On International Day of Women and Girls in Science, advice for next generation from STEM stars of today

The pleas to increase the number of women in STEM careers in recent years have been as consistent and constant as the various pledges to help the next generation fulfill that aim.

That doesn’t mean it will be easy to achieve.

Double-standards for women — and additional obstacles for women of color — make it a challenge.

Fortunately for science, technology, engineering and mathematics-minded women in school or entering their first job, there is a legion of women eager to help them follow in their footsteps.

That’s why today, on the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, ROI-NJ spoke with four female leaders in the state, seeking advice to offer the next generations of women in school — and those starting their first STEM jobs.

ROI-NJ spoke with a doctor, a pharmacist, a landscape architect and a community leader on the subject. Here are their answers to our three questions:

Q: What would be your advice for a woman starting her first STEM job today?

Dr. Chris Pernell. (Courtesy photo)

Dr. Chris Pernell, chief strategic integration and health equity officer, University Hospital: Where you start is not always where you’ll end up. So, be intellectually curious and honest. Know that you have the freedom to change your destiny and reimagine your career or profession as you continue to mature and become.

Don’t be afraid of time — the clock isn’t in control, you are. And the field of STEM is ripe with opportunities. Seek the one that excites you in a way that doesn’t require you to leave anything behind or to shrink yourself.

The journey of discovery and alignment with your passion, purpose and profession is in and of itself the path to knowing your why. And, so often in science, we are in search of the why. That’s how the magic of science/STEM unfolds.

Dr. Indu Lew. (File photo)

Dr. Indu Lew, executive vice president, chief pharmacy officer, RWJBarnabas Health: Do not be afraid to take a stretch assignment. If you believe in yourself, you are halfway there. Confidence is key. Recognize that failing is an opportunity to learn, change the narrative to failing forward.

Be a lifelong learner. The area of STEM changes with such rapidity that, if you are not reading and learning, you will fall behind. Also, recognize your differences as a woman in the field. Women in STEM bring diversity to the playing field. Diversity of thought enhances the overall functioning of the team, brings better outcomes, lends to more innovation and creative solutions.

As you progress in your career, become a mentor or role model to other women.  Women need to lift up other women.

Desiree Gazzo. (HNTB)

Desiree Gazzo, senior urban design landscape architect, community engagement, HNTB: Always do your best, be thankful and humble, and remember to give credit and thank those around you.

Too much? Know that the work you perform, down to the simplest task, is a reflection of you, so own it.

Join a women’s networking group and find a mentor. My first employer, Barbara Thayer, got me involved in WTS (Women’s Transportation Seminar) the minute I joined the firm. I cannot be more grateful for her to this day. I have met amazing women who find themselves in similar experiences and who are always around to talk, inspire and motivate.

Helen Archontou. (YWCA Northern N.J.)

Helen Archontou, CEO, YWCA Northern New Jersey: Ensure that you are opening doors for other women, particularly Black, Latina and other women of color. We know that significant barriers remain for all women, but especially for women of color. Only 9% of Black women and 8% of Latinas are represented in the science, technology, engineering and math workforce.

Connect with like-minded women in their industry so that they have a system of support and increase opportunities for networking. A lot of our women and girls empowerment programming at YWCA Northern New Jersey, such as our upcoming Women’s Leadership Conference that starts on March 3, is focused on connecting women and assisting them in building their networks.

Q: What would be your advice for a middle-schooler or high-schooler who likes STEM but doesn’t know how to proceed?

Dr. Chris Pernell: Advocate for your dream to anyone who will listen, and find guidance on how to best prepare for college, medical school and beyond. In spaces where barriers are entrenched due to racism, sexism and systems of oppression, learn self-advocacy. It is fundamental to one’s survival and ability to thrive.

Next, build consensus wherever you can find it, and be persistent — even through disappointments, failures and setbacks. Like STEM, it’s part of the process of finding the right solution and best fit.

Dr. Indu Lew: Take math and science classes, including advanced classes. They may seem intimidating at first, but hard work and dedication will pay off.

Relationships matter, so, when in school, join the clubs and do not be afraid if there aren’t any girls in the club. Talk with your teachers and guidance counselors about your interests and ask them to help facilitate increased exposure.

Desiree Gazzo: Get involved in a student chapter of a professional organization, a tremendous resource that often school-aged individuals don’t take advantage of. I think it has been harder recently with COVID, but (the ACE Mentor Program, American Council of Engineering Companies and Women’s Transportation Seminar) all have student chapters. Visit engineering firms. Most firms will happily speak about the work they do to encourage. Join New York City career days, etc.

Helen Archontou: Girls and young women are often systematically tracked away from science and math throughout their education, limiting their access, preparation and opportunities to pursue these fields as adults.

Join a STEM program or organization so you can learn as much as possible, and start networking now. It’s never too early to network or to find mentors and sponsors. This can lead to internship opportunities. At the YWCA, we offer a program, “Serious About STEM,” for girls ages 9-14 to explore STEM-based careers.

Q: What does the future hold? How long do you think it will take until being a woman in STEM is the norm, not a novelty?

Dr. Chris Pernell: The key to success in STEM and any endeavor in life is innovation and reinvention. STEM can’t advance without women and, specifically, women of color. All our voices, skills, creativity and intellectual capital are needed to power our societies and systems forward.

As women reach a critical mass in the field, we must use every inch of power we have to disrupt and dismantle systems that rob humanity of the richness of diversity and inclusivity. We must be brave to build antiracist, antisexist, equitable and just systems, organizations and opportunities to give access to evolving talent and emerging thinkers and doers.

If we in STEM are intentional to create safe spaces for all to belong, then the vibrancy that diversity and inclusion bring produce a competitive advantage. We need both accountable men and accountable institutions to share power and ally themselves with trailblazing women to design an ever-dynamic future state where all people can contribute to a vision of change.

Dr. Indu Lew: The number of women in STEM occupations increases each year, but we still have a way to go.  Women make up about 29% of the STEM labor force.

We need to encourage women at a younger age that the STEM field is open to them. We need to highlight successful women in the STEM arena. We need to ensure that women are paid equal to men, ensuring parity and bridging the gender gap.

Desiree Gazzo: I don’t know if it will ever be a true norm, honestly.  But I don’t think that’s the key here. It will take all people — men, women, all of us — to actively realize that we all need to respect and elevate the people around us.

Giving credit and promoting women will allow new folks in the field to speak and grow confidence.

Helen Archontou: Studies show that, by the time students reach college, women are significantly underrepresented in STEM majors, representing only 21% of engineering majors and 19% of computer and information science majors. This has to change. And the change must start at an early age.

At YWCA Northern New Jersey, a significant portion of our programming is devoted to advocating for women and girls and breaking down the systemic barriers they face daily. Our mission is to support women on their paths to educational, career and financial success. I’m not sure how long it will take before women in STEM will be the norm, but I’m certain it will happen.