advice international women's day UNGA Joanne Wilson STEM career advice international women's day UNGA

A few weeks ago, I was delighted to participate in Girl Up's Girl Talk, a virtual learning series featuring expert panels, youth-driven content, and community actions young change-makers can learn from while engaging with their peers across the globe. On 11 February, I had the privilege of addressing the 6th International Day of Women and Girls in Science Assembly, whose theme was “Equality in Science for Society”.

Both events had me reflect on my 30+ year career in the technology industry, from earning an advanced degree in electrical engineering from Stanford University to leading standards development activities for a Silicon Valley technology pioneer, to supporting the Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) Program at the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). I have also been a member of the Radio Regulations Board at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technologies (ICTs).

Today, I am proud to have been appointed as Deputy to the Director of the ITU Radiocommunication Bureau, a position that had never been held by a woman engineer. 

ITU is also a co-founder of EQUALS – the Global Partnership for Gender Equality in the Digital Age – and the convenor of the International Girls in ICT Day.
I am sharing these reflections in the hope that other girls and women across the world will consider careers in science, technology, engineering or math – the crucial collection of fields known as STEM – and to help them better understand how to do it.

Insights from a STEM career

Women often experience speaking up only to get ignored. A man might say the same thing, and suddenly it’s a “brilliant idea”. When that happens, know that the man who followed you heard your good idea, agreed with it, and wanted the idea captured. Don’t let it get you down.

Move forward and do not let those things derail you.

I started my professional career at AT&T Bell Laboratories, a storied institution responsible for pioneering research and development in telecommunications. One time, while working at Bell Labs, I had to be late for an important meeting. Walking into the room I encountered a table full of men, all much older than me. I was the only African American, the only non-white, the only woman, and the youngest person in that room. When I sat at the table, they glanced at me and kept talking.

Then, an issue came up about a new project, and I happened to know the background. I asked for the floor and explained what was already done or being planned. Suddenly, the men whipped around and began to introduce themselves, one by one: now I had their attention. I was someone who knew what they needed to know.

And that project turned out to be one of the best I have ever worked on.

Seize those opportunities

Decades ago, when I graduated from Stanford University with a master’s degree in electrical engineering, it was a different time. But several aspects remain very much the same: few women and people of colour in engineering, relatively speaking.

But I was blessed with having some very good role models when I was in school. One was my mother, who had worked at the United States Census Bureau.

My mom was one of the many women who worked as editors of the Statistical Abstract of the United States, which has been published since 1878. Some guy would come in as their boss, and they would train him. Then he would go up the corporate ladder, so to speak, leaving them behind. Another guy would be hired again to be their boss, and the cycle would continue. Women did the hard work but were not given opportunities to advance.

At the same time, I was fortunate to never encounter the kind of teacher who suggested girls were worse at math than boys.

Math or science is not any more difficult or more challenging for a girl than a boy.

I also had the good fortune to attend a summer programme at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that aimed to make STEM fields more inclusive. If you’re a high schooler in the United States, check out the MIT Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES) programme, which aims to bring more kids from underrepresented communities into engineering and science.

Do your homework

Math and science are concrete. These are not subjective fields – you either know how to solve the problem or you don’t. So dedicate yourself to being good: do your homework, go the extra mile, and do that bonus problem.

In the engineering world, it’s all about competence.

Knowing what you’re talking about is the most important thing you can do as a scientist.

Explain what you know and what you don’t know, be honest and then work to discover more. You must be credible. Once you pass that hurdle and know your stuff, people will line up to work with you.

Tackle problems together

You’ve got to work with others to solve big problems in science and technology. This is the reality for any STEM career. You will most likely be part of a collaborative effort.

During my undergraduate studies, my classmates and I would gather to work together on problem sets. In the evenings, groups would take over classrooms and work out how to tackle specific problems. Whoever knew how to solve a problem would work it out on the board and explain it to everyone else. Working through it together built confidence in each of us. Mutual support – with my friends – made the tough engineering curriculum much more endurable and fun.

I’d like to advise all young people going into STEM: form study groups, work things out together, and challenge each other in friendly competitions.

It will prepare you well for your career later on.

Find your champion

In parallel, you should look out for allies and mentors. And for women in STEM, I should add: don’t assume that your male colleagues and higher-ups or your professional contacts with different backgrounds than yours might not support you; they might actually turn out to be your best champions.

If not your direct supervisor, someone in your network might be ready to open a door for you.

I think everyone with a career has had someone else who stepped up and supported them, regardless of gender. Keep your focus on doing the best you can. Support will come.

Have fun with it

Doing something that really makes a difference is fun. Before joining ITU, I worked for ASRC Federal, a government contractor for NASA – where you have all kinds of people having a great time doing super cool science.

A good friend of mine, for example, is responsible for managing spectrum. Her job is to ensure all radio systems on the International Space Station can co-exist and don’t interfere with each other. Today, she’s responsible for spectrum management for all of NASA’s activities on the Moon. Now that is a cool job!

When visiting the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena (California, US), I saw more women doing amazing research, working on the Mars Rover and other activities. At every NASA Center, there are women doing cool science. Why let the guys have all the fun?

Equality and diversity in science

I am a firm believer in equality in science. It can be achieved if future generations of scientists and technologists – whether researchers, practitioners, policymakers, or educators – reflect our diverse global community.

Our STEM workforce needs to be diverse, not only in terms of gender but also ethnicity and geographic and economic background.

Those who shape science and technology policy, who decide where research dollars flow, who perform research and develop new technologies, and who run companies that make critical infrastructure investments need to represent everyone. They must be from diverse backgrounds if all of society is to equally enjoy the benefits of science and technology.

If you like math and science and you want to do cool things with your career, then you should pursue an engineering degree. Find your specialty, whether in one of the various engineering disciplines or in the sciences or mathematics. There are so many interesting things to do and fascinating problems to solve.

The key to STEM is knowing your stuff.

Work hard and be competent. Then do more: be extraordinary. Put in the extra hours. And don’t forget to have fun. In any of these fields, there are so many spectacular adventures waiting for you.

Learn more about the work of the ITU Radiocommunication Bureau on gender equality here.

Image credit: Joanne Wilson