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Progress or Empty Promises? Five Young Technologists Share Their Experience With the Gender Divide in Engineering

Five women's headshots lined up against a hazy green background

The research is clear: diversity in STEM has not improved equally across all fields. While biology and medicine have made strides in reaching gender parity, engineering and computer science programs continue to lag behind, leading to a continued mismatch between the designers of the products and infrastructures that connect us, provide essential tools and services, and enable economic growth, and the audiences they serve. 

According to the Harvard Business Review, women make up 20% of engineering graduates, but nearly 40% of women who earn engineering degrees either quit or never enter the profession. McKinsey & Co. estimates that women comprise 26% of the computing workforce while “women of color hold only 4% of technical roles at tech companies and are almost completely absent at the senior leadership level.” 

The Marconi Society Young Scholars are among the world’s leading young researchers in Information and Communications Technology.  The women in this cohort represent some of the best and brightest in the field, educated at highly competitive colleges and working for top universities and corporations.  As part of the up-and-coming generation of female leaders in tech, they share their experiences and guidance for changing the status quo in a male-dominated field. 

Aakanksha Chowdhery, Machine Learning Engineer, Google Brain

2012 Marconi Society Young Scholar

Community is Key

The concept of diversity extends beyond the differences captured by race, ethnicity, gender, and religion: there are many forms of “otherness.” I grew up overseas, and learned, as a woman in tech, what it feels like to live outside the dominant culture and, at times, be stereotyped because of my various identities. Like many others, I have had my moments of not feeling included when I was the only woman in the room amidst discussion on a technical subject and moments of self-doubt when I received feedback that was critical of my personality and not constructive to my growth. 

Today women in technology often deal with unconscious bias, microaggressions, and lack of inclusion in their work environments. The sad reality is that this unconscious bias can be hard to recognize or address. The individuals facing it often experience self-doubt about whether they are not technically capable enough or whether they will be labeled “too sensitive” if they try to address it. We need to cultivate organizational cultures where we accept individual differences without judgment and empower individuals to have difficult conversations around bias constructively. Not only does this provide each human with a safe and nurturing environment to feel included, the entire community gains from varied perspectives.

In my personal journey, I have learned to embrace the challenges around unconscious bias as part of my focus on service and outreach to the community. I have focused my outreach toward promoting diversity around three key themes: building strong mentoring relationships, establishing ties among disparate communities and interdisciplinary groups, and creating broader open dialog celebrating diversity. This has helped me find a supportive community where I learn from others who have had similar struggles. I have found it incredibly helpful to have both male and female mentors to get a fresh perspective. At its heart, my vision of diversity extends beyond simple tolerance and respect to one that celebrates the uniqueness of every individual. Realizing such a vision starts with each of us focusing on compassion for others and a strong rapport with self.

Yasaman Ghasempour, Assistant Professor, Princeton University (2021)

2020 Marconi Society Young Scholar

How to Break the Positive Feedback Loop in the Gender Divide

Even though the days of “male help wanted” ads are long gone, we are nowhere close to parity and true diversity and inclusion in engineering fields. It is no secret that, statistically, we see a smaller number of women in STEM, both in academia and industry, and specifically in leadership roles. Hence, younger women cannot find sufficient role models and wrongly perpetuate the idea that women are “not a good fit” for engineering workplaces. This disparity causes a positive feedback loop that may yield an even wider gender gap in the future. But this is just the tip of the iceberg; the main concern is the existing implicit bias against women and other minorities that have been established and transmitted through many business systems—from hiring to promotions. Such biases are deeply rooted in our mindsets and shape our judgments, self-image, and self-confidence, often unconsciously. Hence, improving diversity in numbers, while being a positive change, would not solve the problem. Instead, it puts extra pressure on women and people of color when others assume they are unqualified and hired only to meet a diversity requirement. The key to solving the gender divide is improving diversity while enhancing an inclusive atmosphere.

I, like many of my peers, have felt the pressure by society to pursue a less controversial path in my career. Many of us are familiar with being held to higher standards and the need to prove ourselves before receiving the same level of respect that most men automatically enjoy. There is no doubt that systemic changes are needed to solve this issue. Yet, until that day comes, we should use gender bias to fuel our motivation to work harder toward our bold visions and make an unprecedented impact in our professions.

Quarrat-Ul-Ain Nadeem, Marconi Young Scholar

Quarrat-Ul-Ain Nadeem, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of British Columbia

2018 Marconi Society Young Scholar  

It’s a Gender Bias Issue, Not a Pipeline Issue

Growing up in Pakistan and later moving to the Middle East for my PhD in Electrical Engineering, I have seen first-hand the deep bias against women studying engineering and other STEM subjects. I remember when the men in my research group would grab coffee before seminars or arrange other academic and social activities and not include me and another female student—the lone women in the cohort. I got through my early feelings of social isolation but the experience opened my eyes to how students from under-represented groups could lose their passion for research if they feel that they do not belong in graduate school. 

As I progressed in my career, I noticed that this glaring lack of diversity and inclusion extends far beyond graduate school. In fact, the number of women with successful careers in STEM fields in the universities I attended or companies I visited was disproportionately low compared to men. One reason that I believe accounts for this disparity is that, as women, we must prove our professional worth again and again because people assume that we are not going to be able to cut it. We have to behave in masculine ways to compete with our male colleagues but at the same time are expected to fit into our gender stereotype to be likable. I have seen my female friends face backlash at work as a result of displaying stereotypically masucline traits like being too assertive or decisive. 

