The following is a lightly edited adaptation of the Oct. 22 episode of Women in Charge, a Slate podcast in which Slate editor-in-chief Julia Turner interviews women who are in charge of things about the things they are in charge of. In this episode she speaks with Ellen Stofan, the director of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and former chief scientist at NASA.
Julia Turner: Let’s start with the question of, what are you currently in charge of and what does that entail?
Ellen Stofan: The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum consists of two different museums; our building on the National Mall, as well as another facility out near Dulles Airport called the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. Both my museums are amazing. Out at Udvar-Hazy we have the space shuttle Discovery, we have an SR-71 Blackbird, and downtown at our National Mall building, which we’re about to do a major renovation project on, we hold, for example, a lot of the legacy of the Apollo program and then slightly historic artifacts from fairly historic objects like the 1903 Wright Flyer, the first airplane to ever fly, and the Spirit of St. Louis, which was, of course, where Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic for a first time in an airplane.
You took on this position five months ago. Can you talk a little bit about how big the team is that you’re leading there, and how do you think about directing that team to drive the outcomes you want and avoid the outcomes you don’t want?
We have about 300 people at the museum, and our team ranges from people who are curators who study the history of the artifacts, to exhibit designers, to communicators, to people who are helping us raise money to pay for the renovation that we’re doing of the inside of the museum. We have quite a diverse team, and they’re an amazing team. It’s been really fun to come in over the last five months, get to know the team, understand what their strengths are, and to think how do we take this group, how do we take the world’s most popular museum—OK, we’re actually usually the third most popular museum but close enough—how do we take this iconic museum and take it to the next level? That’s been a really fun process over the last five months.
What does the next level look like for you? What are some specific things that, when you see the team achieving them, you think, “Ah, yes, that’s exactly what I was hoping to get”? What are some things that you think, “Oh, I don’t want us to do so much of that”?
Well, we’re in the midst of renovating the entire museum downtown. That means all 23 galleries and exhibit spaces downtown are being reimagined. It’s, how do you take this history of this human struggle with gravity to learn how to fly, to make it to the top of the atmosphere, to make it to space, and what is that story? If you look at how museums have historically told those stories, it’s sometimes been told through the “great man” theory. The idea that one iconic person has really moved everything forward. A lot of it has been just like, “Here’s the artifact. Here’s a label.” That’s sort of the old-fashioned way museums were.
Now, it’s much more about storytelling. How can we tell the story of who built this, why did they build it, and almost inevitably it’s the story of a team who actually got something accomplished. The Wright brothers weren’t the only people on the beach that day. There were photographers, there were people who helped them move the airplane, there was a mechanic. Everyone has a team. How do you tell those team stories, which I think are truly inspiring? A lot of it is understanding from my curators, who are truly the experts on those artifacts, what are those stories and how can we make sure we’re working with people who understand how to communicate, especially to 21st-century audiences? How do we make sure we’re working to inspire that next generation of explorers?
The role that you’re in now has its own challenges and is about education and communication and narrative as you just described it. When you were the chief scientist at NASA, presumably the role had a different responsibility set and was more about research and other factors. Is that a fair assessment?
There are interesting overlaps between the two. While I was at NASA, one of the things that I was working on was, what is our vision for getting humans finally beyond low Earth orbit, where we’ve been so long on the International Space Station, how do we get humans to Mars? Which is something I’m really passionate about. A lot of it was, how do you put together a team to really think about this? How do you think about how to accomplish something so difficult as getting humans to Mars? How do you motivate a team to have a common vision? How do you look at the skills you have internally as an organization to say, how can we make this happen?
How can we be innovative? How can we maybe not look at this in kind of the linear way we have, but are there ways to look at this problem sideways? In a sense, that’s what I’m still doing at the museum. Where you say, “All right, we have to change these galleries. Are there ways to sort of change the narrative? Are there different ways of looking at what in some case are quite old stories?” The story of the Wright Flyer is a story that we’ve had since 1903. Are there new ways, are there new narratives? Twenty-first century audiences, especially kids, take in information in a very different way than people of my generation did. They’re much more digitally inclined. They’re probably not going to stand there and read a lot of text on a label. How do you find new ways of conveying information to this much more diverse, much more digitally inclined 21st-century kid?
