Thursday, March 3. Workshop. People are gathering in a big conference room at Hotel Arista in Naperville. The sound system is being tested, and the first slide of a PowerPoint presentation is up on the two big screens. In my 30 years of attending conferences, this event doesn’t seem to stand out from the countless others. Nevertheless, this time I feel uneasy and somewhat out of place. I am in the room with about 100 professional women, and the one lonely man here is a local sound technician. What a difference from a typical computing science conference! I am trying to relax, studying friendly and intelligent-looking women around me. A funny thought crosses my mind: This is probably what men experience at every computing science gathering — being surrounded by others that look like them.
The Chicago Collaboration for Women in STEM has been organizing the Career Development and Leadership Retreat for the last several years. The event is sponsored by Northwestern University and University of Chicago and attended by women from these universities, as well as Argonne National Laboratory and Fermilab. Fermilab sent 11 women this time around. The variety of interests in this group is impressive: mechanical, electrical and civil engineers, chemists, physicists, astrophysicists, psychologists, microbiologists, neurologists, molecular biologists, geneticists and even several software engineers. The participants’ professional positions range from the Dean of the Kellogg School to associate scientists from the University of Chicago. The two-day retreat includes talks by the invited speakers, panel discussions, group discussions and a lot of conversations during breaks, dinner, breakfast and lunch.
This year’s presentations were pretty amazing. One was given by Melina Kibbe, who talked about sex bias in biomedical research and her quest to publicize this problem. Her work gained real attention when it first aired on 60 Minutes, then picked up by Stephen Colbert, and by the end was forced to be addressed by the National Institutes of Health, the FDA and Congress. The panel discussion included three very successful women: the COO of physical science at Argonne, the associate dean of the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science from Northwestern, and the former director of Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena, California. They shared their life stories, the ups and downs of their careers, and answered a lot of questions about conflict resolutions, dealing with roadblocks in scientific careers, and raising children. Maria Curry-Nkansah, the aforementioned Argonne COO, said that she keeps a special “boasting corner” in her office: The way she boosts her self-esteem when she feels down is to look at all her diplomas and awards.
The most invigorating part of the retreat was the opportunity to chat with several amazing women who managed to contribute to society in so many different ways: studying humanitarian crisis response in disaster areas, gathering data on juvenile prisoners and the psychiatric impact of incarceration, leading research on type II diabetes in the South Asian immigrant community in Chicago, and many others. To my great surprise, I accidentally bumped into a seismologist who met my father, a geophysicist, when she was a student at the University of Utrecht and he was a professor visiting the Netherlands from the Soviet Union. Small world!
Through my conversations, I was surprised to find that I shared a lot of common experiences with the other attendees: being a lonely woman in a room full of men who don’t really take you seriously, suffering from time-to-time from impostor syndrome or trying to find a balance between family and work.
It was an interesting and exciting day and a half. The only thing I regret was that I didn’t attend the “dressing for leadership” session. I was told that it was very educational, and the biggest mistake is to wear tops, skirts or pants with pockets.
Tanya Levshina is head of the SCD Scientific Distributed Computing Solutions Department.