Written by Christopher Kelly
Nov. 1, 2018
Megan: Hello and welcome to Nourish Balance Thrive Podcast. My name is Megan Roberts and today, I'm very happy to welcome back to the podcast Dr. Elizabeth Nance and Dr. Brianna Stubbs. Hi, ladies! Thank you for joining me again this morning.
Brianna: Good morning, Megan! How's it going?
Megan: I'm well. How are you guys?
Brianna: Yeah, we're doing good, doing good. I'm excited to be back on the podcast and especially being a guest with Elizabeth after her excellent STEM talk podcast recently.
Elizabeth: Oh, thank you, Brianna. I was excited to get to meet you via podcast and also talk about this, what I think is a very important topic.
Megan: Yeah, for sure. The reason I wanted to bring both of you back on the podcast was to discuss this topic of women in minorities in science and engineering. You guys are both brilliant and accomplished scientists and have both been on the Nourish Balance Thrive Podcast in the past to talk about your work. We'll link to those episodes in the show notes. You also bring different perspectives to the table.
Elizabeth, you're a professor and a mentor at the University of Washington and also the founder, the faculty adviser for the Women in Chemical Engineering group. Brianna, you've recently ventured into the exciting industry side of things at HVMN where you've helped create the world's first commercially available ketone ester, so I couldn't think of two better women to have this discussion with.
Brianna: Yeah. I think it's very interesting that you pointed it out like that because I think that there's definitely here in Silicon Valley a kind of a feeling that women are maybe in a bit of a minority. There are definitely some tensions around gender issues here in Silicon Valley, and then I definitely get the same sense in academia although I haven't experienced that firsthand in the same way that Elizabeth has. I think actually it'll be an interesting discussion to compare how women in business and women in academia, are the challenges the same, are the challenges different, and which area is making the more progress to try and address the historical inequalities in both of those environments.
Elizabeth: And something that students think about, I think the people that are coming up or the younger generations that are in the STEM fields even as early as elementary school, they're getting told at the 5th Grade, 6th Grade, 7th Grade, or primary and secondary school levels that women are minorities in industry, in academia, in science, in all aspects of the tech, the venture capitalists, every aspect of the world, so these are things that are on their minds as well. It's independent of what field they go into afterwards because it's just this blanket that women are minorities in all aspects of anything that is STEM-related. It comes up a lot in conversations and I think it's important to always have that balancing view of what it's like in an academic world versus in an industry world just because there are a lot of similarities, but there are really strong examples in both where progress is being made, but maybe it has to be made in different ways, and the focus of how you put in good practices to increase diversity, for instance, might be different just based on the constraints of how academia works versus how industry works.
Megan: Elizabeth, you mentioned something there, STEM, and you might refer to that multiple times here. Can you just briefly fill the listeners in if they're not aware of what that stands for, what it does stand for?
Elizabeth: Yeah. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. You'll also see occasionally an addition of medicine on there because there is a lot of growing literature that shows that the medical field has just as much of a problem of diversity representation as the other four letters do, but it generally encompasses anything that you could think of that would span the fields of science.
Megan: So before we dive in a little bit deeper and before people end up turning off this podcast because one, they're not women and two they’re not scientists, let's set the stage. Why are we talking about this? Why it is important?
Elizabeth: I'll jump in and I'll be very excited to hear Bri's motivations for this as well because I think it's important to see that everybody comes to having to deal with this topic one way or the other independent of who they are and what their background is at some point in their career, and so I think it's a really relevant topic mainly because I don't personally believe and haven't seen that change can come without having all parties that are involved at the table, and by default, that means pretty much all men, all races, all ethnicities, all backgrounds.
I also think it's relevant, at least the data supports that it's relevant in pretty much every single field from business to religious studies to stay-at-home parents. They have a discrimination of who should be at home and who should be the home provider, to the typical science fields, to business. This is something that is a topic that's ongoing. You might not be a minority group yourself, but you might have friends or colleagues or co-workers or relatives or people that are in-laws that would fall into that category, and so having some sort of understanding of what they might face and how you might become an ally for them or at least more empathetic to the challenges they might face because they're a minatory I think is an important awareness that we should at least try and get everybody to have some insights into.
Brianna: Yeah, I totally agree. I think for me, one of the biggest motivating factors is seeing young women -- I'm not all that old myself. I just remember trying to make these decisions about what you're going to do with your career and being consciously or unconsciously influenced by stereotypes or by news stories or just things that you hear from colleagues.
And so I want to be part of amplifying the message that people should be ambitious and people should be hopeful irrespective of their gender and to really pursue our ambitions independently of any stereotypes.
Megan: Ultimately, this discussion is meant to bring awareness and have a conversation around what is relevant for everyone regardless of who you are and it's not meant to be a chance for us to all complain, and hopefully that will come across that that's by no means what we're trying to do here. Then one last thing before we get started is we may focus on women potentially in this discussion, but much of what we'll talk about very likely applies to minorities in general. Would you both agree with that?
Brianna: Yeah, of course. Everything is dependent on where in the world you are as to what stereotypes or cultural boundaries you're operating within. We're talking here about women, but in certain parts of the world, this might apply to ethnic minorities and things like that. I think it's a broad topic and that concept is generalizable across different minority groups.
Elizabeth: I'm glad you pointed out the fact that it is perhaps a cultural and societal and a geographical factor. What we've seen in some of our early work with our Women in Chemical Engineering Organization is that this isn't a women's issue. This is just as much a first generation college student, somebody with low socioeconomic status, a military veteran, people with disability, with mental illness, LGBTQ students, this is relevant and can be a lot of the topics that women become a forum or an avenue to discuss are very applicable to any population of people that have been either discriminated against, oppressed, or feel as if they're a minority.
Brianna: I think what's interesting though about using women as an example for this is that there's the history of gender equality especially in England where that movement really kicked off in the Victorian time with equal voting rights. We've got a really clear historical roadmap of when things were less equal and how they've gradually become more and more equal over time, but then there's also still countries where women do not have the right to vote, and so we can actually use geographical examples and look at different cultures to reflect on the journey to where we've got to now here in America or in the UK or in the Western world, reflect a little bit more where we've come from and see these other cultures and see what might move the needle there. That actually is relevant for us now looking at maybe minorities that are even more discriminated against than women in the West.
Elizabeth: We have the numbers, right? If you look at just the number game, we shouldn't by any definition be a minority. We're 51% of the population, so that's always another angle that I think is an interesting aspect in addition to what you've mentioned about having the sort of potential path that could be used to give us examples of where maybe progress can be made or things are done wrong and could be corrected. There's also the numbers game that should weigh in our favor in most cases, the fact that by definition and just the numbers, we should not be a minority, but in many ways, we certainly have been and face the similar difficulties that many other minority populations face.
Brianna: Yeah. I wonder whether I'll have a personal resolution for it by the end of the conversation, but one thing that always doesn't sit well with me is the idea of positive discrimination and should we be balancing the numbers in any position because women, like you just said, make up at least half the population, so should we be saying that 50% of professors or 50% of CEOs should be women and should we positively discriminate to get there? But I'm still very much based on merit. I've worked hard to get to where I got to. I don't think any woman would want to feel like she was there to be part of a quota. I passionately believe that there are women that have the ability, so therefore, it shouldn't be -- positive discrimination is something that I don't know how I feel about.
Elizabeth: It's an interesting topic and one I struggle with as well. I don't know, Megan, if you want to talk about that now or if you want to build up to that because I know it was something we had identified as a potential topic that we should discuss just because it's a topic that I regularly internally and externally battle with in the academic setting.
Megan: Now that we've piqued people's interest, I think it would be a great time to just dive into that, so why don't we start talking about the positive discrimination aspect?
Elizabeth: I think one of the things that's always been a struggle for me is that the underlying assumption when a lot of people I think initially think of gender equality is the literal definition, which is that there should be equal numbers of people in all fields. I think that simplifies and waters down what potentially the root causes of the reason that there's maybe not more equality in the numbers, but also the approach that we take that then creates this positive discrimination concept that by pushing for people to go into fields where we're playing it purely as a numbers game, we're not necessarily serving those populations better.