Even worse, as a new mother during my PhD, I was repeatedly questioned about my commitment to my career and saw several opportunities disappear. Parenting decisions should be highly personal, yet I often found them to be front and center in my workplace. It seems like a long road that I am on trying to prove myself as a good researcher and an equally good mother, and makes me wonder how many working moms are forced to change or leave their engineering careers while society conveniently labels their decisions as personal choice. It’s time that we stop blaming the scarcity of women in STEM fields on a pipeline issue or on personal choices, but rather see that gender bias is the real issue here.

2017 Young Scholar Shu Sun

Shu Sun, Systems Engineer, Intel

2017 Marconi Society Young Scholar

The Good Fortune of Diverse Environments

After seeing the statistics about the lack of women in engineering and in the technical workforce, I feel lucky and grateful for not having faced big challenges so far as a woman in my engineering PhD program and workplace. In my opinion, the university I attended and the company I joined practiced diversity and inclusion by giving opportunities to women, respecting our perspectives, and recognizing our achievements. 

Prior to applying to the university where I did my PhD, I did not specifically look for a commitment to diversity and inclusion. Part of the reason I selected the university was its location, New York City, a metropolis I thought would be similar to Shanghai, China, in terms of openness, inclusion, and diversity, and it turned out to be true. When I began searching for jobs, I did look for a commitment to diversity. While doing my PhD, I attended several conferences where some representatives from my current company participated, and most of them were women. Furthermore, I knew some female friends who had been employed by my current company before my graduation. Although I did not search for specific data about the exact ratio of men to women, the female representatives and friends spoke in favor of the company in terms of their diversity and inclusion culture. I would advise women students applying to graduate schools or technical companies to do some research on how much commitment a university/company exhibits to the features (including but not limited to diversity and inclusion) you care about.  

Although I have not faced significant gender-related challenges myself, I am aware of the barriers women face in schools and workplaces in areas around the world. For instance, some girls are not allowed to enter school or have to quit their study because their parents cannot afford all their children’s expenses and prefer giving the opportunities to the boys. Some girls even have to earn money from an early age to support their brothers’ schooling. In other examples, some women have to quit or never enter the profession after obtaining a degree due to family commitments and underlying beliefs that women should focus more on family than a career. On the other hand, the world is diverse, and so are people’s perspectives and beliefs. Advocating for diversity and inclusion should not minimize the preferences of women who freely choose to leave the workforce or enter a different field. To help women who want to move forward in technology fields, we will need policies and laws ensuring relatively equal treatment of women and men, such as allocating certain portion of job opportunities and/or leadership positions to women, creating specific groups/sub-organizations in which women can communicate with and encourage each other, among others.

Vasuki Swamy

Vasuki Narasimha Swamy, Research Scientist, Intel Labs

2019 Young Scholar

Equalizing Unpaid Labor

In 2016, the IZA published an  eye-opening study titled “Equal but Inequitable: Who Benefits from Gender-Neutral Tenure Clock Stopping Policies?”. In this study, the authors compiled a dataset on all assistant professors hired at the top-50 economics departments from 1985–2004 to study the differential impact of tenure clock stopping policies (stopping of the individual tenure clock for a year after child-birth/adoption and not expecting any research during that time) on men and women. The study found that the probability that a man gets tenure in his first job rises by 19% after such a policy is adopted, while the probability for women falls by 22%

The authors found that the primary mechanism driving these effects is an increase in the number of top-five journal publications by men with no such increase by women. This raised the tenure bar and, as a result, fewer women are granted tenure in top-50 economics departments. Why were men able to write more papers while women were not? The answer boils down to the fact that, for heterosexual couples, men have a support system around them (women take care of the children, do more household chores, provide emotional support), while women are trying to publish in addition to maintaining the overall family support system. The question at hand is not about convincing companies and institutions that women, under-represented populations, and those marginalized by society are worthy of professional opportunities. That is an undisputed fact. The more critical question is: “Which structural issues have led to unequal representation in the workplace, especially in leadership positions?” 

In my observation, the overarching problem in engineering, as in other fields, is patriarchy. While solving the issues within patriarchy is complex and will take a long time, there are several things that can be done to help increase representation of women in engineering. As already stated, women in relationships perform unrecognized labor that contributes to the betterment of the man’s career while potentially adversely affecting the woman’s career. Another obstacle that women and other under-represented groups face (especially in the field of engineering) is sexism from men in the workplace—not just from male leaders but also peers and subordinates. This combination of sexism (and racism), along with the burden of unpaid and unrecognized labor, can lead to women (particularly women of color) not being able to advance in their careers, causing them to drop out of the workforce altogether.

Solving this issue requires both top-down—removing biases in hiring and promotion practices, changing work culture, providing child care benefits, establishing paid parental leave policies, etc.—and ground-up solutions—teaching men to recognize their privilege and contribute equally to the unpaid labor pool that women have historically over-contributed to. We need to move beyond giving lip service to the point that diversity in companies and universities is good for the institutions. The time for recognizing that fact was yesterday. Women, especially those in leadership positions, are often asked the following question: “How do you balance your work and home?” Why do we only ask women this question? No matter their position, we wonder how they manage to do that unpaid, unrecognized labor. This question should be posed to everyone, irrespective of gender, as we advocate for a better work-life balance and shared responsibility for emotional labor.