Women in Leadership at Olin, By Juanita DeSouza '17
In true feminist fashion, I find myself naming this article after a recent one in the New York Times that talks about the way the gender gap has influenced many executive women's lives. Both that article and this one focus on the success of women leaders in today's world, and how their experiences have affected their perspectives about gender bias.
I specifically interviewed Kate Maschan, a senior here at Olin, who is quite the charismatic activist on campus.
Let me start by clarifying that Olin College, by design, has a progressive outlook on education. Unlike most engineering schools, Olin boasts an equal gender ratio and hands-on curriculum. However, I've found that the very thing that makes Olin a special place can also magnify the differences that society tends to place on students in STEM fields.
Kate is the Project Manager for Olin's Baja Team for the second year in a row, and her experiences have definitely shaped her, not only as a person but as a leader. Also known as Phoenix Racing, Baja is a team of 35 Olin students that builds and races offroad vehicles for SAE Mini-Baja competitions all over the country. When I asked her about her experiences as one of the female leaders for Baja, she told me, "At Olin it's historically been one of the more male-dominated student groups. You go to the competition and it's all guys - in fact, mechanical engineering has one of the worst gender ratios."
Kate drew attention to the fact that gender gaps are self-perpetuating. When more men, for example, are on a team, women can - at times - get pushed away. In most STEM fields, this usually means that a higher percentage of men tend to be working on the project.
Kate sees these differences on the Baja team, saying "A lot of times the men who join the team are really confident, and get hands-on with the car right away. And that's a lot less common with the women who join the team. Part of that is more men have worked in a machine shop or worked on cars in high school than women - and this is obvious when a new student joins our team. Confidence is also a big issue- I've seen the documentation and research- this too makes a big difference in terms of who gets hand on and involved right away."
One of Kate's goals this year as a leader is to try to reduce this gap by recruiting and retaining women. Because she's in a leadership position, she has had to approach this carefully, but has made "a conscious effort to pair the less confident members with mentors who understand this, and are ready to work with them to teach them things and help build up that confidence."
While this was an issue she said she struggled with last year, this year with the help of a strong leadership team, Kate feels they have made a difference. "It's not enough to just pair someone with a mentor - you need to pair them with someone who understands this lack of confidence issue. Now you are coming at it from a completely different perspective. It's one thing if you have confidence, but have never designed a gearbox. It's very different if you feel like, 'There's no way in hell I can design a gearbox. I don't know anything about it, how will I ever be able to do that?' "
Having a leader who recognizes that both confidence and competence factor into team dynamics is refreshing. These factors impact nearly every decision Kate makes. How refreshing it would be if more managers in the real world took this into into account when deciding who needs to be hired or given a raise!
Kate said her experiences changed as she acquired more responsibility on the team. "I felt like it was sort of hopeless when I first joined the team, but now I feel like I'm in position where I have some influence. I can say look, I'm the leader of this team and I feel like I'm being treated poorly at your competition." And she did just that by speaking to the event coordinator after certain experiences at a recent Baja competition.
But gender bias in engineering is also a personal issue for her. As a female engineer, Kate is more conscious of the fact that people treat her differently because she and her female teammates are women. She says it's important for women to have a support network - including men - for the times when they are not taken seriously or when people make sexist assumptions like, "Oh, you're here at the competition to cheer on your boyfriend?" Fortunately, she feels that most of the time, people either aren't this overtly sexist, or that they hadn't intended to be sexist at all. This is why she feels it's important to show people their unconscious gender bias.
Although Kate acknowledges that she is currently in a leadership position with Baja, she is quick to point out, "You don't need to have authority to speak up about these things. Everyone can do or say something when they don't agree with what's going on around them. But not everyone realizes this."
We were talking about how Kate intends to combat sexism in the future, and whether she was going to continue being an active member in this fight after she graduates in May. Pragmatically, she explained that it'll be a while before she has enough power to do that 'out in the world,' so she would rather focus on Olin where she can actually begin to make change. To her this means, "...making a difference where you can. Sometimes you work with people who may have more power than you do, but you can still speak up when they do inappropriate things. At times, I've had to speak to an Olin teammate for saying some wildly inappropriate things."
That being said, Kate would like to work at a place where gender bias - if it exists - is acknowledged, and plans to continue advocating for women in a technical workplace.
What else is Kate up to during her final year at Olin?
Kate's Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (AHS) capstone project this semester is on sexual assault. She was inspired by the Frankly Speaking (Olin's student-run newspaper) articles talking about assault on campus, and felt disappointed when the conversation died. She intends to create a peer advocacy group to provide support from people who are non-mandated reporters of sexual assault, and Olin's Student Life office is helping with this.
"We can pretend that Olin is a perfect little bubble and that these things never happen here. But that means we're never going to make things better. If we want to get better, we have to recognize that there are flaws. And that means that there are times when people are assaulted at Olin by other Olin students - and it means that Olin students can be sexists toward other Olin students as well. We need to start doing something about it. So we're going to talk about it and it's going to be uncomfortable, but it's for the greater good."
"Here at Olin, I believe we look out for one another as much as any group of friends on any campus does,' Kate concluded. "Still, things happen. And if we keep the conversation going about these difficult topics, then we're definitely taking steps in the right direction."
I'd call that good advice for any change that needs to happen.