We see this in academia and particularly with the STEM conversation where there are so many efforts that are targeted towards women and other minorities in STEM that is largely driven to increase numbers of applicants to engineering departments at universities or a number of girls participating in robotics clubs or computer clubs at high schools or middle schools and a lot of the outcomes that are reported are those numbers. Who are the people participating? Who are the people that are applying? Are we increasing the overall rate of transitioning from those that apply to those that are being accepted to those that stay?
I think that's one aspect of it, but what you have to think about is even what happens before that, how are these opportunities being presented? Are we still telling women when they're young that they're beautiful first or are we telling them that they're intelligent first? Are we marketing to them strengths that play towards giving us self-confidence that allows them to go into any field that they want to pursue and have the ability to make a decision that says okay, yeah, this might be a great opportunity and I could increase the number of women, but here's where my passion is. It's a different path and that's where I'm really going to serve my purpose better.
I don't think we do that messaging very well when kids are younger. You can look at this in everything from what the recent battle over the Girls' Life Magazine covers have been where they talk about beauty and skincare and this is something that tons of young women read. They had one of their readers put up what she wanted the front of the cover to be instead of talking about beauty sleep and all that stuff and it was more here's how you can increase brain power. Here's how you can get your hands dirty. It's a totally different concept that I think some of our younger generations are looking for that shows that they can do anything both in the language in which we describe the capabilities they have as well as the language in which we describe the opportunities they could then pursue. I think that's where a lot of our issue is that gets lost when we're just focusing on the numbers, we're just focusing on this kind of let's get a quality by getting 50% of the CEOs to be women. That's maybe a good ambition in some ways, but I think it has to be much more nuanced than that.
Brianna: Well, I think it comes down to where do we think that this kind of conditioning starts. Do you think that if little boys and little girls were raised in a society where there was much fewer constructs around gender, would our -- I suppose one argument is that women and men are wired slightly naturally differently in the things that they like to do even. I was thinking as you were talking there, fair enough, maybe the cover of Girls' Life shouldn't be all about beauty and skincare and things, but women do enjoy that kind of thing. Well, I don't want to be seen as burning bras and pushing away femininity or anything like that. I think you end up in this situation where you can almost not push either way without -- it's difficult to do.
So if we could have a blank slate, if we had men and women growing up without any of these constructs, would there still be differences in the preferences of people as to what -- and I don't want to say men are better suited for aggressive management positions because that's generalizing, but maybe if we looked at the percentage of men -- I'm not saying that women don't ever operate like that, but is there more of that natural tendency in men than women? Are the numbers in artifact based on very intrinsic differences between men and women that aren't really applicable to everyone, but that are more overrepresented in that gender? Like you said, Elizabeth, it's really, really nuanced. It's like a bit of a minefield. You can't say one thing without the risk of offending people.
Elizabeth: I completely agree about having that be a really important question of if you did start with a completely blank slate, would you end up with equal representation in fields? Would that lead you to having 50% of, for instance, nurses be men and 50% be women? My gut feel just based on how diverse humans are is that you probably wouldn't. There are probably fields that are just more amendable to how people view what's important to them in life and it's possible that just like with any two populations, the weights of what you would identify as being important might be different than the weights of what a male would identify as being important even with the same training, the same background, the same access to opportunities and the same presentations of those opportunities. What I don't know is how that averages over enough numbers of people where gender then is no longer the driving factor.
Maybe it's age-based. Maybe it's geographically based and that's the part I don't think we certainly don't have enough data for, but I think it's something that is on the minds of a lot of people who at least I've seen are researching this, who think about is 50-50 a truly effective target. And if we're aiming for 50-50 in gender, why are we not aiming for 50-50 in young versus old or 50-50 in low versus high socioeconomic status? I don't think that 50-50 is the right target. I don't have an answer to what the right target is. It just doesn't intuitively make sense to me that that would be the case because I think there are just individual differences in what people prioritize and there's probably an underlying gender component to that just like there's probably an underlying socioeconomic status and geographical and cultural component to it as well.
Brianna: I listened to a really interesting discussion on the Freakonomics Podcast the other day about they've used Uber as a data collection method to look at the gender pay gap. There was a lot of discussion about all of the different factors that they control for, but even when they control for everything, men were still making more per hour than women and they were making more per hour than women because men were driving on average one or two miles per hour faster than women and completely more tripped. They control for everything and then there was this difference between men and women that was ultimately causing gender pay inequality even in something where it should be -- because in theory, they were saying, well, with Uber, you can drive whenever you want. You control for the number of hours.
It was just very interesting that even in a really -- then they had a big data set. That was really interesting and I'd recommend -- we could link to that because I think if people are interested in this discussion, that's quite a good thought experiment real life, something we can all identify with. That was very interesting to me. Is there just differences in the way that people prefer to operate that have led to the differences that we see now? Not to say that that therefore applies to everyone. Maybe it does make it more difficult for -- if we think about the Uber example, if I was a woman driver and I just drove a bit faster, then I would make the same amount as the men. You hope that that's the case, but I think that where it comes back to science and business is that I think that the point that Elizabeth made earlier on about this being a generational thing is that women are starting to want to break into or increasingly break into these areas and the generation or two above are predominantly male, and so it's like how do we feel trying to make inroads into some of these workplaces that are more dominated by men.
Last year, I went to a conference with one of the venture capital firms that backs human and I was one of maybe 30 women in a sea of suits. You can notice it when you're there. What tensions does that then cause? Should there have been a quota of women or that kind of thing? Would that have made this better? I think irregardless of preference differences between men and women, it's now about integrating more successfully as -- it's like teething pains now perhaps. We're at a stage where we're trying to fight those imbalances a little bit more.
Elizabeth: Yeah. It's like getting to that critical mass I think is how -- a lot of times, how I think about it is it's similarly being -- the chemical engineering field has very few women and I think our numbers are still around 30% and they've stayed around that for a long time, and that's just across all chemical engineering industry. Academia is a bit lower particularly at the faculty level. It's around 20% or 22%, and so I certainly am very aware when I walk into our faculty meetings how many women are in the room. I look and most of the women in the room are staff then I'm one of the very few female faculty. It's not something that in any way I think registers consciously in terms of how I carry out my workday, but it definitely in moments will hit me where I'm like, oh yeah, it would be kind of nice to have somebody else actually in most times help carry the burden of responsibility of being the minority in the room.
I've noticed that it's not so much that I feel like a lot of the women mentors that I've had have not been willing to make those inroads to be the first female to do whatever. It's more that once you get to that point, you then have to deal with this period, like you were saying, where it's this transition, where there can be isolation, there can be loneliness, there can be a struggle to fit into the culture at the work that's going to be naturally dominated by the people who have been there. I think that does for better or worse add some tension to the way that you go about carrying out your day to day professional life and potentially even filters down into your non-professional life. It's one that I have personally struggled with quite a bit because I want to be a mentor and a role model for younger women and show that they are capable of anything.
They should be pursuing their passions regardless of if they're the only person in the room that's like them, but then I am very aware of the fact that it is very lonely to be that only person in the room. In some ways, I also want to protect them from feeling those same feelings because if you don't have the right support system around you to talk about or help address those issues of being the first person to accomplish something in whatever group you're representing then that can also have a throwback in your face effect I guess is the way I think about it, of making you second-guess a lot of things in a different way you never anticipated second-guessing.
I've worked really hard to get to where I am and have lots of men and women to thank for the mentorship that has gotten me to that place, but there are times when I'm like, well, it'd be really nice to have another female faculty to help carry this burden of mentoring the next generation to keep increasing the representation of us in whatever way that may be. Maybe it stays with the faculty staff level, but then maybe the staff are heard equally as the faculty are. Maybe that's where the difference comes in. Maybe it's not that faculty numbers increase, but maybe it's the women in the staff positions feel as though they can speak up and speak more to what their needs are without feeling it based on position or hierarchy that they don't have a voice. I don't know how it comes into fruition, but I just know that there are many times when I feel very much that being one of the few in the room can be isolating enough to change the way you feel about the impact that you're trying to have in increasing representation of your minority group.
Brianna: I couldn't agree more with everything that you just said. I think it's a very well-made point.