Will you indulge two questions from my two 21st-century kids?
One son wants to know, how do they hang the planes and other spacecraft from the ceiling and make sure they don’t fall on everybody? The second question is how do you get the planes and big things inside the building?
That’s something we’re really working on right now, because part of this reimagining the interior of the museum and repairing the exterior of the museum, which has become quite worn and damaged over time, is that we actually have to get all those planes down off the ceiling and out of the building to go out to our facility near Dulles Airport to have some conservation work done on them and to store them until we’re ready to take them back into the museum downtown.
How we hang those airplanes, how we rig them from the ceiling so that they don’t sway around, that they’re shown at their best angle to give people a sense of the dynamism of that particular aircraft, is really an art. We have these people who are great artists at rigging aircraft.
They usually get it right, but sometimes they have to add more cables in case the air conditioning comes on in a weird way and they start swaying around. We really do a lot of work to get them hung carefully. What we’re going to start doing in January of next year is, we’re going to start taking them down off the ceiling, which is a whole other long and somewhat interesting process.
I can tell your son that we wonder how they got one of those artifacts in the building. That’s the model of Sky Lab. It’s almost two stories tall. To be honest with you, I really don’t know how they got it in the museum. We do have large doors down at the west end of the museum, which is the opposite end from the Capitol side, and we have very large doors that we’re going to use to take large artifacts in and out of the museum as we get ready to send them out to Udvar-Hazy. A lot of these artifacts are going to be transported on trucks in the middle of the night on [Interstate] 66.
I love the way you describe the museum’s mission as talking about humanity’s struggle with gravity. This is a struggle with gravity.
It’s interesting to hear you talk about the role as chief scientist at NASA, because in talking about leadership challenges with people, I think often leaders of teams know what the tasks are at hand and have a vague sense of what the tasks are that their team need to accomplish and have different ideas about how to communicate that, and often one of the lessons that management gurus and other people talk about is that you really have to explain what the mission is, what’s the vision, what’s the broad goal. It strikes me that at NASA, perhaps you had the opposite problem. If your team’s goal is we’re going to put humans on Mars, that’s the most insane, astonishing, motivating, seemingly impossible goal. It’s very clear, it’s very abstract. It almost seems like you maybe have the reverse question, which is, how do you take the crazy big goal and break it down into, what does Joe do tomorrow? What does Jane do in the lab on Tuesday? How do you do that? How do you figure out where to start on a goal that big?
I think you have to keep it simple. That’s one of the things when you’re trying to develop what we call an architecture for something like how do you get to Mars, you have to say, “How do you at least start with the simplest steps possible?” We had an administrator once at NASA who said, “Try to minimize the number of miracles that you’re hoping will happen.”
You have to sort of say, “Given what I have the capability to do now, can I at least set out an architecture or a path that is the simplest path,” because that’s usually the least expensive path. Obviously, one of the issues is, anyone could come up with huge incredibly interesting architectures with armadas of spacecraft going toward Mars that have people on then, but you say, is that affordable? One of the things you’re always having to balance is, here’s the money I have. How can I have a step-wise plan …
Wait, sorry. I was not aware that that was the case. That, actually if we could spend infinite funds, it would be easy to get people to Mars, and the problem is the budget?
It’s a combination of budget and technology. If you think back to the time of Apollo, we’re spending a lot of time at the Air and Space Museum really reflecting on the Apollo program. It’s the 50th anniversary of Apollo this coming year, the 50th anniversary of landing on the moon. At that time, NASA was 4 percent of the U.S. federal budget. It is now 0.4 percent of the federal budget. If you put a lot of money into something, you’re going to accelerate the pace.
In some cases, we need technology development, and that is not always a smooth and easily predictable path. On the other hand, look at what they accomplished with Apollo. You had President Kennedy saying, “Within a decade, we’re going to land a human on the moon.” Yet, at that point in the early 1960s, we had all this infrastructure that had to be built. We had to figure out math to figure out how to get humans up there and get them safely back. We know all that now. In that sense, getting humans to Mars is actually much easier, in my opinion, than it was to get the humans to the moon.
