Empowering the Rising Generation of STEM Leaders

Erin Fry Sosne ’05 is the deputy director of advocacy and policy at PATH, a global health nonprofit. A bioethics major who went on to earn a Master of Public Health degree from the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, she had originally planned on a research career. “But during my post-grad fellowship as a science and technology fellow at the National Archives, I realized that while raw data was interesting, I didn’t love going in every day and sitting at my computer alone,” she says. “Some people really love that, but I knew then that I needed to work with people.”

Fry Sosne was telling the story of her unlikely route into policy leadership in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) to a group of Scripps students and alums. They were in Washington, D.C., at a mixer during the Women in STEM policy seminar put on by Public Leadership Education Network (PLEN). The five-day seminar offered students from women’s colleges around the country the opportunity to learn from and network with senior women professionals in STEM, as well as engage in career development workshops.

Consider the national state of affairs of women in STEM: Despite some growth over the last 20 years, women still make up only 28 percent of the science and engineering workforce, despite earning 58 percent of those undergraduate degrees in 2016. The numbers are even lower for women of color, with Latina and Black women holding one percent and three percent of these jobs, respectively. And among those who are employed in all STEM fields, women only compose 18 percent of leadership positions. “The general population has these preconceived notions that leadership means ‘CEO, white, male, wealthy, and corporate.’ We’re trying to break down those notions and teach that leadership looks very different if we push down those barriers,” says Vicki Klopsch, the executive director of the Laspa Center for Leadership, Scripps’ women’s leadership center, which has been bringing students to the PLEN seminar for three years running.

Along with the Scripps student-alumnae mixer, the PLEN seminar included visits to Amazon’s D.C. metro-area headquarters, local STEM policy organizations, the halls of Congress, the Microsoft Innovation & Policy Center, and more. On the second day of the seminar, students visited the sprawling red-brick edifice that is the National Institutes of Health (NIH), in Bethesda, Maryland. For Binita Pandya ’22, who plans to study human biology, meeting with the women leaders employed at the NIH was the most memorable aspect of the trip. “We heard from [mostly] scientists of color and a lot of immigrants. They talked about the importance of mentorship and putting yourself out there, taking positions that you’re not super comfortable with,” Pandya says. “A lot of them were getting pretty vulnerable, just woman to woman, which was really inspiring.” Maria Wu ’20, who plans to attend medical school after graduation, echoes Pandya’s sentiments. “These are people with high positions and established careers, and to see them share their struggles and triumphs with a bunch of students was invigorating and very refreshing,” Wu says. She attributes this openness to the environment PLEN creates: “They know that this is building up women for leadership.”

The idea that women need greater representation in board rooms and the C-suite is not new; these conversations have been going on for decades, if not longer. But why this representation is important is a question that can often elude those who serve as gatekeepers to leadership positions. For Fry Sosne, the reasons for increased representation are clear: Women make good decisions, and these good decisions increase technological and economic development. A recent McKinsey & Company report backs up these claims,noting that “when more women sit at the decision-making tables, better decisions are made.” And one of the ways that women make these good decisions is by drawing on their personal experiences.

“Women look at evidence and data differently than men. We look at it from our own lived experience. So not only do we ask different questions, we see different nuances in the evidence,” Fry Sosne explains. She gives an example from the Food and Drug Administration, which avoids conducting research on pregnant women. While there are legitimate reasons for this, including potential harm to the mother and the fetus, the lack of research leads to worse outcomes for pregnant women. “As a mother of two, I remember how horrible it was that I couldn’t take certain medications because there had been no studies on pregnant women—these medications hadn’t been proven harmful, they just hadn’t been studied! Women see where women are left out of major health policy considerations,” she says.

Personal reflections on health, career, and family like the one Fry Sosne shared were an aspect of the PLEN seminar designed to cultivate a deeper level of connection between attendees and presenters. Jordan Wellington ’21, who is double majoring in math and gender studies, says, “I felt I could ask about gender in a way you can’t in big conferences. People shared their personal experiences, which was useful for students to hear. A speaker spoke about impostor syndrome. It was really powerful.”

Providing mentorship opportunities like PLEN is a key piece of the Laspa Center’s larger and more ambitious project: Klopsch and her team want Scripps students to be in the vanguard of redefining what it means to be a leader in the 21st century, and that means rethinking traditional definitions of leadership. “Leadership doesn’t require being in an executive role,” explains Gretchen Maldonado, assistant director of the Laspa Center. “If you have put yourself at the table, you’re a leader—and, crucially, leaders also have the responsibility of making sure others have access to a seat at the table, too.”

That’s why Klopsch and the Laspa team have made professional networking a key priority for the Laspa Center. “People rely on their personal and professional networks to explore career options,” Klopsch says. “PLEN pulls together an impressive representation of women in leadership, and partnering with PLEN allows the Laspa Center to help students expand their own network. These new relationships have the potential to increase our students’ confidence to believe in their own leadership potential and the courage to pursue it.”

Adds Fry Sosne, “It’s the obligation of both men and women to find opportunities to mentor women and women of color into leadership positions. Companies and organizations need to apply structure, like women’s leadership development, recruitment, and advancement goals, to ensure equitable access to these roles; it’s not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing.”