Megan: Yeah, especially on the topic of mentors. If we don't have those mentors for the women in minorities to look up to then how are they able to know what's possible, and then that will have a trickle-down effect if they don't know what's possible. That self-efficacy is created. Therefore, we don't get as far in this issue as we would like to.
Brianna: I think as well, I'm just thinking about mentorship and I think it can be challenging because as you were just saying, Elizabeth, if you've had to fight quite hard to get a position, you've got some kind of a performance anxiety or high pressure on yourself finding time to then mentor other young women. Also, sometimes when you're in the depths of a difficult time in your own professional life, being a positive mentor for another young person can be challenging, so it's finding the time to really invest in young people. I wonder whether the women that have -- Prof. Kieran Clarke over at the University of Oxford, she was probably the strongest female mentor as I was coming up through science and then into industry, but she was always very busy with everything that she had to do to keep everything afloat, so I wonder whether it's just there's not only very few people who can mentor, but also they're so time-pressured that perhaps it's not something that features that highly on their to-do list as high as it could or should.
Elizabeth: When you mentioned the emotional, it translates for me personally to an emotional and mental energy investment that you have to put in, which is on top of everything else. It was a very visceral response for me because I remember very distinctly when the #MeToo Movement started and was really gaining ground, and being one of the few female faculty in our department, I've had a lot of students come report to me instances of discrimination, harassment, and in two cases, assault. That was a huge emotional burden not only because I felt very in some ways honored to have created a space in which they could do that because I know how important it is to have people to share those experiences with that you trust, but I also felt very burdened by the responsibility of then having that space. It was an incredibly challenging time in a very difficult point in my professional career where I was being pushed to my limits.
Something I came to appreciate out of that experience much more was the power of having allies and the concept of allyship, so I've really put -- I think in terms of efforts of increasing the capability of mentors who aren't people that look like you or aren't people that represent a diverse population, we've put a lot of effort into trying to provide avenues for those people to feel as if they're allies, that they're not standing in a position that they can't speak to. They don't have to be able to speak to those exact experiences, but to acknowledge them, to hear them, to at least sympathize, if not better empathize with in some way the challenges and the emotional and mental strain that it can put on somebody whose faced discrimination or worse in some cases that's an assault for who they are.
I think that's actually an area that I wish there was a lot more effort in, is teaching those that maybe don't see themselves as minorities or aren't in minority populations to actually be allies. We see this in a lot of ways in academia through the whole concept of service. A lot of times, one of our roles as faculty is to participate in service to our department, to our university, and to our professional societies, and in many cases, this involves serving on a committee that oversees something. Oftentimes those committees, particularly those that are involved in hiring or culture-related or mentoring or strategic initiatives are expected to have diverse representation on them. Well, when you're a minority faculty, that means you basically be on every committee, which then puts your service time at 60% instead of 20% and doesn't allow you much time or energy I would say to focus on the research and the teaching that you're supposed to be doing.
It's a hard balance, I think, to find that if you want people to feel as though they are being represented by a diverse group of people, part of that work has to go in to not making the same people always be the diversity spokesperson by increasing the number of allies that you have for those diverse people who can speak to and empathize with students in such a way or younger generations in such a way that they can at least relate and feel like they have a foot in the door and they can see that this is a culture or an environment or an organization that appreciates diversity because everybody has the same mission. Everybody is on the same page. You don't have to be a minority to be bought into the value of diversity.
You don't have to be a minority to be able to speak to the challenges that a diverse person or a minority has. I don't think you have to be a minority to appreciate the impact that diversity can have, and so building up those allies I think is one thing that I certainly have appreciated about the University of Washington, which does a lot of work in this space, but I also wish that there were more efforts and more discussions around that concept mainly because I just had really good allies who like in that moment of that week when the #MeToo Movement was going up were my go-to people and they were white men. They were the best people for me to talk to in that moment and they did not minimize or dismiss anything I was feeling and it was empowering in a lot of ways because it made me feel as though I didn't have to manage this on my own as a minority, that it was a collective thing. That I think enabled us to really move forward in a much more -- and me personally to move forward in a much more constructive way.
Brianna: Yeah, I totally agree. Actually, one the biggest mentors in my career was a white, older male professor and he encouraged me to step away from my medical training to pursue my PhD and my rowing and he was always there whenever I needed someone to give me a bit of confidence. I think if we're talking about breaking all stereotypes here, the stereotype that only a woman can mentor a woman or any minority is the only -- you have to have a mentor who is a peer, I think that that's not a helpful thought. I think we could mentor people much more effectively if, as you said Elizabeth, we had allies rather than necessarily people who were in the same position able to effectively provide support and encouragement because oftentimes you only just need a week -- or not a week. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to put a time frame on it. It's just you need some encouraging words at the time when you need it most, a period of support, and then you can get through it. More often than not, these people aren't a constant dependent, but it does take emotional energy in, so you just need that person to be there when you need a little bit of support. It doesn't have to be a big commitment in all cases.
Elizabeth: Having that diversity and mentorship I think comes in so many ways. It's probably the one advice that I try and pass down to students that I mentor, is I'm one voice and one perspective and they should try and get as many voices as feasible for them or relevant to them and whatever they're trying to get a better understanding of, but that I encourage them to get voices that disagree with them, voices that are going to be completely objective, have no investment in them whatsoever, and then of course voices of those that are invested in them and they're invested in. That by nature will oftentimes force you to get mentorship from people who are different from you. I think it does take an active and intentional effort to do that and I don't know that that's always something that's just going to naturally fall into place. A lot of times, it would be nice if there was even just more training and focus on how to help people become better mentors because it is such a large role that you play especially if you're a minority.
You run into these challenges like what you're saying where it's finding a balance of trying to invest the right amount of energy without either enabling more of the same issues that you've already faced or you're just draining yourself to where you can't then invest the energy down the road, and maybe perhaps time where it's either of equal importance or could have a different type of impact. It's hard to figure out the balance in which you do that particularly when you're younger and you're starting up in your career and you feel like you want to get out there and change the world and encourage people to see their full potential without focusing on whether they're a minority or not.
Brianna: But that's a really interesting point as well because I'm 27 and I don't feel like I have enough life experience or whatever to mentor someone. In your mind, where does that shift occur from where you are the mentee to being the mentor effectively because obviously as you progress through your career, you're still going to have people that you're going to be looking to for mentorship at stages of your career, but it's when do you start to feel able to offer mentorship to younger people.
I think for me, I've had a few instances in the past especially with my career as an athlete having come out of the national rowing team and then knowing younger athletes who are going in, that's been a setting where I felt like I could offer really effective mentorship because I went through all of that and I've come out the other side, but with your career, it's more often than not you're kind of like -- you never feel that you've come out the other side. You're always striving for the next thing and you almost realize that you could mentor someone almost a little too late because you're like, well, for me now, I could offer advice or mentorship to someone who is thinking about doing a PhD. I've completed that stage of my training or I could offer advice or mentorship to someone who's thinking about going from academia over into industry, but you almost don't realize your true potential and power as a mentor until it's really highlighted by someone coming to you for advice. You almost don't realize that you could be a great mentor until you've missed opportunities to be a great mentor along the way.
Elizabeth: My experience is that I haven't realized both for myself and others that I've mentored where there are opportune mentoring points for them or me until a situation has passed or something has passed where I'm like, "Oh, wait a second, I could've probably given them some insights on that."
When I was doing my training in Baltimore at Hopkins, I was part of a nonprofit organization that really was built around the concept of the mentor-mentee boundary being nonexistent so that everybody was a mentor and everybody was a mentee. A lot of it was based on the idea that the students who are all high school students, anywhere from starting the 9th Grade level up to going into college had life experiences that students who were going through Hopkins for medical school or public health or PhD would be able to relate to, but maybe actually be more substantial for those high school students than they were for people who were by default older.
I think it's an interesting concept to think about mentorship in the aspect of purely experience and age because oftentimes we associate experience with age, but I've seen that in many cases, some of the best mentorship can come from those that are actually both less experienced and younger or either/or and it's almost like without the experience or with being younger, you don't have as many blinders on. You haven't been funneled into thinking about things in one way because you haven't yet had those experiences particularly in areas where there's an opportunity to think more openly or where you really want to see how blank of a slate you can get. Sometimes the less experienced are better because they're not thinking about it in such a confined way.
