Sitting in a conference hearing a male colleague speak about the mentors who’d supported his career, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Professor Anita Sengupta realised that, as one of the few women in her field, she’d never had this type of support.
“I sat there thinking, I’ve been working here for 10 years, and I never had that… I’m also a professor at University of Southern California, and there are very few female professors in hard science and engineering fields. So, there aren’t enough female role models girls can look up to and feel like this kind of thing is normal. It’s a huge detractor. There aren’t enough role models pulling girls in.”
An American longitudinal study can shed light on how Professor Sengupta’s individual experience is part of a broader pattern affecting women engineers.
The research examined the reasons why women engineering students drop out before completing their course. Contrary to public perception, the study finds that family plans and self-confidence in STEM knowledge (such as math abilities) do not have a significant impact. Instead, the study shows that women tend not to finish their engineering degrees because they lack “professional role confidence.” This idea encompasses a person’s assessment that they can fulfil the roles, competencies, and identity required of engineers.
Rather auspiciously, we commemorated the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing through a Hangout on Air interview with engineer Candy Torres! She gained a degree in astrophysics in the 1970s, where she was only one of seven women in her classes. Candy spoke about the challenges of following her career in science, which included gender exclusion and not having any women colleagues to support her education. Despite the gender and cultural barriers she faced, Candy walked into her dream job the day after graduating from university. Through networking, tenacity and a commitment to learning new skills, Candy went on to work on satellites, the NASA Space Shuttle & the International Space Station. She has been part of a team to make space exploration history. Watch the video or read more below!
We spoke to Annika O’Brien as part of our ongoing In the Spotlight series. Annika is a roboticist with a background in computer science, software development and programming. Later, she acquired expertise in electronics and, more recently, she set up her own company. Annika has also been heavily involved in educational aspects of robotics, which she not only enjoys but also volunteers her time and resources. Watch the video or keep reading below for a summary!