Women In Stem Panel Shares Wisdom, Advice with ECS Students
In March 2023, student organizations Women in Computer Science (WiCS) and Society for Women Engineers (SWE) hosted a Women In Stem panel discussion to commemorate Women’s History Month. Students enjoyed a rousing conversation, with the panel sharing wisdom including insights on their areas of focus, career paths, workplace dynamics, and mentor relationships.
Moderator Lucy Ray, Computer Science student and WiCS officer: What are the most important skills and qualities for success in engineering and computer science, and how can we cultivate and promote these skills?
Cindy Fry, Senior Lecturer, Baylor Department of Computer Science. Fry came to Baylor after stints at NASA and in the U.S. Navy, She has taught computer science at Baylor since 1994, serving as assistant dean of the School of Engineering & Computer Science from 2007-13. Fry spent five years living right alongside students as a Faculty-in-Residence (2006-11). She is retiring from Baylor this year. [Bonus: The story of how she made the Baylor Family literal, adopting a BU student, is incredible.]:
Perseverance. Just because you get a problem wrong or get a failed grade is not the end of the world or the end of your path in the STEM field. Get up, dust yourself off and try again.
Dr. Hollylynne Lee, Distinguished Professor of Mathematics and Statistics Education at North Carolina State University, winner of the 2022 Baylor University Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teaching:
Creativity and collaboration. To solve a lot of real-world problems, you need to bring a creative lens to it, and you have to learn how to work in teams because none of the problems that we face today or computer systems that we try to build, can be done in isolation.
Samantha Bland, Consultant for Accenture, Baylor Mechanical Engineering Alumna ’19
An ability to sell what you're working and yourself. Presentation and selling skills being part of my day-to-day is not something that I anticipated going into the professional world, given that I’m not in a sales role, but no matter what you're doing, you're going to have to sell your idea. If nothing else, you're going to have to convince someone that your project/research is worth financial investment. That ability to talk confidently about your ideas and what you're working on is important.
Moderator: What are some of the challenges that you have faced as a woman in engineering or computer science and how have you overcome those challenges?
Dr. Hollylynne Lee:
My career is focused in mathematics and statistics, particularly in the preparation of teachers. As a woman in that field, I would just say you sometimes have to be willing to be one of the few in the room and to hold your own and to know that your ideas are equal at the table. A personal challenge as a professor was when I was pregnant and my feet were swelling. I had walked out of my office to get my mail, and my shoes were off. A male administrator walked past and jokingly said, "Ah, that's how I like my faculty: barefoot and pregnant."
It did not feel like a joke to me. Whether or not it is spoken, women must work extra hard to balance a career and family life.
I think as women, we tend to question our own abilities, I think more than young men do. And that can almost lead to deciding maybe this isn't for me, maybe this is too hard, maybe I'm not good enough. Do not believe the voice in your head. So, in Baylor’s School of Engineering & Computer Science, we do something called faculty mentoring, and the purpose is to talk to you as a faculty member about your goals. What do you want to do in the future? What is it going to take to get there? The voices that you need to listen to are people that see your potential. The person in your head does not see this until you're about 60 years old.
So believe the people that are talking to you. If somebody you trust tells you you've got real potential for something, believe them. Don't believe what you think now because you're young, and in time, all of those doubts are going to disappear.
I would totally agree. In my career I've worked directly with three men and maybe 25 women. I see tons and tons of women and I can see myself in those people in those roles, which is really encouraging for me. But I would agree that the barrier between myself and any man in the room is my head.
It’s more my own lack of confidence than it is lack of representation. But be encouraged: your confidence will grow over time. In my first year or two, I probably would have sat quietly and let somebody else do or say, but as I’ve grown in confidence, I’ve learned to acknowledge that I have a voice that's valuable enough to be heard. I also encourage you to remember that your head isn't always telling you the truth.
Moderator: Thank you all. What are some of the biggest challenges facing the computer science and engineering and mathematics industries today? And how can we work to address these challenges while also promoting diversity and innovation?
Anybody can pick up a skill, but what sets you apart from that person is that you go above and beyond in your role or that you do it with intentionality and are known for executing your craft with excellence.