Sometimes when I’m talking even to my kids, I say, “This is how you figure out how to go to Mars. You understand what your goal is. You understand what the constraints are—for example it might be budget. Then you say, ‘How do we develop a step-wise plan to get from here to there?’ “ You have to know where you’re going and that clear vision of, for example, I want humans on the surface of Mars by the end of the 2030s, that’s a clear goal. Now I can say, “All right, there’s multiple paths to get there. How much do those cost? What are the technologies?”
That makes sense. I guess the broader question I’m asking is: How do you think about leading research and planning for exploration versus leading communication and education, which strike me as the two distinct roles?
You need a clear vision. For example, if I look at education around the Air and Space Museum, you have to say, “All right, we’ve made a clear decision that we want to reach middle-school kids,” because we know that’s when kids tend to turn away from science, technology, engineering, and math subjects. Especially girls and especially kids from underrepresented groups. We have a clear vision: We’re going to try to reach middle-school kids and inspire them about aviation and space.
Now you say, “Well, how are we going to get there? What’s my budget? What are my creative ideas? Can we create programming that inspires kids, helps teachers, and has the potential to be scalable?” You can say, “OK, maybe we can help 30 kids at a time or 60 kids at a time, but wouldn’t it be great if we could create programs that we could then export beyond the museum for other people to use?” What are your values, what are you trying to accomplish?
All those things are incredibly important. To me, the execution is the much easier part. Understanding what the constraints are and understanding exactly what it is you’re trying to accomplish is the more difficult part. Once you map that out as carefully as you can, executing it becomes much easier, because you’re walking within a much narrower path.
Did you imagine when you were just starting out in your career that you would have the leadership roles that you’ve taken on?
Not in the slightest. I think it was partially being a girl growing up in the 1960s. When I looked to women in science, those stories were hard to find. There was Marie Curie, Florence Nightingale, Jane Goodall, Mary Leakey. The role models I had were women doing research and moving science forward. I thought, “OK, that’s what I would like to do.”
I didn’t see women leaders out there, and that is one of the reasons that I think it’s so important, when people ask me, “Is it important that you’re the first woman director of the Air and Space Museum?” I would like to say no, but I think it is, because I want girls to think, “Well, that’s a possible career path for me.” The more women are in leadership positions, the more it gives girls that vision to say, “Well, maybe that’s a path I would like to go down.” Frankly, I stumbled into it.
Tell us a little bit about your early career and about your research. You started down the road studying planetary geology. What were you studying? What were you trying to find out? What were those early years in your career like?
I’ve always been really interested in the question of, how does this planet work? To me, it really all does come back to the Earth, how does the Earth operate. Looking at other planets, and the ones that I’ve studied the most are Venus, Mars, and one of the moons of Saturn called Titan. All these bodies in the solar system have pieces of their history or their present that helps us understand the past, present, and potential future of this planet.
Venus has a runaway greenhouse atmosphere that informs us about greenhouse atmospheres and how they behave. It’s also a very volcanic planet, and I study volcanoes around the solar system. Titan, Saturn’s moon, is the only other body in the solar system besides Earth that has open bodies of liquid. OK, they’re not water, they’re actually seas of basically gasoline. It’s liquid methane and ethane. Here you can understand how a body of water interacts with its atmosphere. How do waves form? Could there be anything possibly living in those seas?
When I wanted to study the solar system, it was really always about turning back and saying, “How does this planet work, and how can we use all that information to better understand this planet?” Early in my career, actually through most of my career, I was one of the only women in the room. It was always intimidating to look around a room and say, “There’s nobody in here who looks like me.” I even had a fellow student once, when we were talking about trying to find jobs after graduate school, he looked at me and he said, “Well, you have a husband. You don’t need a job.” You think, “Did I go to college for 10 years to go home and do nothing?” Those kinds of things were frustrating.
