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Iris celebrates women in STEM!

In the United States today, women make up an estimated 47 percent of the workforce. In the science and engineering field, however, women are far less represented than men. According to the National Girls Collaborative Project, women hold only 25 percent of occupations in computer and mathematical sciences, and only 13 percent of occupations in engineering.

With such an underrepresentation of women in these fields, Iris Magazine and the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center find it imperative to celebrate the accomplishments of women who are triumphing in overcoming gender biases and bridging the gender gap in the STEM fields.

In honor of these women, Iris, supported by the U.Va. Parent’s Committee and the Women’s Center, hosted the Celebration for Women in STEM on Wed., April 1, 2015.  The event, which took place in the early evening at Newcomb Commonwealth Room, brought together students from organizations such as the Society of Women Engineers and Alpha Omega Epsilon for a dialogue and networking opportunity with women working in STEM. Three women from the Charlottesville and U.Va. community, Pam Norris, Kim Wilkens, and Amy LaViers, shared with us their life experiences and achievements in STEM fields.

Our first speaker, Pam Norris, is a first-generation college graduate and the third woman to graduate from Georgia Tech with a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering.

At U.Va., Norris is the Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Programs in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the Frederick Tracy Morse Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and the founder and director of the U.Va. Microscale Heat Transfer Laboratory and the Aerogel Research Laboratory.  

She is also the director of the U.Va. CHARGE program, which seeks to increase the representation of women faculty in STEM and social behavioral sciences.

At the celebration, Norris explained the importance of the CHARGE program, “The diversity of faculty has not kept pace with the diversity of students. There is a large gap between institutional goals and practice for faculty diversity. Women only represent 18.6 percent of STEM faculty at U.Va.”

The CHARGE program conducted a survey to understand how these women faculty members felt in their positions, and the general report showed that these women overwhelmingly felt isolated, unrecognized, and trapped in a place of male privilege.

To help eradicate these negative sentiments, the program seeks to affect the departments where the women faculty live and create a positive environment for all faculty, to recruit and hire an increasing number of women faculty, to get ideas from the community on how to improve the gender gap in STEM, and to give women faculty a voice in the larger U.Va. community.

One of our other guest speakers, Amy LaViers, is the Assistant Professor in Systems Engineering at U.Va. Growing up in a family of engineers, LaViers was exposed to the STEM fields at a very early age.

While she grew up knowing that she wanted to pursue a career in engineering, she simultaneously developed a strong passion for dance. Toward the end of high school when she was deciding which college she wanted to attend, LaViers chose Princeton for its strong engineering and dance programs. She declared her major in Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering (MAE), a specialization that many of her fellow classmates found surprising.

“I went through my freshman year of college, and I would say that’s also when I realized that maybe that was a strange thing to have checked [MAE as my intended major on my college application] because what do you do freshman year? Everyone’s like, ‘Oh, What are you majoring in? Where are you from?’ And you say ‘Oh, I’m MAE,’ and they say, ‘You don’t look like an MAE,’ and I’m always thinking in my mind I’m coming from East Tennessee and I’m at Princeton and I think everyone’s going to be enlightened and I’m like how are you going to respond with such a sexist remark, but thank you, or you know, I don’t know. Is that a thank you? And I really started to realize that it was odd [being a female in engineering], but I kept doing it.”

LaViers eventually graduated as one of four girls in Princeton’s MAE department with a minor in Dance.

Today, LaViers runs the Robotics, Automation, and Dance lab at U.Va. where she researches how to reproduce human movement in a way that is similar on human-shaped robots, as well as supplements a large body of qualitative description explaining what differentiates genres of dance. In combining and pursuing both of her passions, LaViers serves a role model for not just young women in STEM, but women in all fields.

Kim Wilkens, another guest speaker, is the founder of Tech-Girls, an organization that addresses the gender gap in tech among elementary, middle and high school girls.

Her passion for the STEM field began at a young age. She entered college a Mathematics major, but when attending a professor’s office hours with a question about a math problem, to which he responded, “women often have problems in these kinds of things,” Wilkens switched to Computer Science. After college, she began working for IBM as one of the few women employees at the time. However, a self-declared feminist, Wilkens thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of being of the few women in her field.

After experiencing a difficult pregnancy, Wilkens left IBM. During the celebration, she recited a passage from her journal.

“I had done well in a man’s world, but now I found myself in the world of motherhood. How was I supposed to excel at something I had no training for? What has happened to my feminist agenda? I thought I was helping to pave the way for more women after me to be treated as equals, but instead, I was just playing by the rules of corporate America, and they no longer seemed adequate for my life. I felt like a rebel without a clue.”

A few years later, Wilkens rediscovered her passion in teaching technology, and more specifically, in addressing the gender gap in tech.  She launched Tech-Girls in 2012, which started with six middle school girls. With the help of social media, the program has expanded to three different middle schools in Albemarle County.

To address the gender gap in technology, Tech-Girls sets up workshops and events at these local schools to educate young girls on technology, and inspire them to share their vision with the globally connected community.  In the future, Wilkens hopes to expand this program to include mentoring and internship opportunities for these girls.

As a final message to the audience, Wilkens passionately affirmed, “Even though its 2015, you are going to encounter gender bias because you’re a female. If it’s blatant misogyny, sexism, it’s very easy to deal with because it’s very clear where the problem comes from:  them, not you. The much more subtle enemy is unconscious bias. It is harder to detect and harder to deal with because it isn’t done in any malice. It’s going to get under your skin and you’re going to start doubting yourself and asking, ‘Do I really belong here?’ I want to make it crystal clear that you definitely belong here. We need you here. We need you at the table. We need your voice, your experience, your thoughts, your ideas. Everything.”

The Iris team is extremely grateful to these women for sharing their narratives with us.  Their stories of triumph in fields so underrepresented by women made for an extremely informative and inspirational event.

Check out more photos and video from our event!

Story by: Alaina Segura
Photos by: Michelle Cho
Video by: Chuck Moran

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