DRI brings women leaders in science and technology together to discuss breaking through stereotypes
Generations of women with skills and interest in science and technology have pounded on a glass ceiling that prevented them from rising in that male-dominated world.
Three of those who have broken through to find success in their respective fields gathered in Reno on Sept. 25 to share their struggles, victories and insights. The panel discussion hosted by the Desert Research Institute (DRI) focused on the topic “Women Shaping the Future of Science and Technology.”
Panelists were Missy Young, chief information officer for Switch; Kristen Averyt, the first woman president of DRI; and Marcia McNutt, the first woman president of the National Academy of Sciences and recipient of the DRI 2017 Nevada Medal award. Cassie Wilson, meteorologist at KRNV News 4, moderated the discussion.
The panelists talked about those who inspired them to pursue their chosen fields and times when they faced barriers that only galvanized them to succeed.
McNutt said she grew up with only sisters and went to girls-only schools. In high school, a female teacher encouraged her interest in physics.
“I can’t remember a day when I didn’t imagine myself as a scientist,” McNutt said. “I always thought I’d be doing science and it would be outside — never in a lab coat pouring chemicals into a beaker.
“I never encountered this bias that because I was female, I shouldn’t be interested in science and math.”
That changed in college when she was assigned to a physics adviser with a different notion of a woman’s role and the authority to prevent students from advancing. He told her, “Girls have come and gone in this department, but there has yet to be one to graduate. … We’ll see if you have what it takes.”
During a meeting to determine if she would be admitted into the second-level Structure of Matter class, he told her, “A physicist needs the right balance between arrogance and humility. You only have arrogance.” Possibly because arrogance was enough or because he was running late for another meeting, he allowed her to take the next class.
McNutt earned her undergraduate degree in physics in three years, graduating summa cum laude from Colorado College. She earned her Ph.D. in earth sciences at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif.
Missy Young at Switch found inspiration through her mother, an executive for Wells Fargo Bank.
“In the ’80s, she was one of the women beating her head against the glass ceiling,” Young said. “I was never told by my parents, ‘You can’t do that.’ ”
Two days after Young graduated from Arizona State University, she was hired by a woman who wanted to give other women a chance in the technology industry. However, only two months later that mentor moved to another job.
“She was replaced by a man who thought I had no business being in the (technology) field,” Young said.
Young was working in the Los Angeles area at the time installing Y2K upgrades in the middle of the night.
“He gave me assignments in some of the worst areas of the cities,” she remembered. “I thought, ‘I might get shot, but that guy’s not going to make me quit.’ In a different way, he was an inspiration to me.”
For DRI’s Averyt, it was a neighbor — a professor in marine biology — who inspired her interest in science.
“I’ve always been the little kid who always asked why, but never stopped. He saw that,” she said. “He was truly the person who inspired me. It was great to have that kind of role model.”
Though she didn’t cite a specific challenge, she did agree that challenges can be motivating.
“We have that stubbornness, ‘You’re not going to get away with this and I’m going to blow your mind.’ ”
Averyt earned her doctorate in geological and environmental science from Stanford University and a master’s degree in chemistry, with distinction, from the University of Otago, New Zealand, where she was a Fulbright fellow.
Women entering the sciences today have more resources to help them get past the obstacles, but the remaining barriers can be intimidating.
A female grad student may be thinking, “This man is in charge of my funding. I can’t push back,’” McNutt said.
“Advisers need to be found so women are not compelled to stay with a harasser, or to fear losing funding (if she complains),” she added.
“I’m a really strong proponent of senior women forming strong networks and letting the junior women know how to get in contact with us so that when they face harassment of any sort, they know how to contact us so we can fight those battles for them,” McNutt said.
“Peer networks of women are so important. There may be only a handful of women in my department, but I can reach across the country (through Facebook and the Internet),”Averyt said. “It’s so valuable.”
Even as more women join the ranks of science and technology professionals, the number of minority women lags behind.
“The data are devastating,” McNutt said. “We need to try to understand what the root causes are. (Minority women) have a double whammy: Whatever the roadblocks women face, they face; and whatever roadblocks minorities face, they face.”
Many have cultural roadblocks.
“Hispanics aren’t encouraging their daughters,” Young said. “They’re encouraging their sons but not their daughters. We’ve got to change that organically within the culture.”
Young frequently speaks at schools to show the students — all students — the possibilities. She compares computer coding to learning another language. Since many minority students already speak two languages, they have a leg up on learning coding, she said.
Although women are studying the sciences at an increasing rate, science instruction overall is lagging for all students in the United States.
“Science is not a series of facts, it’s a way of knowing about the natural world,” McNutt said, adding that people tend to get “whiplash” from multiple studies that contradict each other about what’s healthy and what’s not, leading to a disregard of science.
“It’s not about the results,” she said, “it’s about the process.”
Christal Park Keegan’s professional experience includes working as an attorney for the National Judicial College in Reno and for the Chapman Law Firm in Northern Nevada.