One of the things that’s really important to me now is that I was never in a position where people told me no. My parents supported me, teachers supported me, my college professors supported me. I did not have a situation where I was harassed. Did I have ridiculous comments made to me now and then? Yes, but I’m thinking of all the girls and all the women who, throughout the years, were actively discouraged from going into science fields, who were harassed, who left. I just see this brain drain that has happened over the last decades because women have not been made to feel welcome. People of color have not been made to feel welcome. That, to me, is what has to change, because we’ve just lost capability because of that.
Were there particular things that you did along the way to change practices in labs and places where you worked to try to facilitate a more welcoming environment? Or were there things that people did to facilitate a more welcoming environment?
One of the things that’s been important to me and that I certainly try to pass on is that I had incredible mentors throughout my careers. Not just mentors, but sponsors. People who not only supported me and gave me great advice, but who also would say, “Oh, there’s a position open. Maybe Ellen would be a good candidate for that.” I think everyone needs that, and it’s something that, because it happened for me, because that is part of the reason I am in the position I am in today, it’s important for me to pass that on.
When I was chief scientist at NASA headquarters, I spent a lot of time working with our team on diversity and inclusion issues. It’s that inclusion piece that I feel is so incredibly important, because it’s not just about saying, “We need to open the door and let people in.” It’s how do you make them feel welcome? How do you make them feel valuable, part of the team? How do you make them feel not different so that they don’t feel welcome? I think we’re getting better at the diversity piece. I think we still have a long way to go in our society on that inclusion piece.
When you think about trying to lead a team of people in this goal of really connecting with middle schoolers, how do you propagate that among this whole team of more than 300 people? How do you communicate to them what the goal is? How do you track the results? How do you encourage people to evaluate and test their ideas? What’s the process of putting that vision into practice once you’ve articulated it?
The good thing is that vision was started before I got there. It’s already been propagated through. What I’m trying to do is to say, how can we as we go through this transformation of the interior of the museum, how can I get the team to make sure that they’re following through with this? It’s one thing to say, “Oh, let’s pay attention to middle schoolers.” OK, but how are we doing that? Does the team have clear direction from me on that being important? Then what are they expected to come up with, and what is the schedule for that, and is there budget and people allocated for that, and do we have experts on staff who can actually be providing that? If there is content outside the museum that we can borrow or people we can partner with, are we looking for those things? I think a lot of it is with the staff, trying to make sure that they understand how important that is. Then, making sure that they’re actually following through.
This is someone that everyone at the museum is really passionate about. It’s not just my passion, it really goes throughout the staff. That’s what we want these artifacts to do. We want them to inspire that next generation. It’s one thing to think that, and it’s another to think, “Are we working with middle-school core curriculum standards so we’re giving teachers things they can use? Are we making sure we represent all faces so that every kid who comes into the museum can see themselves in the stories? Are we going to provide teachers materials so that we make their lives easy?” We don’t have to make it so that they come into the museum and don’t really know how this is relevant to them. Those are the things, we’re trying to make sure, are we dotting all the I’s and crossing all the Ts so that we attack this problem from every angle.
Once you made the switch from research into leadership roles in these various institutions, what are some mistakes you made early on that you learned from and then tempered your course going forward? What were some things that you had to figure out on your way to being an effective leader?
I think effective leaders know how to build teams, and they know how to manage people. That was something that didn’t come naturally to me. It was something I had to learn. Luckily I got to have lots of leadership opportunities over the years, from helping to lead small science teams, to leading larger teams, to finally leading a mission proposal process that took about five years and had a lot of people involved. I think over that time I learned about listening, how to bring a group to consensus, the importance of making sure people have their say.
It’s also understanding the humility of making sure, back to that listening piece, that you’re not listening just for listening sake, but that you actually might be wrong about something. While you certainly have a vision and a strong goal and an idea in mind, somebody on your team might have a better idea. Even though you’re the leader, you actually really need to listen to people, because sometimes they’re going to be telling you you’re off-course, and you are, and you need to figure that out. Obviously, I sometimes found that out the hard way by being a little off-course and not listening.
