It is an inspiring opportunity for young girls to discuss gender obstacles with those who have paved the way for women to enter fields traditionally occupied by men. Earlier this month, I was fortunate to have my own meaningful discussion with NASA Project Scientist Vandana Verma, Ph.D., about the importance of recognizing women in leadership roles.
Vandana, who currently works at NASA Ames Research Center and who has also served as a research investigator at the University of Michigan and a scientist at Verseon, has had extensive experience as a woman in STEM. During our discussion, Vandana imparted the importance of recognizing that women can find successful career paths in STEM and encouraged the young girls in our audience to pursue their interests and stay curious about the world around them.
When asked how her own experiences as a young girl led her to become a woman in STEM today, Vandana shared how her parents played a significant role in encouraging her education and career aspirations. “From the immigrant experience, my parents always wanted that professional career of being a doctor, lawyer, or engineer,” Vandana replied. “I was lucky in that my father was a teacher, so he always believed in as much education as possible… When I was a child, I would sneak into his classes at school and watch how he would teach his students, and that was really fun.”
Upon recalling her transition into higher education and her deepening exploration of certain subjects, Vandana shared that, “Following the subjects I was interested in and creating good study habits is really something that is applicable to all stages of life. But [it is also important] to know when the pressure is too high, because we want to be high achievers— we want to give our best— but at the same time we need our balance. So I think having that balance is a good habit.”
However, throughout her career as a scientist, Vandana was forced to encounter obstacles that tested her ability to prioritize the importance of her own interests. When asked if there was anything Vandana wished someone had told her as a young girl about being a woman in STEM, Vandana said, “Yes, I would say to keep going. Because sometimes situations can look like they are really dire, but keep going and also be willing to be flexible. Sometimes we can put all of our eggs into one basket as it were, and it looks like things aren’t working out the way we really, really want them to, and I often felt that way [at a certain place in my career]… But taking a really big, scary step at the time to not work there anymore and to look for a different path… You never know where you are going to end up and [it would have been appreciated] if someone had told me just to keep going, you will find what is really a good fit for you.”
As a woman in STEM, Vandana was also exposed to the many difficulties surrounding women in male-dominated fields. According to the American Association of University Women, women encompass only 28-percent of the STEM workforce and men significantly outnumber women concentrating in most STEM fields at the university level.
Speaking on the challenges she has faced as a woman in STEM, Vandana reflected, “I was not really aware of it at the beginning, but as I have progressed throughout my career, I have noticed… that we start off with many women in the biological sciences, but by the time you get to the professor level, that number drops off sharply. And I think that part of that is due to gender discrimination, to be open and honest, and I have encountered a little bit of it. [However], I am impressed with how organizations have responded recently— there is a lot more law and legislation to protect women in certain instances, so I think we are much more aware of that. I would also say that one good thing is to find mentors and allies to support you in the workplace or in the educational establishment that you might find yourself in the future. I found that to be great to have a sounding board to talk through these things— someone who can listen to your experiences and offer you support has been really helpful.”
When discussing how she chooses to respond to gender discrimination in the workforce, Vandana added, “I do work with many male engineers… [and I find it helpful to] be able talk to someone if I notice something. I remember a particular instance with a male engineer, and I responded in a way that really let this person know I wasn’t going to give in to whatever was projected onto me at the time… which definitely helped improve the relationship. And so there is an element of being able to stand in your space and be who you are.”
Vandana’s accomplishments in STEM reflect not only that women can impact the scientific field and advancements in new technologies, but also how crucial it is to find a support network within one’s line of work. “There are women’s groups in particular where we can come together and inspire each other or give a talk on something we are working on… so it is a constant system of creating mentors or reaching out to people. There is a big network at NASA that we have access to,” Vandana said. “What I really like about this job is how reliant everybody is on the team. Because if the team doesn’t succeed, then projects don’t work or things don’t take flight at the space station. So I think responsibility is spread out between lots of people so it’s not really dependent on one person.”
Although women may face discrimination in certain fields, with supportive co-workers and a commitment to changing the STEM landscape, women can make opportunities more accessible for all. As one audience member who is in the manufacturing industry herself, Joanna Dowling, commented, “Thinking back to when I was all of your ages, I wish that there were more opportunities like this for me as a young girl thinking about going into a STEM-related field. This is an opportunity for you all to realize that you can do anything and achieve anything that you want. Don’t let anything hold you back in life, especially working in a male-dominated field, because you have so many more opportunities than all of the women and pioneers before you.”
Now is the time to break down the barriers that separate men and women in certain fields and help raise female voices. By sharing more stories similar to Vandana’s journey, we can normalize women in STEM roles for the next generation, ensuring that such ambitions no longer appear unattainable to young girls. Women like Vandana are proof that all aspirations are possible.
“The Stem Gap: Women and Girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.”
AAUW, 3 Mar. 2022, https://www.aauw.org/resources/research/the-stem-gap/.
About the Author:
Kaitlyn Donato is a high school student from Winchester, MA. In her sophomore year, Kaitlyn recognized that there were too few magazines focused on writing for and by young women and decided to create The Alcott Youth Magazine. With the magazine, she hopes to publish inspirational writing for all young people to enjoy.
Kaitlyn would like to thank Erin Brown and all other team members from Inspiring Girls USA for making this interview possible. Inspiring Girls USA, an organization dedicated to fostering the ambitions of young girls by connecting them with successful female role models, aims to show girls that they can break down gender barriers and achieve their highest aspirations. You can learn more about their organization at inspiringgirlsusa.com.
Kaitlyn would also like to show her gratitude for the assistance she received from everyone at Books and Bridges, Inc., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that coordinates with elementary school teachers to read stories to younger students about women in leadership roles. Books and Bridges believes that discussing female leaders is important for acknowledging women in history and furthering confidence in young girls. To learn more about the organization, please visit booksandbridges.org.