The effort to celebrate and encourage women in STEM and other male dominated fields has already had an incredible impact. The girls I know who are pursuing traditionally masculine majors are always introducing me to friends they’ve made in communities for girls in X or Y major. From scholarships to clubs to mentorship programs, our society, especially in higher education, is finally taking action to combat gender gaps in a wide variety of professions.
We’re off to a great start, but we can’t stop with helping the young women who are already passionate about their prospective fields. It’s equally important to expose young women and girls to female role models who have already blazed a path that they can confidently follow.
In my opinion, having access to role models is one of the most influential factors in making decisions. If I saw somebody cliff jumping and come out alive, I’d be way more likely to do it myself. This article aims to celebrate young women who have broken down societal norms in pursuing the careers they are passionate about, and also to show other ladies what they are capable of.
1) Jess Bendell
Education: BS in Biomedical Engineering at Purdue University
Profession: Research and Development Intern at Cook Biotech
Jess began college “unsure of what it would be like as a female engineering student.” To make life a little easier, she decided to live on a floor with other women in engineering. They were able to navigate those first semesters of difficult classes together. This group of girls showed her that she wasn't alone, and she says she “never felt inferior to men” in her classes.
Jess now works in the research and development department of a biotechnology company which gives her “the unique opportunity to make discoveries and advance the field of medicine. She is inspired by knowing that her work “can greatly improve the lives of patients in the future.” When I asked her if she felt pressure to represent women at work, she said instead that she carries “ a sense of pride with her that she is able to pursue a career that was once never an option for women.”
Jess hopes that women interested in biomedical engineering will “reach out to professionals and just talk to them! There are so many paths to pursue in engineering whether it be in academia or in industry, and people would be more than happy to talk with you about their journeys. If you don't know anyone personally, ask your teachers or family members if they can make an introduction!”
2) Devon Pawley
Profession/Education: PhD Candidate in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology
Devon loves what she does in the lab because she is passionate about creating tests that have the potential to be useful for individuals on a global level, including low resource areas around the world.
She attributes her confidence in a male-dominated field to her parents’ encouragement to pursue her dreams as a child, whatever they might be. “Gender never played a role in that decision. Thinking back, Devon says that “frequently being the only girl in my college classes was challenging, but I was lucky that I never felt bullied or discouraged. Yes, I did sometimes feel I had to overcompensate and prove my worth or intellect to my peers, but never to a point where I felt I couldn’t succeed or that I wasn’t worthy. Again, I attribute this to a strong family dynamic and great friend group.”
Devon’s story shows how important support from a young age and throughout your career really is. She wants women to know that science, technology, engineering and mathematics, although traditionally not female, “are incredibly interesting areas with massive potential for growth.” And although her extensive schooling took time, she couldn’t be more excited about where she’s headed.
Looking ahead, she says that “workplace demographics in my field are already changing and I hope one day to see them completely equal.”
3) Sarah Ackley
Education: BA Northeastern University Industrial Engineering
Profession: Technical Project Manager
Sarah is most passionate about solving problems. At work, she acts as a liaison between the customers and the product/engineering teams. Handling new problems and solving them is her forte, and she is crucial to communications, both internally and externally.
To her, the hardest part about working in a male dominated profession is to compartmentalize emotion from reason. She wants girls to know that “when you strongly believe in something, you need to have the confidence to firmly defend it. At the same time, don't take other's arguments and perspectives personally.”
Sarah sometimes finds herself in situations where a colleague “won't make eye contact, or interrupts me when I speak.” Whether it's a matter of gender or personality, she’s not really sure. So, she says it's important to address the situation and express how you feel, since often times the actions are not intentional. Finding the confidence to pursue a traditionally masculine career can be challenging. So, Sarah is a strong advocate for exposing girls to female role models in diverse professions and early STEM education.
“I drew confidence from female role models. I remember the open house of my college admissions day and hearing the story of my female professor explain her internship experiences and her career. I think since I was surrounded at Northeastern by a handful of female professors that shared a similar career interest, I never really thought of the gender stereotype as a huge deal. I was able to relate to them and I think that is really instrumental in overcoming the stereotypes. I don't think it's a matter of lacking the skill set, it's more about not being exposed to these types of opportunities and having the genuine, relatable role models to look up to along the way.”
Remembering the lack of early STEM education offered to her, Sarah notes that “Engineering, computer graphics, or product design courses were either not offered, or there was little promotion or marketing around these areas up until college. Even now, these courses are most often electives, as opposed to being part of the curriculum.” She hopes that if we introduce STEM earlier in our education systems, it will open the door to an engineering career path for many more women. She also stresses the importance of companies continuing to enforce interview quotas, which she believes “will expose hiring managers to roles and help to balance the scales. It's not always a matter of stereotypes of prejudices, it's a matter of fixing the system and working together - male and female - to mend the gaps.”
