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International Day of Women and Girls in Sciences

Posted by Opala on February 11, 2022
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February 11 is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, a day declared by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015 to encourage women and girls to enter the sciences. Currently, women represent 34% of Opala’s total employees and contractors, and 50% of Opala’s executive leadership team.
 
We asked Jenny Schell, Product Delivery Director and Melissa Parsons, Data Engineer about how they became interested in STEM as a career and what needs to be done to close the gender gap in the sciences.
 
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How were you introduced to a career in science, and why do you think there are fewer women in STEM roles?
 
Jenny: When I was in the 6th grade, I had a very awesome teacher (female) that encouraged a self-paced system of learning math instead of everyone learning the same content at the same time.  I quickly discovered that I loved math, was good at it and managed to complete both 6th & 7thgrade math content in one year.  That set the stage for me to pursue STEM subjects throughout my education - which led me to a career in science.  
 
I think there are less women in STEM roles because young girls aren’t encouraged enough to pursue them. I was lucky to have had such a great teacher who had large impact during my formative years.
 
Melissa: Both of my parents were engineers, so STEM was a celebrated and respected area in my immediate family.  That gave me a solid foundation and interest in science and technology which helped me when I was trying to decide what field to focus on in college. In college, I became actively interested in the sciences when hearing a talk given by a female professor of neurobiology and robotics.  She inspired me to do some interesting work in the university’s Neurobotics Lab, which then led me to pursue applied mathematics and software engineering. 

I think there are fewer women than men in STEM roles because my scenario is still the exception.  We need more people encouraging a young woman’s interest or inspiring her curiosity whether it’s at home or out in the world. Of course, there are many reasons for the gender gap, but the reason that stood out to me during my experience was the underrepresentation of women leaders in the field. It’s so important for women to see someone similar to them having success and know that they’ll be supported as they pursue their interests.
 
How did you feel as a female in STEM when you started your career, and what prejudices, if any, did you face?

Melissa:
At the beginning of my career, I was really optimistic and enthusiastic, but I had some setbacks.  I was overly cautious not to step on toes, and I struggled with anxiety and imposter syndrome.  I tended to feel like I didn’t belong, and as a result, I worked that much harder than my male peers to compensate for that feeling. That mindset has helped me grow my career and learn a significant amount in less time, but it has also caused me to burn out.  Also, imposter syndrome can become negatively self-fulfilling.  If you don’t believe in yourself, it is harder for coworkers or managers to believe in you. I’m still working on overcoming those challenges, but I can see the improvements that seem to come with experience, positive reinforcement, successful work, and supportive people. 
 
Jenny: I don’t recall having any thoughts when I first started my career about situations being any different for me just because I was a female in IT.  I was surrounded by mostly men, but there were some really inspiring women around me too.  I only began to feel a bit of a prejudice later in my career, specifically when I was making transitions into lead engineering positions which were nearly 100% filled by men at my organization.  It was tough for me to take.  It made me doubt myself a bit and change my perspective on how far I could go in my career.  Fortunately, I moved on from that organization and have worked at some pretty amazing companies since then, which have been incredibly supportive of my desire to lead within the healthcare IT space.
 
What led you to your current position, and what about the work that you’re doing makes you excited?
 
Jenny: Often, people don’t end up working at a job or end up in the career field they went to college for and I’m one of those people.  I majored in math and minored in computer science fully intending on getting my masters and beyond to become a college math professor.  I ended up taking a software engineering job after getting my bachelor’s degree thinking it was a temporary thing for me and that I’d just make money for a year or two before returning to school.  I ended up really loving software engineering (which surprised me) so I stuck to it!  For many years I focused on software development, growing as a leader within the software engineering teams.  I eventually began to make the jump into project management when a technical project management role presented itself to me which I really enjoyed.  I’ve been leading software development and support teams for the last 12 years, which brought me to my current role as Product Delivery Director at Opala.  What most excites me about this role at Opala is being able to drive and bear witness to our start-up organization growing into a mature agile development shop.
 
What would you recommend to girls who are interested in STEM? What advice do you recommend for parents to get their daughters interested in STEM?

Melissa:
My advice to any women struggling with discrimination or prejudicial attitudes would be to stay strong, talk about it with peers, call it out if you can, and allow it to help you grow instead of discouraging you. Don’t be afraid to own how something makes you feel or speak up about something that is incorrect or inappropriate. I would also advise that women seek out peers or other women (and men) to support them.  We need to continue to build support networks for each other. There’s a world of interesting problems to solve in STEM and battling prejudiced negativity in isolation should not be one of them.

For parents, I would encourage girls and young women to be curious about the world around them and find interesting ways to inspire that curiosity from mods to a game, growing plants/organisms, applying math to answer day-to-day questions, clubs outside of the school offerings, home experiments, etc. I also think it helps inspire curiosity in kids to see that their parents are curious and want to know more about the “what/why/how” of things.
 

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