We, with our Women in Chemical Engineering Organization, focus a lot on eliminating hierarchy in the sense of mentoring and one of those goals of doing that is to not only connect across all levels within a department or within an institution to strengthen that vertical structure, but also to show that there are many people who may be freshmen in college or a first year graduate student who have life experiences or experiences that certainly factor into their career that somebody who is six years ahead of them in the degree process hasn't had. That's been taking away that boundary of what a mentor/mentee relationship is supposed to look like. It has really helped, but a lot of that has also come from having missed opportunities for mentoring. One additional note I'll add onto that is I've always valued context and how much context can be very important to the relatability of a mentor.
For instance, we run this industry panel event every year where we bring in chemical engineering professionals who were participating in a whole variety of industries and we have them take part in panel discussions and keynote talks and informal networking hours with our prospective students, our current undergraduate and graduate students, basically anybody that's interested or involved with chemical engineering at the University of Washington or some of the local Seattle area. One of the things we've intentionally done is not to bring in very established people, so people who have been in their careers for 15 or 20 years who are at the top of -- they've exceeded their CEO. They're a head of a Fortune 500 or whatever. They're incredibly successful, but they're maybe 15 or 20 years into their career. The reason we haven't done that is because it's always easy to look at hindsight. Saying that hindsight is 20/20 is very true, but it's harder to relate to because when you have somebody telling you what their career path is and what decisions they made and what challenges they overcame, they're looking at that in a much more holistic way than what was happening during that process.
So when we have students who are trying to figure out do they go to industry or academia, sometimes it's more helpful for them to have a mentor who has literally just been through that decision because they can relate to the feelings of what that decision was like. They can relate to how things are feeling for them immediately after making that decision. They might not have the perspective on how that decision plays out, but they can give a much better sense of what many students would want to know about, which is, "How is this going to impact me in the near future?" because thinking about that long-term gain is hard for a lot of people and should be done, but maybe isn't always the focus that we should have for how we mentor students in terms of where they're going. We've actually found that focusing on those that are still in process and still in transition in their careers has proven to be a more useful context for them to mentor in than finding the people who are 15 years in and have won a lot of awards and have been really successful.
Megan: I absolutely love that. I think one of those things for the "younger" mentors is realizing that there isn't a perfect place or time to be a mentor and they as a mentor will probably learn from their mentees, so --
Brianna: It's interesting. I wish that this topic of mentoring was something that we discussed more because I think it has the power to be very transformative for people from every single background, learning how to listen, learning how to reflect, and also trigger self-reflection in other people. I think there are a lot of skills that may be wanting to wade back into the gender differences here, but maybe women are better suited or many women are better suited for it than men. Maybe this could be something that would be very powerful to help with gender inequality that women could learn to tap into being better mentors for one another and being more available for one another. Perhaps that could be something that would be really helpful.
Elizabeth: Yeah. I certainly think that at the very least, that perception is very true that women are in many cases better mentors than men. I certainly feel that way when I think about my colleagues who are all in my experience fantastic mentors, but there's an inclination for students to come speak to me over them. If I tell those students to go speak to my colleagues, they will, but it seems like that first perception is either for me being a female faculty or being involved in a department, or also just being more junior. I'm the most junior faculty in our department, so that might also and I think does play a role, but that perception, if it exists, there are certainly worthwhile efforts to try and reduce that perception because there are very many fantastic male mentors out there. There's also the opportunity to make something out of that perception. I think that having the mentorship mentality where it's not that you're always imparting advice, you're also going to learn something from the interaction is really important.
I find that for me personally, the best way to do that is to always be transparent about it. I really don't know that much and I'm totally okay with telling students that and telling them how I feel about it as well and when it's terrifying to not know anything versus when I was making a decision that was purely emotional versus something that I more objectively thought out. I think that my style has been always to try and be transparent because I feel like that allows me to also potentially learn more from the student as well because it might take away some of the preconceived notions or the assumptions or what my experience have confined me to think by acknowledging the reality of either the emotional component or the lack of knowledge I had at the time or that I was just naïve about something or that I was stubborn about it, whatever it is that was part of the decision-making process.
It's helped me also become a better mentor by being transparent in those mentoring relationships. That is also a balance I struggle with, but I think it's one that I'm learning to appreciate more and more like how I can grow from it, but also how I can maybe better assist my students and particularly encourage them to seek out other mentors and not just rely on that one person that maybe you feel most comfortable going to talk to but maybe isn't going to give you the best perspective or the most relevant perspective on whatever advice you're seeking out.
Megan: Those are great points. Now, Elizabeth, I have a question. When you're mentoring students, how much do you talk about work-life balance, just transitioning into that topic, and whether or not it's a real thing?
Elizabeth: I will have to say first that it has been very geographically dependent for me. Living on the West Coast versus the East Coast definitely has a difference in how people think about the concept of work-life balance. I'm generally pretty opinionated about that topic in the fact that I don't believe there is so much a work-life balance just because I'm somebody who -- my career is my life and every aspect of what I do in almost all cases feeds into how I approach my day to day job. I love my job. I'm really fortunate to be in a job where I can do a lot of different things in that position from the research and the teaching to the service, but also there's a lot of flexibility in how you even define those three and how you execute them. My whole world pretty much revolves around the roles I like to play in my career, and so I would probably be the worst person to ask work-life balance because I work all the time by the normal definition, but I do find that the students are often very much thinking about this particularly as they progress in their careers and as they progress in their education and they're thinking about their careers. They're thinking about where their families are located. They're thinking about the relationships they currently have or they hope to have. They're thinking about things they want to accomplish, where they want to travel to or what they want to be involved with outside of their research, outside of the classroom.
It's a question that comes up a lot and a lot of times, I try and first tell them that I'm probably a terrible definition of work-life balance because I work all the time and I love it and I'm not going to change that in any way, but it's a continual process. It's not something that you figure out one day, "I've got my work and my life perfectly how I want them to." It's always going to be changing. Priorities change as you progress week to week potentially, but certainly month to month, year to year, and what balances. It shouldn't be this constant static term. It should be something that we should be willing to basically renegotiate on a regular basis. That's usually how I frame those conversations with students, is right now if you're starting on a career, your first year of your job might be where you're working a lot of hours and you're not going to be traveling much. You might not see your family as much and that might be okay for that first year. It might not be okay. It's got to be an individual decision, but that's not going to necessarily be how it always persists. That could change based on change in position, change in the geographical location you live in.
I certainly went from working 120 hours a week when I was in Baltimore to being closer to about 80 hours per week. That might sound a lot to a lot of people, but it's not very much to me, so there are days where I'm like, "Oh shoot, I haven't really done much today" even if I put in the 12-hour workday, but that was just based on the geographical. In all honesty, it came down to the geographical location and the culture of the City of Baltimore versus the culture of the City of Seattle. That certainly influences my day to day work life, but I still am very almost 24/7 invested in my career, so balance to me is how do I maintain the energy to stay doing what I love doing all the time. It's not so much a work-life aspect. It's more of an energy aspect, which is probably not surprising that an engineer would just say that.
Megan: I love that. Brianna, I know now you're in an industry coming from a very strong science background and you're in San Francisco, so how does this work-life balance for lack of a better term play out for you?
Brianna: I actually completely agree with everything that Elizabeth just said. I'm at a time in my life right now where I don't have kids, my fiancé still lives in England, so I have a lot of time to invest in things that I want to do myself. I wouldn't say I was a selfish person, but I can make a lot of decisions in my life right now based on what I want to do and how I want to spend my time. I really care about my work and I get a lot of energy from working right now, so for me, work is a giver of energy rather than just a drainer of energy because it excites me, what I'm doing. I think that that's fine for right now. Maybe the balance, for lack of a better word, would need to shift as there are other things that I want to prioritize.