Sometimes it was just, how do I work in a difficult situation of stress and not take my stress out on other people? How do I deal with people who are taking their stress out on other people? How do I bring us back to a point where we can all work together as a team and respect each other? Those are things I just learned over the years. I don’t think I had that many really bad experiences, but you stumble and you learn and you get criticized and you have to suck it up and figure out, “All right, I didn’t handle that well.” A lot of it has to be this issue of self-reflection. How could I have handled that better? How could I have done that better? How am I listening to my team to make sure that we’re functioning well?
Are there structures you’ve created to make it possible for your team to share that kind of feedback? Are there tricks you have for making sure they feel safe offering criticism or that you’re getting that kind of input?
I think that’s something that sometimes comes with time, but sometimes you have to actually encourage it. I’m constantly asking my team, “How did you think that went? What could we have done differently to make this situation come out better?” I think it is offering to the team to say, “I value your opinion. Please give me your opinion.” If you can show them, “I am listening to you. I don’t always agree with you, but here in this case I took your opinion and acted on it, in these two cases I didn’t,” and in that way, the more you listen and act on people’s advice, the more they start to understand you are listening to them.
At the Air and Space Museum, they already had a process of having town halls. We had them at NASA also, and I think it’s incredibly important to have a forum where employees feel, I can ask questions. I can say, “Why are we doing things?” They can have feedback and say, “Why are we doing this this way?” I think creating an open communication system in a workplace, and again, luckily, that already existed at the Air and Space Museum, is incredibly important. I’m just able to take advantage of it.
You talked about the structures for making sure that people are able to give you criticism and feedback. I think one thing that young people just figuring out how to be managers sometimes struggle with is how to give negative feedback. One of the things you have to do when you’re leading a team and not just leading yourself is figure out how to take that observation, reflection, criticism, and change for next time, and instead of pointing it inward toward yourself and your own work, share that with someone else. I think that’s a big stumbling block for young managers, and possibly, particularly for young female managers. I think for all kinds of young managers, just how do you tell people they did something wrong and how to do it better? What’s your advice to people just figuring out how to do that?
I think it’s a hard thing. I will say in most organizations I’ve been in, both men and women have a hard time giving that negative feedback. You go and you look in people’s personnel files and it’s Lake Wobegon—you know, every employee is outstanding. You’re like, OK, not every employee is outstanding. I’m not always outstanding. How are you creating a culture that says, “I can provide you negative feedback, but boy, the minute you do something right, I’m going to give you a lot of positive feedback.” I think it’s that balance that’s important.
If I have a young manager, I say, “It’s really important for you to follow through with negative feedback, because if you don’t, the problem is just going to grow and grow and grow. You’ve got to come forward and say to the person, ‘You know what? This is not meeting expectations.’ If you frame it in a very professional way, no matter how hard it is, because none of us like doing this, but it is so critically important to not let a problem get to the point.” If you don’t step up on a problem and say, “We need to change this,” why would the person change their behavior? Then it becomes your problem, because you were the manager who didn’t give the feedback that caused the employee to change their behavior. Then it’s on you. That’s the other thing I try to work with managers to understand. It’s on you if you don’t take care of this.
I noticed your elocution there, not meeting expectations is a little just like, “There’s an abstract bar and you need to get there. It’s not about my feelings, it’s just about facts.”
Because, for most people it instantly becomes emotional. None of us take criticism well. I don’t, no one does. It doesn’t feel good to be criticized. I think you have to keep it objective. You have to keep it on such a professional level. Then again, you have to counter it by saying, “You know, here’s some things you’re doing really well. Here’s some things that I would like to see a better performance on, or where you’re not meeting expectations.” I think that balance is important. If you’re going to criticize someone, find a way to also compliment them so that they don’t walk away just thinking, “Oh my gosh, the sky is falling.” Unless maybe, the sky is actually falling.
I want to talk to you about how you think things are for women in science now, as compared to when you were starting out. Do you think things are better or worse for young women entering science today?
I would love to say that they’re much, much better. When you read the headlines, you know these problems still persist. I do think they’re overall better, and why I think they are better is because of the sheer number of women that are now coming into these fields, in some areas.
For example, if you look in the biological sciences, women are almost 50 percent. In geology though, women are about maybe 30-some percent. If you go into engineering, computer science, all of a sudden the numbers start dropping to about 20 percent. The numbers, especially in computer science and engineering, have not been moving very much. That’s incredibly frustrating.
