Second annual Women in STEM conference discusses gender disparity in STEM fields 

Isabella Ciriello, Staff Writer

The second annual Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEMs) Conference: Planting the Seeds for Female STEM Leaders of the Future hosted by Bela Tinaj (11) and Emma Colacino (12), discussed sexism in the STEM industry and inspired young women to become involved in STEM fields, Tinaj said.

The virtual event featured keynote speaker Dr Hao Wu, a professor of structural biology at Harvard Medical School, and two panels with college students and accomplished leaders in STEM fields.

Tinaj and Colacino selected each speaker by considering how their perspective would contribute to the discussion of women’s involvement in STEM fields, Tinaj said. “We tried to find women in STEM who really advocate for the cause of empowering women in STEM and girls who want to pursue STEM,” she said.

When organizing the conference, Tinaj wanted to have a range of experience amongst the panelists to allow the attendees to learn about the different challenges of being a woman in STEM at various levels, she said. “It showed the reality that regardless of how established you are — whether you’re starting off or you’ve been established for a long time in the STEM field — there’s going to be challenges that you face as a woman,” she said.

Three college students, Siona Prasad, a Harvard undergraduate, Valerie Robert, a Northeastern undergraduate, and Audrey Pe, a Stanford student, spoke in the Future Leaders Panel about their non-profit organizations and their involvement in STEM fields.

Robert discussed obstacles that prevent women from entering STEM fields, such as the sexism they face from their male colleagues. “Another thing that might be holding women back is because there aren’t many women in the room, they may feel intimidated to even join,” she said.

Elise Kang (10) was encouraged by Wu’s presentation, she said. “There’s a huge emphasis on everything being innovated, and it certainly is a field for the young generation.”

After the undergraduates spoke, Nita Madhav, Favour Nerrise, and Jennifer Strasser P ’23 ’26 answered questions from Colacino and Tinaj about their experiences as women in male-dominated fields. Madhav is the CEO of Metabiota, a company that researches epidemics; Nerrise is pursuing  a PhD in electrical engineering; Strasser worked as  civil engineer at Cambridge Systematics.

During the panel, Strasser stressed the importance of women holding leadership positions in companies. “You’d be so surprised to see how many important, senior level, high-visibility women are interested in talking [to students] simply because they were in your shoes, and they didn’t have help,” she said.

It was encouraging to see women in leadership positions, Kang said. “Women are going out looking to hire women and that was really inspiring, because it shows this kind of solidarity in a field where women aren’t really that present.” 

Additionally, there is not enough encouragement and mentorship available for women looking to pursue STEM, Tinaj said. “Historically, STEM is a very male-dominated field,” she said. “Girls who are interested in pursuing STEM get discouraged and pushed away and told, ‘you cannot do this, you’re not smart enough to do this.’”

There have been changes in how women are treated in STEM fields since Strasser first got involved in civil engineering in the 1990s, she said. “As a young woman in engineering, people didn’t take me seriously or thought I was the cute one in the room, not someone who should have a real seat at the table,” she said. “But the way the world is today, nobody stands for it.” Strasser is proud that a new generation is enforcing these changes and hopes the STEM world will eventually become a completely unbiased workplace, she said.

Despite more people becoming aware of these broad changes, no male students attended the conference. Tinaj had wanted her male peers to participate because they could benefit from learning about women’s experiences navigating a male-dominated field, she said. “We were hoping that if male attendees would come, they would be able to hear from the female perspective because I feel like a lot of the sexism can be subconscious on the male end.”

Similarly, panelist Pe thought the conference could give everyone a better understanding of the obstacles women in STEM face and how to combat them, she said. “Non-female attendees of the conference can also take away that allyship is very important and that in order to really tackle and ultimately solve gender issues, accessibility issues, it’s not just going to take proactiveness from the immediate group being affected,” she said.

Everyone can learn a great deal from the event, not just women interested in STEM, Strasser said. “I think anyone who ever feels [isolated] because they identify as some form of minority in their profession, what we discussed at the event holds true: you should still go seek out a mentor, you should still go find a support network, or consider building a community of people like you.”