To the women interested in tech and engineering, she says “know that I love it. It's constantly presenting new challenges and problems to solve.”
4) Merideth VanSant
Education: MBA (New York University)
M.S. Human Development (Oklahoma State University)
B.S. Psychology (University of Central OK)
Merideth enjoys the part of her job that focuses on helping others improve their quality of life. She explains that she has “a heart for underdogs and the lonely,” and that helping people connect and succeed energizes her. As a woman entrepreneur, she sometimes fears that she is not enough, and credits the small numbers of women entrepreneurs to the fact that “women don't see enough women in it. And it perpetuates the cycle of underrepresentation.”
She wants women to know that “it's okay to aggressively pursue whatever it is that you want.” Merideth believes that “holding onto excuses (yours or others) will only build a wall around you. If there are implicit biases against you, for whatever reason,” she warns against holding onto them and instead hopes women will follow her lead: “Make your values, and what you think of yourself, the driving force behind your career.”
Growing up her Dad said, “I don't care if you're male or female, just be the best damn worker you can be.” She says this taught her to see her strengths and values rather than focus on the limitations on her biological sex by social constructs. “He taught me to never get stopped by someone else's limitations and roadblocks. Always find the solution.”
Focusing on the quality of your work so that you can ignore the stereotypes that might hold you down is an impressive way to invalidate any doubters of your capabilities.
5) Danielle Taran
Education: BS Mining Engineering University of Arizona
Profession: Plant/Mining Engineer
Danielle loves being able to work both indoors and outdoors and physically seeing the progression of her work. She says “there’s nothing like planning a blast, seeing 40,000 tons of rock explode, load that into a truck, send it through a plant, and then see it being laid as asphalt in your community. I was part of that, and I just think it’s so cool.”
For Danielle, the hardest thing about working in a male dominated profession is “proving that you know what you’re talking about. She once had a meeting with a contractor, during which one of her male coworkers ate up time just to figure out what was going on. Despite his obvious confusion, and the fact that Danielle was in charge, the contractor tried to talk to the male coworker “the ENTIRE time.”
In addition to being grossly underestimated, Danielle has dealt with a plethora of male coworkers either making sexual advancements, comments about her appearance, or asking her out on dates. She says, “I have a strict no-date policy with the men I work with, and that is to keep my work and personal life separate.”
Despite this, Danielle isn’t afraid to take on the challenge. “I grew up loving to prove myself,” she says. “I’m confident in my abilities, and I knew that I’d be able to do it.” She draws this confidence from the way her parents raised her and from her mentors. She remembers her mom telling her she could be anything she wanted, and gender was never an issue. Growing up without any brothers, Danielle followed her Dad’s lead, “riding dirt bikes, fishing, and playing co-Ed soccer. But I also grew up doing my nails and playing with dolls too, so I was never discouraged, I was able to balance getting dirty, and still being feminine.” This balance is exactly what Danielle thinks will change future industry demographics.
In school, the department head for her mining engineering program was a big inspiration. According to Danielle, everybody knew and recognized her work in the industry. “I looked up to her so much,” she says. “Her influence and presence made me want to better myself and gave me a life goal for myself and my career.”
To the women interested in mining engineering:, Danielle says “just get involved! The industry is definitely changing, and like anything else, the older people that are used to the “old ways”, or the old dynamics, are getting ready to retire, and more acceptance and the desire for women for the industry are growing. So by pursuing it, you can help carve that path.”
6) Renee Frohnert
Education: BA Pennsylvania State University in Electrical Engineering
Masters Degree Cornell University in Systems Engineering
Profession: Electrical Project Manager
Lockheed Martin Space on NASA, Navy, Air Force and Army Programs
Renee is proud to be making history every day she goes to work. “Being able to say that the antennas I designed will be used to send humans to Mars - that is the most rewarding thing I will tell my grandchildren one day.”
That pride, however, hasn’t come for free. She says the hardest thing about working in a male dominated profession is “having a speak-up mentality. In order to be heard, sometimes you must be clear, concise, and vocal about your idea.” Not to mention, the limitations that come with being simply outnumbered. She speaks on the time in college when she had a broken collar bone and had to rely on the only other woman in her class to help her use the restroom. If she hadn’t been there, who knows what Renee would have done.
Thankfully, Renee knows that the demographics are already changing. “My alma mater, at Cornell University, has reached 50/50 gender equity in the College of Engineering for undergrad.” Renee urges everyone to break gender career norms, and notes that this needs to start early. She believes that her “profession has been traditionally masculine because even at a young age boys are pointed to Legos while girls are led towards Dolls.”
Despite being a minority at work, she feels empowered to represent her gender and draws strength from “representing women, minorities, veterans, persons with disabilities, and other underrepresented communities. To the women interested in engineering or aerospace, remember that there are amazing women and minorities who have made history.”