I think it's recognizing that you have times and seasons in your life where you can expend energy in different ways. I guess to bring us on to the elephant in the room with the women topic, where does that start to change in terms of having a family and what are the stereotypes there? Would it be possible to stay as emotionally involved in terms of time with work and still have a family? I think that's the thing that a lot of women worry about when they're planning their career long-term, but right now, San Francisco is a place where people work really hard and then they play really hard. I've been training for a half Ironman. Now, I'm training for a marathon. You can pack a lot into your day. It just depends what you want to fit in. I'm very much of the opinion that there's generally enough time for all the things that you want to do, but it may be a bit unsustainable. You could do it for sprints.
Looking back, I did my PhD and rowed for the British Rowing Team and looking back, I have no idea how I fitted that much exercise and that much study. I've genuinely no idea and I wouldn't do it again, but it was possible for that short period of time. I would say that you can do whatever you really, really want if you make time. It's just not always going to be sustainable.
Elizabeth: I love that you brought up that your motivation and your current energy drive is what you're investing at work. I feel like that's such an important thing to acknowledge that it's not a selfish thing. It's just what gets you going every day and what you're enjoying and what you're passionate about. I also have struggled internally with when I'm really invested in something and I'm going and I'm going, even when it's involving mentoring others or doing outreach of some kind or whatever, I still feel like maybe this is selfish for me to be thinking about. Maybe I'm not calling my friends and my family as much. I'm not taking my dogs for as long as walks, whatever it is. There's always something that can sometimes make me feel guilty, but then my ability to do those other things also comes from the energy I get from being able to pursue my passions and I feel like -- I don't know, Brianna, if you face this, but I certainly face a lot of judgment and criticism because I loved working so much and because particularly between the ages of 25 and 30, that's really all I did and I was totally happy doing it. I was I think better able to help and invest in others because I was doing that, but for whatever reason -- and I know for a fact my male colleagues did not get this criticism. They were seen as he's a go-getter. They're going to be really successful one day. People certainly said, "Oh, you're going to be really successful one day," but it was more like this can't be sustained. This is not a good way to live. This isn't a balanced life to have. It was always with a negative connotation to it, but it was frustrating to me because I was like I can do so much more with myself and with the impact I want to have in the world because I have the energy from just getting the thrill of pursuing a passion and really maximizing that passion.
I think there's a lot to be said about the ways in which people generate and create energy that allows them to have impact and that's certainly different at different times of your life, but also different for each person. It certainly becomes a question when women are thinking about if they're going to have and when they're going to have children or families of some kind that might change where their energy investments go. It's particularly interesting. I grew up in the south part of the US, so by usual definition, I should've been married at 25 and had a couple of kids by now. I don't know if this is too much information to give on a podcast, but Tommy and I aren't planning to have children and we've had this discussion for many, many years. I've thought about it for 15 years. It's just a decision that we've come to and we feel like it's the right one for us. A lot of people I'm certain will criticize us as being selfish, but it's just where we are in our world. We by nature then get discriminated against because we aren't going to have that family, so then there's this reverse expectation that, well, of course you could do all those things because you don't have kids or because you don't have a family at home.
It's this interesting news as I move in to 33, turning 34 in February, so as I move into this period of my life, it's now becoming the opposite criticism than what was experienced before where now, because I'm not planning to have a family or not anticipating to have a family, there's this -- I never take it as jealousy or envy or anything. It's just, well, it's put in a negative connotation that any success I do have is because I don't have a family, not because I'm good at my job or because I've invested a lot of time in building skills and applying myself in ways that I think can be useful.
There are always two sides to everything and maybe even more than two sides to a lot of things. Even if you have in your mind that you're pretty good at balancing the things you already do, there are always going to be naysayers or doubters or critics that there's a reason you're doing that or that's not the best way you should be spending your time, and I think women are particularly susceptible to that.
Brianna: Yeah, I totally agree. When you were talking just now, I was thinking that people criticize people. Whether you're a man or a woman, you would get criticism, but women, not only are there the issues that perhaps we're criticized on a bit more like emotive and we maybe take them a bit personally, but yeah, I think perhaps if a woman and a man receives the same amount of criticism, it might be a bit more impactful on women generally. I think that women tend to -- I know that I think a lot about what other people are thinking about me. I overthink things sometimes, so I wonder if there's this predisposition to if you receive criticism, take it onboard a bit much and then for it to ultimately affect what you decide to do because especially the issue around having a family or not, as you just pointed out, you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't. If you don't then you're selfish and if you do then --
Elizabeth: That you can't have a career that's going to be what it could be. If you do have a career that's what it could be, if you're a working mom then you have not only the self-guilt you often about not being with your kids, but also the guilt that society puts on, "Well, if you're successful in your professional career then that means you obviously aren't able to be a successful mother." Why those two things are even correlated, I don't know because they've never really been applied to men who have successful careers. It's often that people don't immediately assume that that makes them terrible fathers. It's interesting. If you're a stay-at-home mom and you gave up your career -- there's really no winning.
I know actually with my male colleagues, many of them are very aware of this and also very cognizant of the role that they either subconsciously or consciously play in that process, but it impacts them just as much too. I think that's a conversation that's often pushed to the side, is that there are men who they're fathers as well. They're also making decisions about family and whether they should and what their work hours are and they're much more cognizant of the role that they play particularly with all the data that shows how important it is to have a male role model and a male figure in a young child's life. It's interesting. You can't win either way, but there's also this idea that it impacts people differently in that men are always positively impacted and women are always negatively impacted when I think that everybody gets impacted negatively in some way when you're talking about these things whether it's the male or the female, whether it's same sex parents, whatever it is. There's always a challenge that we don't do a very good job of discussing and acknowledging and we're always marginalizing a population of people in those conversations.
Brianna: Luckily, I haven't reached the point where I have to make a conscious decision about making that flip between family and work. I'm not really looking forward to having to make that decision. I think in a way, it's kind of sad that all the way through your career as a young woman, there's this expectation that you have to either decide that you are or are not going to have kids, or if you are going to have kids, when are you going to have them and how is that going to fit in your career. I think that that's a massive pressure on young women just broadly across society. It's like okay, this is something I definitely have to make some kind of decision on at some point or plan for at some point. It's impossible to do when you're 18 or even at any age. You're kind of like, when are you going to be ready to make that decision?
I think that's challenging and that's probably more ever present in the mind of younger women than it would be in guys because I don't think that they would have such concrete plans as well because with women, when you have a baby, you do have to take time off either side of the pregnancy where it is possible to work through. You don't have to build the physical having of the baby into your career planning as much if you're a man because it's not only pregnancy and giving birth, but then breastfeeding. Also, one thing --
Elizabeth: Post-partum depression.
Brianna: Of course, yeah. I think people talk about having kids quite flippantly and I'm just -- maybe it's because I [0:54:35] [Indiscernible] science kind of view. The amount of changes to your body and your hormones and everything that you can't plan for, it really has a potential to change your life and your body irrespective of the fact that you have then a child, a dependent coming out the other side of it, so there are a lot of unknowns and you really don't know how you're going to feel coming out the other side of it. It's very difficult to make a ten-year career plan that features having children somewhere in the middle because you just don't know how the physical experience and then ultimately having a child is going to change your outlook and your body.
Megan: Switching gears a little bit, I wanted to make sure that we discuss this conflict between focusing on the aspects of being a minority in a given scientific or engineering fields and then letting the quality of your science simply speak for itself. Obviously, both are important. I guess the ultimate question that I want to answer here is focusing on the former, which is talking about the aspects of being a minority, taking away from some of the equality that women in minorities are seeking.
Brianna: One thing that I think is quite cool is that when you read science publications, more often than not -- often there will be just the last name and initial for the first name, so when you're just reading the literature, you don't know necessarily if you're reading work that was led by a man or by a woman. I think that certainly once work has been published -- I've never had bad experiences with getting stuff published and I know that some people, there are concerns that there's bias in the publication or peer review process, but once the papers are out there, I think that appraising the quality or the impact of someone's work in the science community can largely be done without knowing about the gender of that person, but then obviously there's a lot more to science than just publishing papers. There's the speaking and the getting grants and all of those things, which obviously maybe perhaps a little more influenced or have the potential to be influenced a little more by gender. I think if you just look straight up at the quality of the work when you read a published paper, you're not necessarily being as influenced by gender because you're just sitting there with the paper and the data and that's just that.
