Invent/Empower: Women in Engineering Summit 2015 Hosted by the Office of Student Affairs, NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering
Anita Farrington, Associate Dean of Student Affairs at NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering, is committed to fueling the STEM pipeline for future generations. Always launching new programming initiatives for her engineering students, Farrington hosted the 4th annual Women in Engineering Summit, with the theme of “Invent/Empower”. The room is bustling with students, seasoned professional women, and, in line with Tuesday’s focus on K-12 STEM initiatives, members of local Girl Scout troops, middle and high schoolers, and prospective School of Engineering applicants.
As Farrington opened the Summit with her welcome speech, she highlighted the fact that “our guests came to us as young as age seven and from as far away as India.” She went on to say, “when asked ‘why do we put in the time and the resources and the effort to present this Summit?’ Simply put, we are on a mission!” Emphasizing the evening’s focus on K-12 initiatives, she remarked upon a blossoming partnership between the Girl Scouts of Greater New York and the School of Engineering in conducting further outreach to young girls interested in STEM-based careers, before she personally welcomed the K-12 population in attendance and cleared the stage for Tuesday evening’s keynote opening speaker, Lyndsey Scott.
[photo caption: “Keynote speaker Lyndsey Scott, middle school age”]
[photo caption: “Lyndsey Scott currently”]
Attendees on Tuesday evening might have been looking to simply find out more information about careers for women in the STEM fields, but they would quickly learn through Ms. Scott’s personal and highly relatable keynote speech how many more uniquely female issues there were to address. Ms. Scott, who is a successful high fashion runway model, actress, and app developer with several successful apps available for download on Apple’s App Store, spoke of splitting her time between her technology pursuits and modeling, the significance of believing in one’s own ability above all else, the paramount importance of further diversifying the tech world, and the challenges of overcoming the opinions of those who don’t believe that Ms. Scott can model for Prada while simultaneously being an authoritative and knowledgeable voice in tech field.
“I’ve managed to structure my career and life around doing so much that I’ve loved doing. I’m an actress, model, and app developer, which, as I am reminded, is a rare combination.” A graduate of Amherst College, Ms. Scott “entered Amherst thinking I wanted to act, but found my way into a computer science class.” She began to design her own custom games for her graphing calculator and said “it never occurred to me that the logic I used to make my games was the basis of computer science. So that’s what computer programming is, no matter how simple the language programming, at its core is a series of logic problems. I realized I was naturally good at computer programming and it felt great!”
Ms. Scott went on to discuss the opposition she encountered from various male users on a popular online technology question and answer website after she changed her avatar from a blank square to that of her own face; her correct answers to tech-based questions were initially deemed insignificant and erroneous, and her rare incorrect answers were scrutinized to a microscopic degree by the mostly male user base. She persevered and eventually became the top ranked user on the site, acquiring the most “up votes” for her answers and posts – while still using her modeling headshot as her avatar.
Lyndsey Scott’s example of bias is one of many others discussed over the course of the three-day Summit that women uniquely face in the tech world. Day two of Invent/Empower brought a panel discussion working women in STEM fields. Moderated by Virgilia Kaur Pruthi, a published author and senior staff member at Amazon, the panel included four other women who are STEM industry professionals and ranged in topics from their individual motivations to enter STEM fields, discrimination and bias they’ve faced during their careers, work/life balance as a woman, and advice to the upcoming generation of female engineers and technology workers. Panelist Susan Zheng, an NYU alumnus and NYC Tech Stars graduate who founded and is CEO of Lynxsy (a mobile staffing firm), stated that her “primary reason for going into technology was to try to make an impact.” Vidya Neti, a Quality Assurance Engineer at Mini-Circuits and another NYU alumnus from the School of Engineering, described the adversity that women face in STEM careers, stating that discrimination based on gender was “way more subtle”. She further explained, “there is a condescending attitude” towards women, and that women are often “interrupted more than men [at work].” Dr. Alicia Powers, a data scientist who has worked with many government agencies and non-profits, when asked about the importance of mentoring younger women in the same industry, said “if you feel like you don’t have something to offer now, don’t be surprised when, in 5-10 years, you will.” The fifth panelist, Jin Kim Montclare, an Associate Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the School of Engineering, spoke at length about her own system of work/life balance. Montclare stated that she was lucky enough to have had “a support system that motivated me into having a STEM career” and spoke about the additional support needed (and received, from her husband) to raise her 5 year-old daughter (whom Montclare called her “top priority, always”) while continuing her successful career.
The panelists took questions from the audience, which largely consisted of School of Engineering students. Several of their questions pertained to advice on networking and how to break into STEM industries. Virgilia Kaur Pruthi, speaking about networking techniques, suggested to “connect with someone over food, create intimacy. Make your emails personable, do research on that person.” Pruthi also remarked that she schedules time on her calendar to remind herself to connect with friends and family, a comment that resonated with the room and panelists.
As the Women in Engineering Summit came to a close on the third and final day, attendees gathered to hear two Lightning Talks (one about invention, the other about empowerment, with speakers that included Barbara Murphy Warrington, the CEO of the Girl Scouts of Greater New York) before the final evening’s events, highlighted by the presentation to 4 School of Engineering students of the first annual “HERstory Awards”, and Dr. Ruthie Lyle-Cannon’s closing keynote address. Lyle-Cannon, an NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering alumnus and the first black woman to receive a Ph.D. from Polytechnic, started her speech with the personal story of her parents’ experiences raising children in the Jim Crow era south while insisting that their children receive the highest possible caliber education. She then went into details of her own education and ensuing career, describing her fifteen years spent at IBM where she became a patent agent and then earned the distinction of “Master Inventor.” Now working for the USAA, and having the distinction of being their first off-site worker hired, Lyle-Cannon lives with her family in North Carolina. She stated that she “sees technology as a way to provide resources to underserved communities. Technology and social issues are tied in with each other” as she presented statistics from the National Science Foundation that showed the underwhelming percentage of females in STEM fields (just 14%, only 2% of those women being women of color). The overall experience summed up through Lyle-Cannon’s presentation at the Summit was that there were success stories, overcoming adversity and a focus on career and family, and the possibility of becoming an entrepreneur.
In her closing remarks, Dean Farrington took the stage once more and shared, “there’s a junior from a Long Island high school who attended our panel yesterday who wrote to me last night to say that she was very grateful for being invited and that she “was better able to make some very important decisions after hearing [the panel’s] advice!” Farrington further reflected on the “Interactive YOURstory” whiteboard of comments gathered from attendees over the course of the three days. “One of my favorites says, “Standing up for what’s right empowers me.”
Never seeming to tire, always inspired, and dedicated to supporting and advocating for her current and potential students, Dean F, as she’s affectionately referred to by her students, conveyed “we promise to continue to do our part to keep the momentum. This evening and for the past few days, we were very proud to present our dynamic, featured speakers…and I know that we will all continue to keep the momentum…to inspire and to empower.”