Dr. Hollylynne Lee:
A lot of my work recently has been focused on preparing and thinking about data science and how we get more data-enabled thinkers in the world, both as citizens and to make decisions in different careers. You're going to need access to bigger and bigger data to actually help you solve a lot of problems, as well as more technical skills to actually figure out how to wrangle that data and make sense of it. So embrace that because the data revolution is here and it's only going to get more intense.
And I think along with that, going back to the idea of perseverance in problem solving. A lot of the problems that you'll be faced with in your career, it's going to take months to design something, not hours. And there'll be times where you chuck a lot of the stuff that you do out the window because you went down the wrong path. You learned a lot through that, but it didn't exactly solve the problem. And so you have to be willing to do that.
We've got to adapt to change all the time. But there can be no automation without a designer of that automation. And so, one of the biggest challenges I see in STEM right now is talent – the desperate need for talent. So, getting back to perseverance and hitting a bump in the road, maybe the bump is a personal issue, like a breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend or something. Not to diminish that at all, but you’re here to get a degree. You’re here because your next step is X or Y. Learn how to persevere in that because again, the world needs your talent.
And how do we do that, as Lucy asked, and still looking toward diversity of ideas, because if you've got talent, it doesn't matter what you look like. The world needs you. Not everybody can design a new semiconductor. Not everybody will design a new robot that's going to go in an automation or facility that's going to build something.
Have confidence in yourself that you are talented. Somebody asked me, what about Amazon and Google laying people off? That's a correction, a temporary blip. And if you're the one that happens to get laid off, maybe that's because God has another plan for you. Maybe that's because there's something better for you. Maybe there's an opportunity to learn more skills somewhere else in a different position or industry.
Moderator: Who were some of your biggest mentors?
Teachers that I had in grade school and high school, that encouraged me. My seventh grade or eighth grade math teacher was so important. I remember my junior year English teacher who, I was a geek, I was math/science all the way, but she encouraged me and said, "Nobody's going to know, Cindy, how smart you are unless you know how to talk to them about what you're passionate about. Nobody's going to know, and they won't care." And this is true.
And my parents:I was six when Apollo 11 landed. And I was sitting on my dad's knee and I said, “Dad, I want to do that one day." And he said, "Cindy, you can do anything you want to." That's another big thing. I see a few young men here in the audience. One day you're going to have a chance to speak powerful words into the life of the women around you or the men around you, doesn't matter. Everybody needs to have that encouragement.
Dr. Hollylynne Lee:
I'm going to flip it a little bit to think about moments. And there's always been a few moments in my life whereupon reflection, I've called them the triple dog dares, where somebody has said, "I think you could do that." And I thought, no I can't. And they're like, "Yes, you can." And so when I was getting my PhD, I was in a particular internship where I was supposed to find some software to use with these young children I was working with, and I was complaining about the software that I was using.
And a professor of mine said, "Well then create your own." I said, "What do you mean?" And he said, "You're a smart girl. I'll show you some basic coding. Create your own." And so I did. And so I was dissatisfied with the piece of software that I was using in a classroom, and he taught me some of the basics I taught myself. It was Visual Basic though. That was my first programming language and I created my own software and that became the basis for my dissertation and launching it from there. It's those moments where somebody challenges you to do something that you can step up to the plate and say, all right, I can do this.
I would just add to that thought before I answer the question, tell those people who made those moments happen of the impact they had on your life. I recently wrote a letter to my seventh grade English teacher after running into her.
And so I wrote her an email and just said, "You were the first person who said to me, ‘you can do something when I thought I couldn't.’" And she emailed me back and she said, "This morning, I had decided I was done teaching. And this came at the right time, on the right day, and thank you so much." So tell those people who impacted you that they did so.
One person who has been a mentor to me was my mentor in a formal setting at a case competition that I did as a student, then was a part of the team that interviewed and hired me for the role I have now, and then she was the leader of a team I was on for Baylor recruiting activities. I would go to her often and say, "Hailey, I feel 10 steps behind. What can I be doing?” Even after I got the job, I’d ask, “How can I prepare for day one?" And she would say, "Sam you have the skills. Grow your confidence, get out of your head."
