Early in April I had the opportunity to attend the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) Women’s Impact Network (WIN) weekend with university President Dr. Laurie Leshin, several members of the WPI staff, and about three dozen esteemed alumnae and friends of WPI, all women. These alumnae, spanning the 70s, 80s, 90s, and myself in the 00s, and friends rallied around a shared purpose to further the opportunities and possibilities for women students, faculty, staff, and alumnae. The philanthropic efforts would be geared toward the creativity of those interested in making an impact and meeting the greatest needs, identified by those experiencing the needs and eagerly wanting to solve them.
The VP of Talent Development and Chief Diversity Officer at WPI, Ms. Michelle Jones-Johnson, raised the point that any effort to promote women generally should also include women of color specifically. If we are supporting opportunities for all women, it needs to be clear that we include ALL women. Women, and my own experience supports this, tend not to put themselves forward for an opportunity, despite great interest and qualification, because we may not feel like we belong or are worthy. During the weekend discussions we learned of the need for women to stay in the STE(A)M pipeline (and some other fun analogies that resonated), and if a certain barrier exists for a woman, there may be additional barriers for a woman of color to stay engaged. Though we did not specifically talk about women who are gay or transexual or immigrants or foreign students or those of varying faiths (or no faith), the barriers these women face were on my mind also.
With Silicon Valley is roiling over diversity hiring and retention, pay gaps, sexual harassment, and a myriad of other maladies, media sensationalizes every story, forgetting that people experience these issues every day. So how can we help solve the problem? I’m not a believer in awareness – while it does bring attention to the topic, it doesn’t extend to action. I recently finished reading Feminist Fight Club by Jessica Bennett and loved the message. It was both heart-felt and comedic, hitting the key points hard with direction for steps to take to respond to sexist situations. Let’s lift the other ladies up as we each rise – take someone with us for the ride. Hopefully, we can provide the means for opportunity that may not be found elsewhere, or as accessible, or be a better fit for funds and investment. One of my comments that weekend is that the WPI WIN group is able to create a new table to sit at, rather than fighting for the same number of chairs. We aren’t reducing opportunities available to others, just increasing the presently perceived limited opportunity for women, and doing so at WPI.
Clearly, the women in this room were committed to making the world a better place for other women associated with WPI, an institute in which we all shared a passion and love. If a dedicated group can come together with shared purpose, the hope is that women associated with WPI are able to act on their purpose to better the world around them. It may be campus, the community, the country, or beyond. Their dream may affect middle school girls thinking about math and science, or it may affect the end of a career, or change a trajectory for a faculty or staff member.
What struck me beyond the mission of the group and the weekend was the sense of selfless and servant leadership in the room. Though formal leaderships roles were in place organizationally, the stereotypes of being “bossy” or “mean girls” were absent. Women in the room inspired each other, supported points, and gave credit. No one was there to take over the room, but more to play their part in shaping future outcomes, that maybe someday her daughter or granddaughter or some student she will never meet has an experience that opens the doors of opportunity. This was a room of women who wanted to be hands on – to mentor potential recipients, to provide support to each other, to dig deeper into root causes. These women with incredible titles and careers and friends and family were emboldened to give back in any possible way they could, and they knew the power of multiplication of many coming together for one cause.
A set of small conference rooms on the third floor of a boutique hotel in Boston doesn’t seem inspiring at first, but when you think about the intellect and dedication and prestige and accomplishments of everyone in the room, there for a working weekend away from home when they could be relaxing, how can it not fill your body with excitement for what is to come?
It is my hope that in coming years I can maintain the time to be a part of this WPI WIN group to play my role, and fulfill my dreams, of making things better for women in STEM. While it doesn’t affect every woman in STEM, we have to start somewhere, and we are starting now. Women at WPI, encompassing students, faculty, staff, and alumnae, are changing the world, and if we can, why don’t we give them every edge and advantage we can to help them go even further?