As Women’s History Month comes to a close, the nation celebrated the trailblazing achievements that women have made in history and in modern society. Women have made incredible progress increasing representation in STEM occupations in the United States within the last 50 years.
Women in STEM in the United States
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2019, 27% of all workers in STEM were women, rising 8% from 1970. Though the figure for women in STEM had increased overall, the representation of women in engineering careers specifically had risen to only 15% in 2019 from 3% in 1970, and seeing a decrease in women in computer occupations from 1990 and 2019.
Strength in Diversity
In honor of this month, we at Sibros wanted to shine a spotlight on our female engineers. We talked to Annie Ng (VP of Program Management, US), Ellen Choi (Software Engineering Intern, Canada), Laura Wong (Firmware Engineering Intern, Canada), and Sampada Niwal (Firmware Engineer, India) to share their stories and experiences, and see what we can do to close the gap.
Samantha: How did you get into engineering and STEM?
Annie: I was very good at math and analytical type things, and coming from a Chinese family, there’s an expectation for children to be a doctor, an engineer, or a lawyer. So out of the three, I chose engineering and it’s been very, very fun. I was also very interested in pursuing a business-oriented field, and I knew having an analytical and scientific background would help me excel there.
Ellen: I was exposed to engineering by my physics teacher because she knew I always liked math and science, but I had no idea what engineering was until the 11th or 12th grade. I was more interested in Math and Science than English or History.
Laura: In high school, I was admitted into this program that specialized in math and computer science. They encouraged us to take courses in the STEM field, right from grade 9 to grade 12. I was put in an all girls computer science class that was taught by a female computer science teacher which I really enjoyed. From that, I feel like I had such a good foundation, a sense of community right from the beginning. I liked it more because all the girls were helping each other, and they were okay with asking for help, and I thought, “Oh this is pretty interesting!”
Sampada: My story is a bit different than you all. It started with my eldest brother who is an engineer too. He used to have a lot of electronic circuits and making small projects at home and I was so fascinated seeing that, so I decided at an early age that I would pursue STEM. And I started loving it more when I joined the robotics forum at my university. I’m really proud of being an electronics engineer.
Samantha: Who are some of your female role models?
Laura: I didn’t have many role models other than my mom, who was a working person who also made time for her family.
Ellen: I’m inspired by Whitney Wolfe, the CEO of Bumble. I think she’s very inspiring to aspiring female entrepreneurs and anyone who wants to pursue something that they want and can actually make a success out of it. Growing up, it was my physics teacher, because she was so strong and never liked to back down, even against male teachers. She always voiced her strong opinions and seemed so powerful to me.
Annie: I didn’t have one when I was younger, but I came across Gwynne Shotwell who is the COO of SpaceX. We had similar career paths working at the Department of Defense, the NASA program and then transitioning to working with Elon. She has four kids who all have good careers, so to me that’s very inspirational that she can handle this very demanding job, but also handle family life. She gave a talk at Tesla about her story and her experience, and I felt that I could relate to her.
Sampada: I also didn’t have a role model growing up, but as an adult, I always admired Sudha Murthy, the Chairperson of the Infosys Foundation. She had an inspiring story where she was the only female engineer in her college. She saw an advertisement in the newspaper looking for male engineers at Tata Motors, so she wrote a letter to J.R.D. Tata asking why they weren’t looking for female engineers, so Sudha became the first female engineer at Tata. She is an all-rounder: good mother, author, philanthropist, entrepreneur and engineer.
Samantha: There’s a disparity between men and women in STEM. What has your experience been with this, and have you had any challenges because of it?
Sampada: I really didn’t find this to be the case because in university there were more girls in our class than boys. So if you see in India, most of the women are really well educated and getting good jobs. But when I started to work, the ratio of men to women was higher with a lot less women at these companies. I didn’t feel like there was a problem working with male colleagues.
Annie: I agree with Sampada, not too much of a difference. Obviously in the automotive industry, it is very male dominated. I think the lack of female leaders or lack of female engineers makes decisions and outcomes one-sided. I feel like females can give a different perspective. If you have more females, I think that will bring a different energy to the team leadership-wise and engineering-wise, and the outcome of the team will be better. Diversity will lead to having different perspectives covered.
Laura: Workwise I feel that there’s no difference really, but I guess it’s getting along with your coworkers, because you just don’t click with your male coworkers as easily. I found that for past Co-Ops, it’s just easier to connect with female ones. School-wise I think the ratio is 1 to 4 girls to guys.
Ellen: For my class there’s about 10 or 12 girls out of 100 people. Even in my close friend group, they’re all guys and I’m the only girl in the friend group, but they don’t treat me any differently because I’m a girl. At work, I’m the only girl on my team as well, but they don’t treat me any different, which is good. But I think for clicking with a coworker, my first interaction at Sibros was with Samantha who said, “Yeah, another chick!” and that doesn’t happen if it’s all male.