It’s a pipeline problem. If you’re not encouraged when you’re in middle school that it’s cool for a girl to think about engineering, if you’re not encouraged in high school, if a science teacher makes you feel like women don’t belong in a science class or your peers make you feel that way, if you face harassment at some point in college or you go to graduate school and your fellow students make you feel not welcome because you’re a women, all along the way those things have to be corrected. Are they getting better? Yes. Are they anywhere near where we want them to be? No.
What I love and what encourages me is what I’ve seen over the last five years but obviously especially over the last year or so: women stepping forward in a way that my generation just didn’t. My generation was avoid that professor, don’t be in a room late at night with him. This generation is like, “Wait, stop. I’m not going to tolerate being treated that way.” That’s what I love. I do think the #MeToo movement is making a huge difference. I do think this next generation of women have a much stronger voice than my generation did, and that makes me really hopeful. I wish my generation had had a stronger voice, but we were too intimidated. There were too few of us.
The other things is, I think we have a much better understanding of implicit bias than we used to. With all the piles and piles and piles of research that has been done that show that women aren’t being treated equally, that show that women of color are treated even worse than white women are. We have this research. We have the basis to say, “Things are not going well.” Increasingly, we have the basis to say, “What are practices that actually make it better for women?” To me, the fact that we can now move toward research-based solutions means we’re more likely to actually come to a point where we are able to take advantage of the talents of all of our population, not just half of it.
Do you think that research-based solutions and research-based arguments about the importance of diversity and inclusion are particularly persuasive in science? Have you found that just because of the focus on facts and the discovery of knowledge that that kind of argument around this question can be more effective in science spheres?
I’ll be honest with you, it varies. I think the myth of a meritocracy is something that persists in all fields. For people who are in those positions to think that they didn’t get there because they’re the best, but rather they got there because they are white males is hard. Of course they want to say, “No, it’s a meritocracy. I got here because I’m the best. Men get the bulk of the research money because we do better work.”
When you’re told, “Look, I have this research that shows that women’s proposals aren’t treated equally, that women aren’t cited as much, that women of color get cited [less] in research, which then feeds into how easy it is to get money less than men are,” you can say, “OK, it’s clearly not a meritocracy when people are being judged on their gender, when people are being judged on the ethnicity of their names.” There’s extensive research that shows this is what happens. People want to believe we live in a meritocracy, but we’re not there yet. We can get there because we have the research, we know what to do to fix it, and we’ll get there.
I want to talk actually about budgeting. You have now had big leadership positions in these two institutions that are incredibly dependent on federal funding. Of course, for any leader the question of what’s the budget, what are the budget constraints, what are the budget targets, that’s a huge part of how you figure out the tools you have to achieve any task, even one much more mundane, literally, than going to Mars. How do you navigate that uncertainty around the level of economic commitment to what you’re doing and building, being dependent on forces outside the walls of the institution you’re in?
I think sometimes people who are outside the federal government forget that all of us who are federally funded, we are all taxpayers too. I’m just as concerned as everybody that my tax dollars are being spent in a way that’s responsible, that’s accountable, and that I’m making the best use of every penny. Obviously, the uncertainty that goes on year to year to year in the federal budget situation, you can complain about it, but it is the way the system works.
For an agency like NASA, it is very difficult. I would always joke and say, “NASA’s a 10- to 20-year agency that basically lives in a one- to two-year town.” How do you do that? How do you set these long-term goals when budget’s an uncertainty? Complaining about it doesn’t change the situation.
At the Smithsonian, we’re an interesting institution, where we’re part federally funded and part privately funded. We get donations from very generous donors, and we also have retail and food that we make money from. We don’t charge admission. The great thing about the Smithsonian being the nation’s museum is that we’re free and open 364 days a year. You do have these two sources of money coming in, and you have to say, “Am I putting my federal dollars to their best use? Then, what can I do with this additional funding that I have to really create a rich program that gives everyone who walks through the door of my museum an amazing experience and makes them appreciate the wonder of flight?”
What advice would you give to a young woman entering science today?