Elizabeth: I think that's one of the beautiful things about science, is that if you do come at it from purely the data perspective then ideally you're taking away as many other biases as possible that could influence your interpretation of that data including those that are tied into gender, age, ethnicity, race, and all those other aspects of diversity that we often talk about. It's become an interesting question, a very relevant question in my mind, is when we are going out particularly in the context of inspiring or talking to younger generations, and that's when you're given the framework of okay, you're a successful female in your career. We want you to now go talk about being a successful female in your career to the masses whether that's younger generations or other scientists or whatever, and it's an interesting space to be in because you can choose which part of that sometimes to emphasize. Is it the successful career part or are you going to focus on that middle word of being a female?
It's interesting because like you were saying, Megan, it's important to do both, but how you go about doing both is something I don't have a good answer to yet. I certainly in every context where I've been in this position have tried to do both where I infuse aspects of being a minority and how that's influenced my decision-making or my reliance on mentors or has been formative in my career process where I've either said okay, I'm going to go for it and push through this or maybe I'm going to set it aside and do something else with the actual science and how that informs my scientific story, but I always by default come back to what is the scientific story that I'm telling. That's always what leads me -- I don't know if that's the best way to do it or not, but what I found is that it allows me to be comfortable in being both an unwilling female that wasn't something I was born as a woman. I'm happy being a woman, but by having that be part of what others define me as, I'm unwilling in that case. Most of the time, I want to just be an assistant professor of chemical engineering and not be a female assistant professor of chemical engineering.
It's interesting, I think, and sometimes it creates a little bit of an identity crisis of do I want to be in this case when I'm talking to younger generations a scientist and show them somebody who's willing to take risk and work hard and ask questions that others haven't asked, or dig down into the fundamental questions that people take for granted? Whatever it is, do I want to show that to them through the scope of that approach or do I want to look through the lens of the fact that I was a female doing those things and talk about both where that was advantageous and where it was potentially working against me? I think sometimes it's hard to do, but the expectation is that there's still this word in front of your name that you are a successful female engineer, and so you have to every time make that decision of do I actually emphasize the fact that they're identifying me as a female engineer or do I just choose to ignore it and say that I'm a successful engineer?
Megan: I love that approach that you take. Ultimately, I think that not allowing women and other minorities to be defined by their minority status is really important for both, how they are perceived and how their science is perceived, and then how they ultimately go out and create the science and do the rest of their career.
Elizabeth: Yeah. There's this great book that I read. It's really rigorous in terms of the studies that it cites. It's called "Whistling Vivaldi" and it talks about how stereotypes affect us and it kind of gets into that self-stereotyping concept. They certainly don't just focus on women. A lot of their focus is on race, particularly a few, and they use examples like if you were to take a white male and put him on a basketball court, what his performance is going to be like, if you were to take a woman and put her in a math test, what her performance is going to be like, if you were to take a black man and put him on the golf course, what his performance is going to be like, really playing to some of these hard stereotypes that exists in our culture.
It's interesting that one of the things that book talks about, but also many studies have shown, is that when you put that word in there, well, you're a woman doing math, you're a female engineer, our culture has trained over generations and generations that men are better at math regardless of the facts that don't support that or the majority of men are engineers or black men are better basketball players or athletes, whatever you want to go with these stereotypes that are out there that that in itself enforces the stereotype that you already have, which then diminishes your performance in all cases regardless of what this stereotype was, whether it was young versus old, black versus white, male versus female.
It's really interesting because it's forced upon you, at least for me. It's been forced upon me a lot of times that sort of female engineer aspect, so then in many ways, that then makes me second-guess, okay, are they asking me to give this talk because I'm a female or are they asking me to give this talk because I'm a successful engineer? Certainly both probably play a role, but sometimes I wonder which one plays a bigger role and would I be in this position if I was a male, and then would I care if I was in that position if I was a male? Is this something I should just ignore and take advantage of or is it something that I should try and fight back against or try and bring up in the context of the forum in whichever I've been asked to speak? This wasn't a topic I was well aware of until I really became a faculty and it was a topic I certainly thought a lot about when I was forming our organization, Women in Chemical Engineering, because obviously I'm calling it Women in Chemical Engineering and that by default is going to create a certain stereotype or perception of what the organization does, but it's an interesting one that I'm trying to at least talk with students about and I'm aware of the language that I use. When I'm mentoring my graduate students, I do my best to use language that is equivalent across all graduate students regardless of their gender or any other potentially differentiating factor. It's hard a lot of times because it's so innate in our culture.
Brianna: I think sometimes when I get asked to speak or when I get an opportunity, I'm like I wonder whether this is because I'm a female businessperson or a female scientist. You just have to take the opportunities and be a good ambassador for all of the things that you're trying to represent. There would be no point in turning down opportunities just because you were trying to make a point about "I don't want this opportunity just because I'm a woman. Therefore, I'm going to turn down this opportunity." That's just like shooting yourself in the foot. I think you have to make the most of if you have been chosen to be a good example and a good role model then I think it's your duty to step up and be as good an example and as good a role model as possible. I think one thing that I often try and do if I've been invited to talk and there's a certain aspect of like you've been picked because you're a woman is to show that you can be both strong and vulnerable at the same time.
I think it's hard because women who are successful are often seen as pushy perhaps, but I think that you can be pushy, but also be a little bit lacking in self-confidence. You can be successful and have no idea how you got there. I think that's all fine. I think giving young women confidence that they don't have to know exactly what they're going to do, that it's okay to be forming the plan as you go along and not have everything worked out, I think that hearing that from someone that appears to be successful can be really inspiring, I think you and I both, Elizabeth. People meet me and they're like, "Wow! You won the world championships and you got a PhD from Oxford, and now you're doing this." Everyone just sees on the outside all of the things that you've done that made you notable and successful, but they don't see all of the sleepless nights and all of the conversations that you've had with yourself, trying to get yourself to where you've got to.
I think admitting how difficult it can be to get to that successful point and using the platform that we are offered to do that hopefully will inspire women, men, anyone to fight through periods where they're not quite sure what they're doing or they doubt themselves or they doubt that they've made the right decisions or they feel under pressure to make a decision. I think using opportunities that we get for that kind of reason is really, really powerful.
Elizabeth: I love what you mentioned about being an ambassador for whatever it is that you represent, and many times all the things that you represent. I think that's a really important way to approach it and think about it. It's especially important to acknowledge that there are a lot of times where you really are second-guessing and maybe self-doubting and you don't have all the answers. Certainly, I don't know any time I've really had any of the answers, but that it's okay to not know and that that self-doubt creeps in. I don't think success negates that self-doubt. It gets into the idea of imposter syndrome. I certainly, before I give any talk, I'm sitting up there like "Why are these people inviting me?" I go through this series of thoughts in my head independent of anything else that's happened in my career that still always comes back to this anxiety about wanting to serve my role as best as I can, and that's something that I don't think success necessarily negates. I think I just learn to manage that better.
It's important, as you mentioned, Brianna, to talk with people about that, that that is a very natural aspect of success. It's a part of being successful, but it's also something that potentially being a minority you're more susceptible to, and hearing that from other people who are also minorities but are going through or have been successful as well reinforces that that is a normal thing to be experiencing and that there are ways to manage it and that it's not that you'll ever eliminate it, but that you'll find how to adapt from it and grow from it and keep being successful.
When I think about all the times when I felt like I was able to get that across the most clearly -- I think you've verbalized that really well -- it was the times when I felt like I was doing my best to be an ambassador for what I wanted to represent, but that I also cared enough to be conscious of the fact that I was anxious about being that ambassador and that I was wanting to represent that as best as possible, and that was part of the second-guessing and the doubting and the anxiety that we're naturally associated with it.
Brianna: I remember the first time that I heard the term "imposter syndrome". I was on vacation and I was looking through lectures that have been uploaded on to the University of Oxford online portal. I remember seeing this one and I was like, "I'm going to watch this." It was a series of three lectures and I ended up spending the whole afternoon watching these lectures and I was just like, this is how I feel. Seeing someone talk through it and put a name to it and just be like, yeah, this is the cycle of feeling an imposter and then you push hard, you get success, and then you feel like you shouldn't have it and then you work hard, actually having someone talk through it really, really opened my eyes.
