What Women Want: Careers in STEM
STEM Childhood conditioning makes young girls feel like pursuing a career in STEM fields is unattainable, but with self-motivation and a good support system, women are more than capable of moving into a male-dominated industry.
A recent graduate from Yale University, where she earned a Bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics, Christina Brasco is open about her passion for helping encourage more women to enter technology fields. As a member of GE Digital’s data science team, she’s participated in mentorship programs like Girls Who Code to motivate young women considering careers in math and science. We asked her about women in tech and what she sees for the future.
Mediaplanet: What do you attribute to the lack of women in technology today?
Christina Brasco: It starts with how social groups form as children. The misconception that boys are better at math and science is something many girls have ingrained in their brains from a very young age. As a result, fewer girls elect to take advanced math and science subjects in middle and high school.
Then, young women who do pursue these subjects often find themselves isolated as one of a very small number of girls in a class, making connecting with their classmates more challenging. Finally, those who pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) jobs after graduation end up in fields that are even more overwhelmingly dominated by men. Overall, girls and women are filtered out of STEM classes and fields in the classroom and the workplace.
MP: What pushed you to continue in these fields and eventually double major?
CB: I had an amazing physics teacher in high school that really inspired me to move forward in the field. He wrote in my high school yearbook: “You can run with the big dogs. Don’t ever doubt that.” While that note of encouragement may seem small, it’s something I draw upon regularly and helps me feel supported in pursuing my passions.
My parents were also a huge influence in my education and career choices, as math-minded professionals themselves. It’s important for women to have these role models, not only at the student level, but in their careers as well.
Q: Working as a data scientist at GE, what advice would you give to women considering a similar path?
A: It’s tough out there, but it’s worth it to be able to do something you love. If you major in something like math or computer science, you will take classes that are designed to weed people out, with the majority of students eventually dropping the class. My advice would be to seek out help and lean on your peers.
Many math and science classes are designed in the spirit of collaboration—professors expect students to form study groups to get through the most difficult assignments. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and to look around the classroom for people to work with. While at first glance it may seem like you don’t have much in common with other students in the room, you may be surprised what you can learn from each other. The same goes for the working world. Teamwork is essential to succeed in business. Get to know your teammates and colleagues, and try not to be self-conscious if you are the only woman in the room.
MP: In what ways can companies be more supportive of women in tech?
CB: I would love to see more big companies take ownership of the significant role they can play—not only by hiring more women but also partnering with schools and organizations that support women in tech from a young age. Awareness of the opportunities that STEM classes provide down the line can play a powerful role in retention and motivation.
"The lack of women in technology roles will not change overnight, but my hopes for the future are for incremental gains, even if they are small, that show the numbers of women in tech roles rising."
I had moments in some of my hardest math courses in college when I wondered why I was putting myself through such a grueling course load. Tech companies can make a huge impact by showing students what types of jobs are available with a STEM degree, helping to educate women on how the skills they are learning will actually help for a career as an engineer, UX designer or a data scientist.
MP: Now that you’ve been in your role for a while, what do you love most about your job?
CB: I love the opportunities I have to teach, learn from and collaborate with my colleagues. Working with GE’s aviation team, I am tasked with developing data solutions and applications, then showing engineers how to implement them. Being able to help solve problems in a novel way, creating something new and helping an established business think differently is something that I feel really proud of. Not to mention—I have learned a massive amount about how the business functions along the way.
MP: What are your hopes for the future of women in technology?
CB: The lack of women in technology roles will not change overnight, but my hopes for the future are for incremental gains, even if they are small, that show the numbers of women in tech roles rising. I would love to see an uptick in the numbers of women taking the more difficult calculus BC exam (according to the College Board, females comprise 49 percent of AB exam takers but only 41 percent of BC exam takers), declaring STEM majors or applying to tech jobs upon graduation.
Today, so few women take the Putnam Exam (the most prestigious college mathematics competition) that the few who do are made to place red stickers on exam booklets to identify themselves for special prizes. I would love to see the implications of such practices be seriously discussed, and hopefully have them disappear. Every step forward moves the needle toward progress; I just hope that continues in 2016 and in the years to come.