Spotlight on the state of women in STEM: The 2018 Women in Technology Summit

Posted by Alison Klesman
on Monday, June 11, 2018

Photo Credit: Eryk (Wiki Ed)

I’m back with more excellent news for women in STEM. Why do I keep posting about this topic? Well, it’s an important one — there’s still a huge gender gap that studies show is going to take a long time to fix. That gap is due to many reasons, of course, but among them are the state of the support women in these fields receive, and the fulfillment they get from pursing careers in these industries.

This weekend, Women in Technology International (WITI) began its 24th annual Women in Technology Summit in San Jose, California. The three-day summit focuses on some of the most successful women in technology and science today, as well as on those who are just getting started and those looking to take the next step in their career. According to WITI, this year’s summit includes “three days of networking, mentoring and engaging with visionaries working in the hottest technologies, including autonomous vehicles, AI, AR/VR, robotics, space exploration, SmartX and blockchain.”

This long-running summit seeks to put a spotlight some of the most important issues, questions, and concerns that exist for women in STEM today; it also seeks to foster mentorship, communication, and positive movement toward better workplace integration, innovation, cooperation, and much more. Helping women enter, stay in, and achieve success in STEM requires everyone — women and men, this generation and the ones that came before and will come after it — working together with these common goals. You can check out highlights from last year’s summit here.

Passes for those interested are still available; I want to draw special attention to the fact that Career Fair passes are FREE until June 12. (The Career Fair will take place June 12 from 10:30-12:30.)

But for those simply interested in learning more about this vital topic, I’ve got something special for you:

I had the chance to speak with Dr. Ioana Cozmuta, an innovative woman scientist and entrepreneur, a “disruptor” as she likes to characterize herself, fearless and driven by an insatiable curiosity and appetite to learn. Dr. Cozmuta has an extensive background in science, engineering, and business. She earned her Ph.D. in physics from University of Groningen, The Netherlands, and her masters of biophysics and medical physics from University Babes Bolyai, Cluj Napoca, Romania. Her experience includes time as a research postdoctoral fellow in the Material and Process Simulation Center, Department of Chemistry at California Institute of Technology, and a research postdoctoral specialist at the Genome Technology Center, School of Medicine at Stanford University. As a past contractor with NASA, she’s worked on projects that range from the Stardust, Mars Science Laboratory, and the Constellation and Orion missions to the Microgravity and Low Earth Orbit Commercialization and Commercial Space Partnerships programs. Currently she is co-founder and CTO of Flawless Photonics.

This Monday, June 11, she will moderate a panel at the summit titled “Fly Me to the Moon: Suborbital Space = The Jump Point for Space Exploration.” The panel’s title is an invitation to an imaginary journey into the exciting developments of the emerging “New Space” ecosystem and, along the way, into the challenges and opportunities that it offers. As Old Space and New Space learn to work with and leverage each other, the meaning of being a successful player has also expanded beyond traditional aerospace engineering. And being a women in this field simply adds to the complexity.

On women in technology

Ioana is a staunch advocate for women in STEM — fields that are traditionally, like many others, male dominated. As both a woman in STEM and the mother of two girls, she is looking forward to this weekend’s summit as an opportunity for women to discuss the issues they have experienced and continue to face in the field of technology.

“With the world developing technology at a very accelerated pace, I think this becomes a very important topic. I really like the [summit] agenda because it is actually very pragmatic — it covers real, tangible, and very important problems such as effective communication, confidence building, good leadership practices, emotional development, all intermingled with ‘hot’ technology topics (AI, space…),” she says.

She brought up a recent study she had read, which noted that men and women are often evaluated differently in the workplace. The study looked at the positive and negative words managers used during performance evaluations, and found two important results: First, managers used more positive words to evaluate men than negative ones, while women were evaluated with more negative words than positive ones. And, perhaps more importantly, many of the negative words used to evaluate women highlighted traits — such as personal drive and even good team and time management skills — seen as positive in men. For example, a man who managed a team toward accomplishing goals on time was seen as a model employee; a woman who did the same might be seen as “militant” or even “bossy.” (For those curious, here’s the article she mentioned: “The Different Words We Use to Describe Male and Female Leaders”)

“Women are dealing with a huge perception and status quo that needs to be shaken and disrupted,” Ioana says. “I have two girls, and I want them to experience less of this kind of work environment.”

The problem, she stresses, is deep-rooted and occurs on both sides of the equation. “There are extremely good performers on both sides,” she says. But “What needs to be changed is that [men and women] should be evaluated with the proper units based on meritocracy, based on the real contributions a person makes, the tangible things they deliver — not on perception and biased interpretation. What needs to change first is the baseline: The evaluation process should come from a position of equanimity, nobody is superior to anybody else. A healthy team environment in my opinion is based on mutual respect and not on fear, open communication and feedback between members. Everybody is here to learn.”

On fostering communication

Eliminating perceptions is vital to helping women succeed and better integrate into the STEM fields. But there’s more to the story. Ioana is not only an advocate of reducing bias between men and women, she is also an advocate of fostering communication and cooperation between the STEM disciplines — eliminating the perceptions that exist between fields as well.

Of her extensive work as a contractor with NASA, she admits, “I ended up there by complete chance” when a project she was working on at Stanford was co-sponsored by the space agency. Through that project, she ended up moving into NASA and the aerospace industry “completely unprepared.”

But, it seems, that unpreparedness gave her some unique insight into the limitations — and potential solutions — with the way space missions are planned, designed, and executed.