Go for it. The one thing I always say to girls is, “Don’t let anyone ever make you feel like you don’t belong here.” Even in the days before Hidden Figures came out. I would say, “Think about Katherine Johnson, who would go sit at a table, who forced her way into meetings where she was not wanted and was regarded as being lesser. She knew that she had skills, that she had talent, that she had information. That the mission wasn’t going to succeed unless she was there.”
She did what I think many of us would find very difficult to do. She walked into the room. She said, “No, you need me at the meeting, and I need to be at the table.” For a lot of us, I think we have to some extent imposter syndrome, where you’re like, “Do I really belong at the table? Do I really need to be there?” I tell girls, “Channel your inner Katherine Johnson. You belong at the table. You have a contribution to make, and don’t ever forget that and don’t let anybody ever tell you no.”
That is great advice. It’s advice I would share and endorse. I think one thing that’s hard for women at all ages in their career is how to balance that sense of bucking yourself up and giving yourself confidence in the face of people who maybe don’t appreciate what you have to contribute as much as they should with humility about the fact that you are young, and you are still learning, and you could still make mistakes, and you probably don’t know as much as some set of people. Obviously, both things can be true simultaneously. What advice would you give people for navigating that emotional terrain of having a reasonable amount of humility and self-doubt while simultaneously projecting absolute confidence that you belong?
One of my big mentors, said to me, “Don’t come to me with problems. Come to me with solutions.” Don’t just point out, “This thing is not very good.” Be able to say, “I don’t think this thing is optimized. Here are two ideas that could possibly make it better.” Or, you know, “If three of us went into a room together, we can come back to you with a better solution.”
I think it’s putting yourself in that position as a problem-solver. I think if we can get women who are not feeling confident to say, “You know what? I’m going to think of myself as a problem-solver. Can I identify a problem and can I offer some solutions?” I know this from people of color, I know this from white women. You spend part of your time acting. You are acting like you are much more confident than you are. You are acting like you are much braver, and it’s exhausting, but I think that’s part of being an early career person when you are in a room where no one looks like you.
I like the advice to focus on solving problems, because then it’s less about, am I talented or am I smart, it’s more focused on, what do I have to contribute? Then maybe that makes it easier to be like, “I do have something to contribute.”
Yeah, because if you’re really focused, all of us can always go into a situation and say, “Those people didn’t do a good job.” But sometimes we don’t feel confident about speaking up. I do think it’s that, how can I help solve a problem, and can I make sure I phrase it that way? Then people are going to turn to you and say, “Well, that person’s not just pointing out this is flawed. They are actually offering us some paths forward.” Even if you don’t have a solution, can you suggest a path to a solution?
That’s really good advice. You’ve spoken about some of the heartening things for women in the field. Are there any disheartening signs or anything that you find troubling about how women are faring in science right now?
I would like to see the numbers moving more than they do. When you look at the fact that women are actually 4 percent of commercial aviation pilots, when you know that this number of women in computer science, again, in engineering that’s hovering around 20 percent, despite the fact that trying to get, for example, girls engaged in STEM, I mean, that’s been going on for a bit. Why aren’t those numbers moving more? What can we do to make them move? Where do we see successes and how can we amplify and scale those programs?
At Harvey Mudd College in California—I’m pretty sure that’s where it’s at—rather than saying, “We’re going to try to weed people out of this program,” it’s, “How are we going to keep people in the program?” They have a really strong mentoring and tutoring program to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to be successful. If you think back to college calculus or freshman calculus, freshman engineering, it’s used to be, “We’re only going to keep the best.” That tends to drive women away. Let’s think of how we design our programs to keep women in. They are seeing the numbers move in those programs.
When they have programs that focus on engineering for the developing world, engineering to solve problems like climate change, women tend to apply at much higher rates rather than for mechanical engineering. When it’s applied to a problem, it sounds appealing. Let’s find those pockets where the numbers are moving, and let’s try to expand that. When you have those solutions, not only do women thrive, men thrive also. This isn’t an or, it’s an and. Let’s welcome everyone. If we support women in engineering and computer science, we’re going to support men too. We’re supporting everyone, and that just makes all boats rise.