Giulia De Masi, OES WIE PROPEL Laureate 2022-2023, Photographs taken by Jhon Bermudez and Yessine Karray
During the MTS/IEEE OCEANS 2022 conference at Hampton Roads, Virginia, a dynamic panel session was organized by the IEEE Oceanic Engineering Society (OES) during the women-in-engineering (WIE) breakfast. The panelists included Allisa Dalpe (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution), Corinne Bassin (Schmidt Ocean Institute), and Yahong Rosa Zheng (Lehigh University), under the moderation of Farheen Fauziya (Enhanced Communications & Technologies). More than 60 participants enjoyed the breakfast and panel presentations. They were intrigued by the three women, three different stories, at three different stages of their life and career. Some common traits and experiences emerged during the panel presentations and sparked lively discussions.
I was very glad that I attended this event, finding many of the experiences resonating with me. After the three panelists briefly shared their personal experience, many professionals and young students were motivated and asked a lot of questions. The discussion was engaging and thought provoking. The conference general chair and the OES president were also among the few male participants, who were listening to the conversation with great interest. I would like to capture a few key points that were discussed in the panel.
Adaptability opens new opportunities
In the experiences shared by all three panelists, the career path taken was nonlinear. Allisa, a young researcher at WHOI, presented her choice of career path using a decision tree approach: some tracks have been pursued and some others have been put aside. She credited her passion for engineering to her father’s encouragement when she was young. Corinne, being a mid-career professional, had to move back and forth between industry and academia, changing jobs to suit her family situation, which was changing from time to time along her way. In contrast, Rosa is a senior researcher, a fellow of IEEE, and a mother of two children. She presented a timeline of her career, along with her husband’s career and her family milestones. She showed that changes in life can be opportunities. For instance, while pregnant with her second child, Rosa decided to start her Ph.D. study after working in industry for seven years and she appreciated the flexibility of an academic job to take care of family while advancing her career.
Adaptability allows women to develop a career and raise a family in an ever changing world. As Allisa said: “It’s ok not to have an exact plan,” still, your professional profile will be growing, often with contributions from different experiences that make you unique. Allisa started with a bachelor in Physics and ended up with a Ph.D. in Ocean Engineering. Now, her job at WHOI led her to work in autonomous systems. Her experience in many disciplines makes her a well-rounded researcher. Corinne shared her experience in raising a kid as a single parent while balancing professional work, which can be extremely difficult at some moments in life. Rosa described the interesting comparison of her career advances to that of her husband, and suggested some creative ways to leverage ‘two-body’ opportunities.
Allyship and Intersectionality
Corinne emphasized that allyships play a crucial role in women when pursuing their talent and leadership. She offered a great and easy method of allyship called “echoing”: it is a common complaint that women are often not heard in meetings due to various reasons, and it is more frustrating if there are only three women in a room of 20 – 50 people. Nevertheless, if the three women take turns to echo an opinion multiple times, making direct reference to what was said before, then their “echoes” would greatly increase the chance of being heard. For example, after the first person expressed her opinion, which was ignored, the second person would say something like “As Corinne said before, I also agree that…”; the third person would say: “As Corinne and Allisa said before, I believe it is a good idea that ….” It is a great idea to also ask the men in the room to refer to our opinion and be our ally too.
Allyship also means building a strong support system from family members and colleagues. Build a support team with people who know your value and can step in at difficult times, for example, when you have to go to work while your kid is sick. On the society scale, networking events and meetups with other women are great places to find support and mentorship. It is also important to know that mentorship goes in both directions – mentors and mentees benefit each other. All three panelists mentioned that they had received great advice from other events like this WIE panel, and they were happy to give back to the community.
Allyship is critical particularly in cases of ‘intersectionality’, which describes the cases where more than one way of inequality is expressed in the same person, producing higher forms of discrimination, like gender and religion, or gender and ethnicity. In these cases, allyship is particularly important in defending from any form of combined discrimination.
Be proud of yourself
Women should be aware of how they stand out. When there are only 3 women in a class of 100 students, the 3 women are known more than the 97 men. This was the experience shared by Corinne, very common in STEM. This is true also in our daily life. Quite often, at work, women are few and for this reason they stand out. We may sometimes not be aware of it, but we have a power on it, because the job market needs women to take an active part of the work life. We have to express this power, expressing our needs such as flexible working time or reasonable maternity leaves.
Rosa said women have to remember to be confident in themselves and proud of their work and their achievements, not rely on the other people to support them, nor wait for others to celebrate their achievements. Sometimes women lack self-confidence, which is very important at work, just like in the family. This leads to the expression of new ideas and creativity, which can differ from the majority opinion. Moreover, women have a tendency to take responsibility. Self-confidence should be an important factor that also helps one to say “no” when too many commitments are assigned, as pointed out by Rosa and Corinne.
Self-confidence does not mean to pretend to have a knowledge that we do not have. The knowledge opportunity today is huge given the online availability of scientific content. It is ok to say “I do not know this.” To be humble is paying off in terms of trustability and reputability.
How to stop the leaking pipeline?
Rosa drew our attention to the story of the trombonist Abbie Conant and asked how the STEM community could develop a strategy of “blind audition” to increase the percentage of women in science, technology, engineering, and math. Once we attract more women, how do we keep the pipeline flowing? Many women leaders, including Cathy Hogan-Dixon (Executive Director of OceansAdvance Inc. from Canada), Donna Kocak (L3Harris Fellow/Senior Scientist and past MTS president), and Sonja Smith (Scientist at Navy), shared encouraging facts that many companies in the marine industry and Department of Defense have put in family-friendly policies, in terms of working time flexibility that enhances the work-family balance, paid parental leave for both working mothers and working fathers, and paid childcare expenses, etc. Those policies are taking effect in women retention, job performance, and life satisfaction.
A concluding remark
Events like those organized by IEEE-WIE and women-focused events by OES are a great opportunity to meet other women professionals. This is in line with OES efforts to improve on diversity and gender representation in the Society, which also fits within one of the key aims of the UN Decade of Ocean Sciences. These events can be the right venue for women to find new allyships and mentoring opportunities in both directions. “Make the interactions count” as Allisa said. Indeed, I was happy to make this one count! I left the conference enriched and strengthened by all the meetings, testimonies, and interactions I had during the conference, especially in the WIE panel. I very much look forward to the next opportunity. If you have any comments about the WIE panel, or the topics we discussed in the panel, please write to me.
I would like to thank Prof. Rosa Zheng for helping on the revision of this article.