Working at NASA, Ioana says, “was inspiring, and [NASA] has inspired so many generations — its ‘brand’ continues to carry weight and resonance. I think there’s no human being on this planet that isn’t inspired by NASA’s mission statement — it is the most beautiful culmination of our own desires as humans to break the mundane, to dream beyond, to continue to challenge ourselves by to understand ‘the music of the spheres’ and what it means to be part of it, as a species with unique insights into intelligence and yet such a small and insignificant ‘pixel’ on the map of the universe.”

But the system, she says, needs work. “In order for space exploration to succeed, you have to go beyond the current terrestrial state of the art at every single level: technical, implementation, execution, way of thinking. The default attitude of those working in the space program should be the constant questioning of the status quo, even of the obvious!” That includes, she says, the way we design spacecraft, the way we launch into space, the way we communicate, and the way we learn how to survive and potentially live in space. One must have the ability to “immerse” oneself in the most counterintuitive circumstances and solve problems (e.g., lack of gravity).    

Within NASA, the science missions are competitive, and that’s good, she says, for achieving the level necessary to succeed (see this article for more). But the human spaceflight programs, she says, are less so, particularly in terms of design. “Some of the engineering models are from the Apollo era, even in 2005, in 2010. And the incentive system revolves too much around terrestrial facilities and workforce.”

“How can we change that?” she asks. “How can we take the best of science knowledge and put it to good use to help solve real problems in engineering?” Essentially, she says, this requires scientists and engineers to openly and continuously work together, voicing concerns and limitations on one end and allowing the other side to develop solutions that boost the entire project to the next level.

“My background and my training is as a scientist, but a very pragmatic one. When I started to work on engineering projects — Stardust, Mars Science Laboratory, Orion, Constellation, et cetera — I felt immersed in this ‘sea of engineers’ and quickly learned that they not only have different ways of approaching a problem (top down vs. bottom up), but that this difference creates an incorrect perception between scientists and engineers that they don’t really need each other, which leads to a gap in communication and interaction.” Engineers, she says, tend to think little of the scientists’ approach to problem solving, while scientists might bemoan the way engineers are entirely concerned with design without trying to specifically marry the science goals to their engineering goals.

“There’s a big communication gap between science and engineering. And you need to find people — not only with the right technical background, but more so with the right mentality — to merge and communicate new scientific concepts and put it to good engineering use. But in order for that to happen, you need to have that open channel of communication for both sides. The system itself needs to shift from conservatism and the argument of “heritage” design and allow itself to explore new pathways,” she says.

“I always focus on the outcome. But that is only in part what is needed to succeed. I didn’t do it all by myself,” Ioana stresses. “I worked with many other like-minded people and had the right management support. Finding such settings, though, is a big challenge. It’s a big boulder to move. But it needs to be done.”

On inspiration

I asked, as I often do, what inspired Ioana to choose a career in STEM. She started by saying that her family is largely involved with the humanities, and as a young girl she assumed she would follow the same path.

But then, in 6th grade, “What inspired me was a teacher. She instilled this love for physics in me. I don’t know how she did it. It is hard to explain the power and impact that great teachers and mentors have. Moving into high school, I got lucky again — this time, my homeroom teacher  — he made physics sound so simple and phenomenally exciting that it was impossible not to learn it. It became a stronger passion than I had for literature and philosophy.”

Her family was also supportive of the values and traits that make a good scientist. “My father would often talk to me about the universe and life, about our meaning and significance in this world and all those conversations did nothing else than stir my curiosity,” she says. Later, “I realized that by following a scientific career, it doesn’t mean that I have to stop being passionate about philosophy because there is philosophy in science and science in philosophy. And that extends beyond, into art and literature. In my opinion, they are all a manifestations of the simple and pure act of creation.”

On achieving goals

Finally, we spoke about the choices that have led Ioana to her position today, and the advice she might give to young girls starting to think about their place in the world, whether they are looking to STEM or other fields.

“I feel that right now society equates the value of a person with the position or the title that they have. I struggle with that,” Ioana says. “To me, it’s not the title or the position that decides and defines who a person is. It’s the person who holds that position, and what they do in that position, that makes that position meaningful or not. ”

It certainly comes back to the idea that people — men and women — deserve to be valued based on merit, rather than gender or any other type of rubric.

And when considering which path to follow, Cozmuta says that “In the end, try to find something that makes you happy. If you’re happy, then people around you are happy. I don’t think people just simply want jobs. They want jobs that make them feel meaningful, empowered, and self-motivated. I look back at myself and I still can’t say what career path I should have followed. What I did is I followed my heart, my curiosity, and the set of values and beliefs that I hold very dear. Every time I forgot to sync, I ended up feeling miserable.

“It boils down to finding the purpose of your life,” she says. “In my opinion, that is for everyone to fulfill their own potential (not to be mistaken with ego!) and balance it out with helping others along the way. Let your mind and your heart work together in guiding you.”

Her ultimate message is one of paying it forward. By rising above experiences that may have affected you negatively, you have the power to change the status quo and improve the system and the outlook for yourself and those who come after you.

“Don’t do to others what you don’t like yourself,” Cozmuta says. “It can be very hard to come into the space industry as a woman and deal with the status quo. But by being overly focused on yourself, you may actually hurt other women in the field who feel the same way and are trying to accomplish the same goals. Be open and embrace diversity. Give others the help they need, even if you didn’t receive that help yourself.”

And, she says, the only way to address these challenges is to take action, rather than accepting the status quo and its limitations. “If something bothers you, take a moment and think about going out and changing it. You are never too old to do it!”

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