Then last August, we were down here for a recruitment event with a lot of people. Just looking at that room and knowing I was in your shoes four years ago, it kind of clicked and was like, “Hmm, I could always do this, I just lacked the confidence.” She was in the back of the room and we came up to each other kind of at the same time. And I said, "Hailey, I believe you now." All that to say, mentors are people who speak those words of encouragement when you don't see things clearly on your own.
Moderator: How can students find and connect with good role models and mentors now and maybe later in their careers?
Dr. Hollylynne Lee:
Mentorship and role models come from relationships. You must put yourself in the spaces where you meet people and where you can have those one-on-one and small group conversations and then follow up with them and ask them for coffee, ask to come to their office hours. And sometimes mentorship is not only from faculty. You're going to find some of the people sitting in this room could be mentors to you because they can help you through thinking through different decisions in your life. They might give you an idea for a project that sparks you on a path that can carry forward through several classes into a graduate degree.
Don't waste the chance to get to know your professors and build relationships. They can draw from their own experiences, who they know, how can they help you get a job. And then later on, beyond school – because there is a beyond, believe it or not – the people that you hear about. Be bold, go introduce yourself to them, get to know them. Get to know them so that they know you. You’re going to have access to a lot of potential mentors in the future.
Moderator: Do you have any words of advice for how we can mentor our peers or other undergraduate students?
Mentoring starts, again, as has been said, it starts with a relationship. You look great today, I noticed you take great notes. How do you do that? Just get to know them, be encouraging. So a lot of people have talked about the encouragement that we've all received. Turn that around, start being that encourager. It doesn't take that long. Get to a point where you're comfortable not listening to the inside voice or being focused on yourself. Look around at other people.
How can I help you? What are you doing? What are you interested in? Do that, start now. In the fall, there's going to be a whole bunch of new people coming in to study science, technology, engineering, mathematics. We need to encourage them.
Let the person you are mentoring in on the failures. The places that I have learned most from a mentor is where they've said, “My client got really upset with me about this and this is how I handled it. Or I'm having a really, really bad day and I messed up in this way, or whatever it is.” We all want to show off our successes, but to me, it's really impactful when someone shows me that I'm not alone in my failure. And then helps me process, “How can we go about that in a redeeming way? How can we turn this positive?”
Moderator: What are some accomplishments you're proud of ? What do you consider to be your biggest accomplishments in your field?
Dr. Hollylynne Lee:
Well, since I have the microphone and I am the Cherry Award recipient, right now, that is the biggest accomplishment that I have that I achieved. But it's also incredibly humbling to even be nominated. And the whole experience of being recognized for something that you love doing and that you care about is an amazing feeling. Not all accomplishments are flashy; sometimes it's just that a student that says, You made a difference in my life. And that's a huge accomplishment. Those moments feel really good.
I'm proud that I don’t shy away from a challenge or an opportunity to do something new, something completely out of the box. My degrees are in engineering. I have taught computer science for 26 years. One of the biggest challenges was my first day at work with NASA and somebody said, “Cindy, we need you to write some software.” And it was like, but I'm an engineer. And they said, “We still need you to write this piece of software.” If it's an opportunity to do something that you've never considered, consider it. And if somebody is asking you if that's something you're interested in, again, they see your potential that you may be blind to. So take advantage of that.
Today, my biggest accomplishment is seeing my current project through to the end. Doing it can be so challenging, and that is an accomplishment in itself.
On a bigger scale, moments where my clients trusted my advice is what I'm most proud of in my career thus far.
Moderator: Looking back, what (if anything) would you have done differently in your career? What advice would you give to young professionals who are just starting out?
Continue to be a learner and say yes. If you've never done something before, give it a try. You may learn that you don't love it or you may fall in love. That's kind of how I was with that data analytics role that I took on. Any organization will teach you the specifics of how they do their business, but someone who has a good attitude, who can sell themselves and their ideas to a client or to their manager and make things happen, is someone that I want on my team!
Dr. Hollylynne Lee:
My biggest piece of advice would be that we all must create our own pathways. And yes, you're in degree programs that have very structured degree plans but life after school is very unique and your individual passions, your life circumstances, your values, they're all going to come together to lead you to the place that you belong.