I wonder, I'm thinking as we're talking now, where are there opportunities to teach concepts like this because I'm thinking when would it be most useful to learn this. I learned this as I was -- I think I was just finishing up my PhD, but should this be something that we could build into undergraduate syllabuses, or should it be something that's built into general education in schools? Could our schools be doing a better job of starting up discussion around maybe reflecting on my teenage years? Maybe you're not quite ready to receive and conceptualize that when you're a young teenager, but nowadays, we talk about minorities more broadly. Now, LGBTQ issues are being taught younger and younger and there's the issue about what age is right to start teaching children about gender inequalities, but not just gender inequalities, but almost psychological concepts that contribute to inequality of any kind, that would be a really useful toolkit to start equipping children with younger and younger and definitely young adults when you get to university age.
I feel like if someone has sat me down and been like, "This is imposter syndrome. You might feel like this, but it's okay because lots of people feel like that. It's fine, it's normal. You can work through it" then that kind of gets you in a better position to deal with those feelings when they come up. I remember my first time at Oxford, I was doing undergraduate medicine and I don't know why, but nobody told me that it was going to be hard. I did my first term and I went from being one of the brightest in my class to being one student in this 150 strong class and very, very bright people and going from a classroom setting where you're learning and you're spoon-fed to a lecture setting where you really have to engage. I finished my first term and I was like, oh my word, what has just happened? Can I even deal with this? It took me a lot of soul-searching over my first vacation to pick myself back up and it was all going to be okay, but then subsequently, whenever I had a friend or a younger kid from my school that was going to come up to Oxford, I was like, "Do you know that first term, it's going to be really, really hard and there might come points where you're not sure that you can learn all of this stuff or you don't know how you're going to do it, but just persevere" because I wish if someone had told me that there and then that I would've been in a better place to deal with it.
Maybe we have a responsibility to start up a discussion and equip people to deal with these issues. There doesn't have to be answer because you and I probably deal with any feelings of imposter syndrome in a different way, but at least having an open dialogue around these issues early on. You don't have to make up your mind. A lot of the issues that we've discussed today like positive discrimination, I don't really know where I would fall on that if I was on a committee and we were making a decision about it. I'm still thinking about it and I think it's important to discuss it, but I think learning that you don't have to fix an opinion is a valuable thing and learning a lot of the things that we've talked about learning, how to be a mentor or learning how to deal with your own feelings of insecurity, I think we could be starting up a discussion in equipping people to deal with it in whatever way that they do best personally because ultimately when we think about women, science or women in business, every woman is different and some women deal with it without hiccup and they thrive off feeling like they're a little bit discriminated against and that really gets them going. Everyone is different. We just need to give people the tools and they can select from those tools which are most better suited to that personality.
Elizabeth: The point you made about feeding that information back down the "pipeline" is to me one way to close that loop of you get to a point in your career where you might be somebody who is in a role that could provide mentorship and advice, and part of providing that mentorship and advice is acknowledging the aspects of that process that were really uncomfortable. Your example of your first year at Oxford is exactly how I felt for pretty much all of chemical engineering. I knew going into it that it was really hard, but I didn't know really what that would mean.
I tell my students now that the first chemical engineering exam I took, I got a 42 out of 100 on and they're like, "Wait, what?" and then I'm like, "Yeah. That doesn't mean I'm not supposed to be your faculty." I always qualify that first. I always try and give them that context because there is this notion that if you fail at something, you're not meant to be doing it. It's an interesting concept and the concept of failure is fascinating to me particularly when we think about it in the context of medicine and the fact that people equate death when dying with failure. I don't know. That's a whole separate discussion, but in the context of success, it's really interesting that we always just rely on the fact that failure is a part of success, but we don't really talk about what that means and how that actually tangibly translates to your day to day life in achieving success. A big part of that I think is managing that imposter syndrome that comes out of the failures that you experience and realizing that maybe that failure is then what enables you to get to that next step that then makes you successful.
It's a challenge I think all students in pretty much all disciplines that I've interacted with face from medicine to basic science to engineering, but one that is not often closed back with the mentors that they're talking to because once you're successful, there's this kind of -- I even did it in this conversation where I say, I qualify to the students, "Well, I'm still supposed to be your faculty even though I failed my first chemi exam." I failed many chemi exams. That wasn't the only one, but there's this inclination then that somehow failure negates the success that you got when you acknowledge that failure exited even as much as we want to rely on the cliché that failure is what leads to success.
It's just this weird dichotomy that's created a lot of times that I find myself falling into, but it's really where in most cases those feelings of self-doubt and that self-awareness of okay, how do I deal with this and move forward in a productive way for me and not feel because somebody else handled it faster or better or differently or whatever that I'm there for not handling it well because it is a very individual process and it's an interesting one. Like you said, I think it should be brought in particularly at the university level. I don't have as much experience with a lot of interaction with younger generations in a classroom context setting where it might be feasible to do it "in masses" but especially the university setting. I think there's a prime opportunity to be discussing it.
We have actually at the University of Washington an institution called the Resiliency Lab and they provide specific training on imposter syndrome and on implicit bias, on self-stereotyping. Any department, any organization affiliated with the University of Washington can request them to come give lectures, to come give workshops, acting out role-playing type scenarios to learn more and be more aware of many of the topics that we've talked about. They even cover aspects of how to be an ally. It's a great resource. I have no idea how prevalent resources are like that.
I feel like there's probably not that many, but thinking about how do you bring this in in a setting that it becomes a natural part of your process of getting a career and pursuing a career is I think a great way to be thinking about it and something that we should at least on the education side, but even potentially in early business training when you're on-boarding new people starting in companies, are there opportunities there to really embed some of these concepts in. We certainly see that they're embedding concepts about unconscious bias and the need for diversity and inclusivity in these trainings with HR and especially if you're part of any hiring team, so are there opportunities to do something similar when we're talking about things like allyship and imposter syndrome? Maybe there are and it's just a direction that our society in general could move to, not just in STEM but in all the fields. I think it would be advantageous. It wouldn't hurt if everybody was a bit more self-aware, I'm sure.
Brianna: Yeah. I guess the thing is that it's just time, isn't it? Finding time and getting people to engage with it. I remember back again to that first where you go to a university. There are a million other things you'd rather be doing rather than sitting in an optional lecture. How do you get engagement because more often than not, you don't realize that you needed this tool until it's too late. You had the opportunity to learn it and then six months down the line, "I really wish I'd paid attention when they talked about that." Sometimes you need to know what the resources are and then where to find them rather than trying to enforce it. It's difficult, kind of. It's like I wonder how I'd feel sitting down and listening to lectures about implicit biases because you always want to assume that you don't have them and then when you're forced to sit and interrogate yourself and how you think then that can be uncomfortable, so you have to be in the right place to engage with it. There are so many things to overcome in this whole discussion. I think it's really, really challenging.
Megan: Absolutely. I think we've already been talking a lot about how people can be callous for a change going forward, and I do want to bring to light the fact that the STEM labs and teams that are already making the most progress are the ones who are able to set aside the gender and minority biases and demonstrates some diversity. So closing the conversation here, what do you ladies think can be done going forward?
Elizabeth: At least what I try to do in the mentor junior faculty, even though I'm only three years in, I try to give that feedback to junior faculty, more junior than me as well, is really paying attention to the language that I use particularly in things that are very tangible like recommendation letters.
I try to make sure that for instance, when I write a recommendation letter for a female student versus a male student that I am not in any way, at least to the best of my ability, biasing the language that I use to describe those students. It's easy for me to talk about a female student maybe if I'm not thinking about this as being thoughtful and engaged, and a male student as driven and intelligent. Well, those are two very different word choices to be using to describe those students and they could lead to a perception of those students that maybe I'm not intending, but could come from in subconscious bias from whoever is reviewing those recommendation letters. So at the very least, I know that I have complete control over the letter I'm writing and that's a place where when I'm trying to represent the best qualities of a student that I'm as unbiased with my language choice as possible.
Similarly, when I'm talking to students about their character traits and their strengths that I'm also at least conscious of the language that I'm using to describe that and is equal opportunity in terms of the word choices that I apply as possible regardless of the gender or really regardless of what their diversity aspect is.
