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Women in STEM: Ask an Alum

In the run up to Women’s Open House at Olin, we asked several Olin alums to tell us what it is really like to be a woman in STEM. Vivian Lee ’09 and Rachel Boy ’15 shared their stories with The Wire.


Vivian Lee ’09 is a mechanical engineer at a start-up company developing IoT sensors for life science labs. She is currently part of the hardware design team and oversees product manufacturing.


The Wire: What’s the one thing you wish you knew about being a woman in STEM before you got your first job?

VL: It is important to have a good support system whether it's a boss, coworkers, or fellow engineers. I love being an engineer because I feel challenged. However, my experience being a woman in engineering has been emotionally challenging at times. It's helpful to talk to people who want to see you succeed and can help you navigate through the non-technical challenges. I felt intimidated not only as woman but also as a young graduate and I needed a second voice to affirm that: “Yes, I'm qualified enough for that job. Yes, I should negotiate my salary. Yes, I did a great job on that project.”

The Wire: What’s the best thing about choosing a STEM education?

VL: The best thing about a STEM education is the endless and growing possibilities. Graduates with science backgrounds don't always work in a technical role, so I find that having technical skills can be a powerful jumping point to other opportunities in STEM industries. As an engineer, there's always new technologies being developed and I'm never done learning new things.

The Wire: Did you have a mentor?

VL: I've always loved math and science. My high school guidance counselor suggested that I look into engineering and the rest is history. I’ve had lots of unofficial mentors over the years including professors, bosses, and fellow Olin alum. These are all people who I respect and look up to and while they didn't necessarily take me under their wing, their perspectives and experiences have been so helpful in my career. 

The Wire: When you read about women in STEM fields in the news or magazines or books, what’s the one thing everyone seems to get “wrong?”

VL: The topic that comes to mind is the gender gap in tech. I'm glad that it's being discussed more openly but one thing I feel is missing is engaging the rest of the STEM community on how to retain women. I've worked with kind folks who have unintentionally stereotyped me or treated me differently at times. I wonder what would happen if companies and individuals promoted education or awareness of implicit biases and how that might change behaviors. 





Rachel Boy ‘15 is a software engineer at Tableau Software in Seattle, Washington. This year, Boy will be one of the team members presenting one of the keynotes at Tableau’s annual software conventions.

The Wire: What’s the one thing you wish you knew about being a woman in STEM before you got your first job?

RB: Just, the variety of ways to be successful at being a woman in STEM. There are people who take very different approaches to being a minority in the workforce. Some people say "I'm going to become part of the culture that is already here," and they do awesome. Other people are very vocal and active about pushing for diversity, and they ask the culture to change to make room for who they are, and they still manage to be successful and amazing engineers who also make everyone around them better.

Being comfortable in the culture that you're in really does matter a lot. As a woman, I’m still definitely in the minority at my company - for software the industry standard is 20 percent women. But one thing I paid attention to when I was looking for jobs was how many woman interviewed me, and so I ended up on a team that has a balance of genders and backgrounds, and that's been really important for me.

The Wire: What’s the best thing about choosing a STEM education?

RB: I think it gives you a broad problem solving tool kit …there are a lot of different areas you can go into, because so many fields can benefit from folks who are comfortable thinking technically.

The Wire: Did someone inspire you to choose STEM?

RB: My whole family, but particularly my mother who was a mechanical engineer. Talking to her about the things she loved about her work inspired me to go down a more technical path. Every time I have a problem with the team, I ask my mom, “How do you be a real adult?”

The Wire: What the one thing news, magazines or books seem to get wrong about women in STEM fields?

RB: There's a lot of discussion about how to graduate more women in STEM fields, but when we're talking about STEM education, I feel like there's this big assumption a lot of people have that STEM education means focusing on pure math and science. And that's part of the picture, but I think it undervalues other sorts of skills.

The important skills to have in a technical job are not just being able to sit there and stare at your computer until the math comes to you. Technical jobs are still about working in large teams to get things done. There is a lot of team work and an ability to communicate, and organize, and manage, is incredibly important. A dysfunctional team of technical savants isn't going to turn out the best work.

On a different topic, there's also a lot of negative press about being a woman in tech, about all the challenges that women face. It's definitely true, and I'd never tell anyone that those challenges don't exist. They do. But there are also really positive stories. I've personally had mainly positive experiences in my job. I love being a software engineer. There are a lot of companies out there who care about diversity, and about treating all of their employees the right way. 20 percent is low, but it isn’t nothing - when I walk around my office, I don’t feel alone.