7) Keia Smith
Profession/Education: Biotechnology Student pursuing a MD/PhD in Oncology
What drives Keia to pursue cancer research is the idea of being at the forefront of medical innovation. She finds the human body fascinating and loves that it remains a mystery, with new and exciting aspects to discover every day. The most important aspect of a career to Keia is “the ability to be hands-on,” and doing research allows her to be both in the lab and at the bedside.
Despite her passion, Keia notes that self-doubt is a familiar enemy when you are the only black woman in some STEM focused spaces/classes. If there are no spaces that accept you, she has learned that you must create a new path for yourself and others, rather than avoid those fields altogether.
In her studies, Keia also feels immense pressure to be just as good as her male peers if not better. Squashing the negative stereotypes of being a woman in STEM is always on her mind, and while she knows that burden is unfair, she is also grateful because “it motivates me to be exceptional.”
8) Jessica Podoloff
Education: Georgia Tech Industrial Systems Engineering
Profession: Logistics Manager
Jess handles supply chains, which she describes as a never-ending puzzle that always gives her something new to explore and solve. “No two days are alike,” she says. Jess jokes that the hardest thing about working in a male dominated profession is “having to keep up with sports” so that she can contribute in pre-meeting small talk.
In her experiences throughout her education and career, gender discrimination most often comes in the form of small, one off comments implying that she’s wrong and/or doesn't know what she’s talking about. This can be frustrating, but Jess has been able to overcome gender stereotypes in her field because of her amazing confidence. Being sure of herself, sure of the facts, and sure of her peers has helped her conquer any stereotypes she has faced. “I'm not afraid to speak up in meetings, as long as I have done my research,” she says.
Despite her confidence and success, she wishes she had started down her career path earlier. “I will never forget in high school my AP Statistics teacher telling me that I had to take his AP Computer Science class the next year. I refused and said it was a class for nerdy boys. Fast forward 2 years to college where I proudly sat among peers, both male and female, taking my first of many computer science classes. I wish I had had female role models in the tech industry who would have inspired me to take that class in high school.”
Jess wants women interested in engineering or STEM careers to know that they are “just as capable as anyone else, so don't be afraid to take risks. We have to be the pioneers for women in the future who will look at these types of jobs not as "risks" or "challenges" but as a viable career path like any other!”
9) Diana Kris
Education: Rutgers University, Class of 2018
Profession: Software Engineer
Growing up, Diana didn't know a single woman engineer, or data scientist. While boys have household names like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, she says “I didn't hear about Ada Lovelace or Grace Hopper until I was deep into the tech community.”
Now, working in tech, Diana still sometimes struggles to feel confident in her abilities “simply because I see fewer people who look like me doing my profession.” One of the most frustrating parts of being a woman in computer science is that her male coworkers sometimes “feel uncomfortable” working with her or mentoring her. She also comments on the negative reaction some people have to initiatives to support women in STEM, saying that “I have been told that “I can get any job because I’m a girl,” but she has “never let comments like those” get to her.
She is grateful, for communities like Girls Who Code, which empowered her early in her computer science career. “Seeing women doing incredible things with code motivated me to keep coding,“ she says. Mentors she found through this program helped her navigate the challenges of being a woman in tech. She is now motivated to “prove to the assholes on the internet who believe that “girls just don’t want to code,” that women can do anything and have an infinite scope of interests.
Diana is hopeful for the future of women in computer science. “The numbers are moving slowly but they are definitely moving. With more work focused on Diversity and Inclusion, I definitely believe we will get there,” she says. She wants women interested in tech to know “that it’s fun and there are communities out there that are amazing for women in tech.”
10) Emilia Angelillo
Profession: Lab Technician in a School, Former Microbiologist
Emilia remembers in her past career that there is a “ lack of trust” that women face, “like we are not capable of carrying out certain tasks as women.” This has put pressure on her to prove that stereotype wrong and show young girls especially that they can pursue science.
Now, working in a school, she has that chance, and says that showing kids that “women in science have had a crucial role” is what she is most passionate about. She also feels that is necessary that being a mom or a wife doesn’t make you any less of a scientist. She too is confident about the future, and believes that the reaches of social media “will help destroy a lot of stereotypes.”
Can We Get A Round of Applause for these Ladies?
Ultimately, seeing faces and hearing testimonials from real people makes a career in a male dominated field feel way more possible. Even though we are underrepresented as a gender across tons of professions, there are women who have pursued almost all of them anyway.
For us to seek them out and talk to them about their experiences not only makes those women feel empowered, but gives us the confidence to take charge of our own careers, regardless of what the office demographics look like when we get hired.
We should feel as equally free as men to choose a path that makes us excited and draws out our talents. In order for that to happen, we must normalize standing up for workplace rights, and expose young boys and girls to a bigger variety of role models that they can follow.