Brianna: I think I'm in a little bit of a different spot because I'm not directly responsible for teaching in the same way that you are, Elizabeth, but I feel like making the most of opportunities that I get to speak, or if people come to me directly with questions, I always try and make time to be a good mentor and to carry on that part of my own development and be as best that I can.
I think more broadly, obviously as we've discussed, there are a lot of challenges, but I think so long as we continue having this kind of discussion and refining our ideas and for there to be some trailblazers to try out different policies because I think it's unclear as yet what type of childcare policy would have the biggest impact on helping women be able to carry on with a certain career path or what ways of talking about science and technology would we be able to get more women into it. It's still not clear, so I think having people who are prepared to be trailblazers and to take a little bit of a risk and find out what happens having that kind of experimental approach to increasing broadening participation across different minority groups, I think that that's going to be important rather than being -- I think these issues, they get more and more and more charged and everyone is more and more afraid of saying something that's going to be offensive, but I think if we could create safe spaces where it's like, "Okay, you have the floor. Don't worry. You're not intentionally offensive. Let's have an honest discussion about what we might be able to try that's going to help here and give it a period of piloting" then I think that that's going to deliver the quickest results because the conversations are important, but there's got to be ultimately some action happening as well.
As you said at the very start, Elizabeth, you've got to bring people from every single group around this table. It can't just be a women's discussion. It has to be men as well because it's important that everyone feels like they're moving forward together to create the best and the most appropriate opportunities for both men and women given all the differences between men and women. As I said, I don't really want to ever push away being a woman, femininity, or any of those things as well, so I think that would be -- it's not a clear and concrete answer way forward, but continuing discussion and continuing to innovate and trying out new ideas rather than just getting too caught up in worrying about offending one another or that kind of thing, and just also being honest about where we are now, the steps that have been made. I think, Elizabeth, you pointed out earlier on that it's difficult to tie down a target like is 50-50 the right target? We don't know, but trying to strive towards something even if it's not clear what it is. That was a poor answer by me, but I'm forming these thoughts as I go and I think it's a difficult topic to be definitive about.
Elizabeth: I think actually what you said is a great point that we should not be emphasizing having a concrete answer and we should be looking at taking risks and evaluating best practices in a holistic sense because if we're looking for a concrete answer, we risk doing exactly what you had mentioned before, Brianna, which is positive discrimination, or by bringing all diverse minority populations to the table, are we then marginalizing what was the majority? Trying to say this is the exact number that we need to reach or this is a very specific outcome and this is what we should broadly apply actually could be limiting and damaging. I think that what you mentioned about having ongoing conversations about it, we're seeing the impact of people talking about it more. We're seeing in hiring practices, in equal pay, in equal access to maternity and paternity leave in some countries that talking about this topic is actually leaning to change.
What I hope that society will keep doing is acknowledging that there are those successes even if there are nuances to them, even if they're not broadly applicable successes in some cases. It's still a success and there's still something that could be taken from that, and by not looking at a concrete target, we can transfer the information we gain or the insights we gain from those successes to potentially be more applicable in a broader sense. There are organizations that I'm happy are finally documenting this as well and that's another big part that I think we need to keep doing moving forward, is collecting data on what we're doing, not only documenting what our practices are and trying to be as transparent about that as possible, but also data collecting and data mining.
The more data we build on it, the better chance we have at making a sense of the impact of those practices or changes that we're doing, acknowledging that much of how science goes, there are going to be failures and those failures are just as valuable part of the process of figuring out what works as the successes are, so not using those failures as an example in the wrong way. I'm not saying that that's failed; therefore, we shouldn't try this anywhere else or this is a lost cause or it doesn't mean that discrimination exists or whatever you want to take out of it, but saying okay, this failed. Maybe this just wasn't the right time or wasn't the right group or we didn't have the right outcomes or whatever it is. Those failures are actually an accepted part of the process and I think collecting that data while acknowledging those failures will keep pushing the conversations forward into more tangible solutions that maybe don't have to be focused on a hard number or a concrete outcome that might in itself then perpetrate further discrimination against what is now the majority might become the minority and we don't want to repeat the cycle then either.
Brianna: Yeah, completely great points, Elizabeth.
Megan: Incredible insight from you both. Any specific closing thoughts that you would like to leave listeners with or anything that we didn't cover that you think should be covered?
Brianna: I guess I'd like to say that I've had a great time being a woman in science and it's not all bleak and it's not all grim. I guess I just like to encourage anyone who's listening to this, whatever gender, whatever background people are from. I feel like I've got to where I've got to as a result of hard work, not because of any advantages that have come or disadvantages from being a woman, whatever.
I just encourage people to carry on pursuing their dreams and I think that with that kind of approach that you're always going to get further trying than if you didn't try.
Elizabeth: I couldn't agree more. I think it's not only a ton of fun to be in science and to be in a role where we can even discuss these type of topics and challenges that face us, but also to have the opportunity to try and do something about it and encourage people to pursue who they are and what they want to do. I think that's one thing that I always try and leave anybody who's happy to listen to me ramble for a few minutes about something with, is that it's not always about defining success in the way others define success. It's finding who you are and what you enjoy doing and what you're passionate about.
Like Brianna said, and I couldn't agree with it more, working hard in pursuing that, but also being honest with yourself throughout that process, acknowledging those doubts, acknowledging those failures, taking risks to go after something that maybe is going to seem like a huge hill to climb in the first place are worth doing, and so having that, working on being self-aware and working on thinking about what you want to be in and what you want to do is not by any means selfish. It actually can be very empowering and impactful for the society around you.
I always feel like it's really important for me to tell anybody that listens that these are certainly our views and our experiences and we hope that they are helpful, but it's also important for people to explore themselves and explore the world around them and find what works for them, find what's comfortable for their personality or maybe sometimes get out of your comfort zone and find a new dimension of yourself. It is an individual process and there's nothing wrong with it being an individual process and you can do a lot of cool stuff and have a lot of fun when it's an individual process and have a lot of impact as well.
Brianna: With the risk of sounding a bit corny, one of my favorite quotes actually from Shakespeare and from Hamlet I've just pulled up here and it says, "This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man." I think that distills down what we've been saying. Listen to yourself and try and build confidence around figuring out what you want to do. A lot of what we've talked about is how can we help women get on and be successful, but if you're one of those women and you want to have ten children and pull yourself into that then that's also great, or if you're a man and you want to be a stay-at-home dad, all of these things are great if that's what you want to do.
Trying to free yourself from any stereotypes and figure out what it is that makes you happy is by far in a way the most important thing. As you were saying, Elizabeth, I'm in a stage now where I get so much energy and sustained myself through work, but that's not always going to be that way. That's going to change, so there's no one right way to do things. If that's one thing we can leave the listeners with, that would be a good take-home message.
Elizabeth: That and Shakespeare. It's hard to beat.
Brianna: I know. It's the Brit in me.
Megan: I love it. I think that's an incredible place to wrap up. We will link to as many of the resources that we talked about in the show notes. Elizabeth, we'll also link to your Women in Chemical Engineering group at the University of Washington. Are there any other resources that you ladies would like to point people to if people have enjoyed our conversation and want to learn more?
Elizabeth: There are a lot of great TED talks out there from particularly successful women, but Brene Brown comes to mind as somebody who really has a nice way of talking about finding that balance between vulnerability and what a lot of people attribute to assertiveness. I always encourage people to explore the TED community because those are nice little 18-minute talks that get a lot of information across. There are always moments where you're like, "Oh yeah, I really, really relate to that."
Certainly, I found several books like the "Whistling Vivaldi" book and "How Successful Women Think" and a few others that have been helpful for me and giving me more information to frame what I hope to do and accomplish in science. I'll certainly share those with you, Megan, to include in that, what might end up being a very long list of links after the end of the podcast.
Brianna: I'm excited. I'm going to go and watch some of those as well. Thanks, Elizabeth.
Megan: Well, thank you so much, ladies. This has been a wonderful conversation and I really appreciate your time.
Brianna: Thank you both very much. It's been fun.
Elizabeth: Yeah. Thank you for having us.
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