Samantha: With regional and cultural differences between us, how do people react when they learn you are a software engineer? I guess for you, Sampada, it’s not so strange since there are more female engineers, do you have anything to add to that experience?
Sampada: Yeah that’s really normal to be an engineer. Around me, my friends, family, relatives, most of the girls are engineers (laughs). Some are in the medical field, some are lecturers, but yeah, like my cousins, we’re all engineers, there’s nothing special about it.
Ellen: My family is not composed of engineers, so when I told them they were kind of surprised when I was going to study engineering and was going to do this as my career. So there’s always a little shock when I tell my family or friends. That’s kind of discouraging for females because it’s like, why are you surprised that I’m studying STEM? Anyone can study STEM!
Samantha: Did they have any expectations for you?
Ellen: I think they were just surprised I was going to be an engineer. They thought I would have gone to med school. Or accounting, that’s a very common expectation from Asian children. A lot of my friends from elementary school in Korea, none of them are studying engineering - they went to teachers college or culinary school. So when I go back to Korea, I get a surprised reaction from people.
Samantha: How about you, Laura?
Laura: I think people are okay with it. They’re just like, “Oh, good for you, you found something you like to do!” I think it’s because my family is pretty Western. Also people in my school and my friends are also in STEM fields so it’s kind of normal like Sampada. How about you, Annie?
Annie: Yeah, I had the same experience as Ellen. I think in Eastern Asia, or except for India, it’s a pleasant surprise kind of reaction. You know, like “Wow, really? You’re that smart?” It’s like no, females are also engineers. I mean, there’s still that kind of cultural expectation that females will be doing finance, accounting or teaching. I’m actually wonderfully surprised that India is leading the charge to bring more female engineers to the world!
Samantha: As women in STEM, what are some ways that we can get more women in the field or into engineering roles? What do you think we can do, not just as a company, but as a society to encourage women?
Ellen: I think just breaking stereotypes in general from when kids are young, not automatically getting a girl a doll instead of a robot. I think breaking that down when they’re young and get them more exposed to STEM related fields because what you’re taught when you’re younger is so important. I went to an art school in high school, and I had no idea what engineering was, but I wish I was more exposed to it.
Laura: Yeah, to add to that, I guess also giving girls a positive experience with that kind of stuff. When I was in high school, I was a camp counselor for science camp. There are a lot of girls that did robotics camp or rocketry camps and I just gave them a nice, friendly environment to learn, and expose them to something they could see themselves doing in the future. Give them positive reinforcement.
Sampada: It would be great to arrange camps as Laura has mentioned, but not just in engineering. It would be great to give them information too about all career paths and possibilities and giving young women that exposure.
Annie: Just to put aside the stereotype, I actually find it a bit different Ellen, that a girl can still like dolls, but can be engineers too. That’s a stereotype that in the engineering field women are like a tomboyish, but no, there’s also engineers who like feminine stuff too, right? So I think embracing the uniqueness and talent of the individual. They can be bold, they can be artistic, but also very analytical. Just putting aside the stereotype of the typical model of that gender will definitely help.
Samantha: We don’t have many females in our company, but what can we do to encourage females to come to Sibros, or even do our part as a tech company to get more women into STEM or the automotive industry?
Ellen: I think if Annie was talking about how great it is to work at Sibros, that definitely speaks more to females than a male employee talking about how great it is to work at Sibros. I think it also helps, I find it very inspiring or will want to work at a place if a strong female at the company is speaking about how great it is to work there. So you should speak, Annie!
Annie: Alright, I’m ready! (laughs)
Laura: For me it would be cool if the interviewer was a female as well, because I’ve never really had a female interviewer. Friends have told me that they had a good connection between the interviewer and they can really get a sense of the company from it, but I’ve never had one. So I feel like that could change my perspective, too, because then I would know, oh, there’s another female engineer at the company that I could connect with. And that says a lot about the company diversity-wise too.
Sampada: I think getting the first two or three female employees is really important. Right now Sibros is not really known to engineers in India, so I think once a lot of the IT sector in India knows about Sibros, it will be easier to get the female engineers on board.
Samantha: The last question I have for you all is what advice or words of encouragement do you want to give to girls and women considering going into STEM?
Ellen: Do it! Just do it!
Sampada: Believe in yourself and just do it! It’s not like rocket science or something. You can definitely do it.
Annie: It can be part of rocket science, too, but you got to continue doing it! (laughs) There will be hiccups and roadblocks along the way. Engineering is a very competitive field, but you have to just stick to your dream and do it. Never give up.
Laura: If people say negative things to you, don’t take it too personally, because they’re usually just envious of you.