Today, as per most days, I called my little sister on my way home. She had spent the day shadowing my Momma as part of Take Your Kids To Work Day and exclaimed excitedly, “Momma’s job is so cool!”
My Momma is a software engineer at one of Canada’s leading banks, a computer science graduate of Shanghai’s Jiaotong University, and also my biggest role model, caregiver, and supporter. But what’s more, she’s also a role model to my 14-year-old teenage sister and to other girls and young women aspiring to become the next leaders of tomorrow.
So as my sister passed the phone off to Momma, citing she “had too much homework to finish”, I decided to partake in Take Your Kids to Work Day virtually by asking my Momma a few questions on her career as a fabulous woman in STEM.
What made you decide to study Computer Science?
I grew up in China, and the politics and culture at the time were huge influencers on the career path students took. During the 80s, when I was in school, the doors of the country were “closed” and the process of getting into universities were systematic. There was a huge push by the government for “modernizing” the economy and workforce which included training scientists and engineers. But beyond all this, I pursued my major - ECE (Electrical and Computer Engineering) and Computer Science - for a much more practical reason: this degree would provide me with great work opportunities and a steady income upon graduating. Engineering at that time was considered an “iron rice bowl”, an occupation with guaranteed job security.
Did you face any barriers or challenges because of your gender during your studies?
There was definitely a difference in the enrolment gender gap. Around only 30% of my class were girls, and the traditional thinking and stereotype prevailed that boys had the “right” traits for engineering… that boys were logical, hands-on and the likes… Even within STEM fields, girls were more likely to go into the science and math fields than engineering. And so I had to work extra hard to prove to myself, my peers, and my teachers that I could excel to the same degree as the boys in my class, even when on an uneven playing field.
How was your transition from schooling to the workplace? And did you find it difficult being a woman in the workforce, let alone a woman STEM?
Again, it was a much different situation in China, where upon graduating, the university placed you at a company to work. I was assigned to a job at a small company in Shanghai. I was the first girl to be hired, and the second employee hired onto a computing role. Mind you, this was 35 years ago where technology was an emerging sector.
I was very lucky that in my first job, my supervisor, a very smart and high-ranking man in the company, recognized and vouched for my good work which shows that it isn’t just about women supporting women, but men supporting women as well. My supervisor gave me opportunities to go on work trips in Germany and in the UK in my first year, and I was promoted after my second. Whether in STEM or in any stage of your career or education, a good supervisor, mentor, and culture makes all the difference and as such, it is important to cultivate and invest in those relationships.
How is the culture at your current workplace for women?
My company right now is very different from the first company I worked at. I immigrated to Canada in ‘89, and as a new immigrant, I knew probably three or four acquaintances who had also moved to Toronto at that time, couldn’t understand a word of English, and struggled to fit in with the Western culture. But I studied English and took some additional CS courses at a local college while working a few customer service jobs, and the hard work eventually paid off and I secured an engineering role in the finance industry. I’ve been working as an engineer at big banks ever since, through meeting my husband and having my two beautiful children.
The bank I currently work at has a great culture for women. They have great policies in place for maternity leave which I made good use of when giving birth to my second daughter. Our leadership makes a conscious effort in promoting women into high-level positions, and at lower levels, women are well represented - in fact, my manager, director, and VP are all women. And within programming roles, I would say there’s a 40:60 ratio of girls to boys.
What do you think needs to be done to reach gender parity in STEM fields?
It starts with equal access to opportunities. I hear often that the reason why there aren’t as many girls in STEM education is because girls just don’t want to be engineers, and this simply isn’t true. There are many factors - political, economical and social - that deter girls from even thinking about a career in STEM. So it starts with girls seeing STEM careers as not just careers for boys. Teachers, role models, and other influencers of young girls should foster and encourage interest and learning of STEM subjects at an early age. Teachers play such a big influence. You don’t know how often my children say they did well in a course because they liked their teacher.
What advice would you give to girls interested in pursuing a STEM career?
It’s true, women can do anything that men can do. So be confident, believe in yourself, and try out different courses, internships, and opportunities in STEM. Explore! Lastly, having a support system of curious, like-minded girl friends (and boy friends) will help you brave through the challenges and barriers ahead!