I don't know that I would change anything that I did. But if I had a chance to go back and give myself some advice when I was younger, I would say, “Believe more in yourself.” I know that's a hard thing to do. You are here, at Baylor – you earned that. Did you know that less than 1% of the population on this planet ever gets an opportunity to go to college? You are here. That's amazing. Think of it outside of the box of, okay, I'm just another college student. You're not. I don't mean this to offend anybody, but you don't know what your own potential is. You really don't. With each new skill learned you're going to say, "Oh my gosh, I can do that now!" Believe in yourself!
Moderator: What are some words of advice or encouragement you have for young women who are considering a career in computer science or engineering, data science, statistics, or mathematics?
So, the obvious one, you've chosen a tough discipline. If that's what you want and you want to get this done in four years, that has got to be your focus. That's a harsh thing to say, because college has all this fun stuff you can do. But evaluate each opportunity; is this going to contribute to reaching my goal of getting a degree in that STEM field, or is it going to detract from that? That's a tough thing, but that's a decision process that you're going to have to go through for the rest of your life.
Dr. Hollylynne Lee:
A little bit of insight into me: I did have a lot of fun in college and barely graduated with a 3.0. I had to barely made it into graduate school. So again, pathways can be unique. And just because your undergrad GPA may not end up looking like everyone else’s who you might be competing with, it doesn't mean that you can’t succeed.
Number one: You're not going to be a failure in life just because you didn't get your first-choice internship or your dream job. It's not the end of the world. I think I have always had these drastic, “I'm never going anywhere in life thoughts” when I didn’t find what I thought “success” was at the next step on the path that I thought was right. So just know that you're going to get where you're supposed to be.
Number two: Do things with excellence. Do things to the best of your ability. Be confident in your skills and the rest will work itself out. Do things to grow your confidence. Get out of your comfort zone. Stand in front of a group when you're scared. Lead a small group at church. Practice whatever it is that intimidates you. Put yourself in a scenario where it's safe to fail. I know growing your confidence is easier said than done, but those are some tangible ways to build your professional confidence.
Audience question: Being women in male dominated fields, I'm sure y'all have developed thick skin towards the occasional snide comment. How do you develop that mentality? Because sometimes it does get to you. How you all have dealt with that.
Dr. Hollylynne Lee:
I can have a wicked sense of humor. And so I've learned to throw some of it back at them. I wasn't brave enough to do it to with that moment I shared earlier. But there was also a time where I was in a group with primarily men and they were all calling each other doctor around the table in a discussion. A male faculty member was sitting next to me. At one point I had said something in the discussion. And he said, "oh, now honey." And I said, "Can I please just be Dr. Honey?" And he was like, ah, yeah, point taken. And so sometimes knowing the right moment to throw the zinger back can be well-placed.
Something you've got to tell yourself: ultimately, it's not really about being female or being Hispanic or being African American or being Native American or being whatever. It's about being the best engineer or computer scientist or data scientist or statistician or mathematician or biologist that you can be. And don't let anything get in the way of people seeing that you really do know what you're talking about.
A great piece of advice I received was from the deputy director of the Marshall Space Flight Center. He said, “Cindy, some of the secretaries think you're stuck up because you don't talk to them.” And I was not talking to them because I was new and insecure. I was fresh out of college and I had no idea what I was doing. And I had just moved 1,200 miles away from home. I had no idea, but he helped me see how that perception might be true. So that was really good advice that I got at the time. But be the best, don't let people make a decision about you based on gender or ethnicity. Take that out of the equation, do your best at whatever you're asked to do and the merit is going to carry you.
I guess maybe to encourage you, not that it doesn't happen, but I can't think of a time where I’ve faced that. I've worked with more women than I have men. I have largely been very respected. For me, the place where I felt most intimidated was being the youngest person in the room, more so than being a female in the room. But I would say one thing that has helped me kind of measure, is this something that's valid is to ask a mentor’s opinion. In scenarios where clients or peers have said something to me that upset me, I usually take it back to my mentor and just let them hear it and say, is this something that I should take seriously or let it roll off my back?