TL; DR: Aiming to spark a culture shift that emboldens more girls to pursue STEM careers, IF/THEN showcases meaningful and relatable female role models who demonstrate it can all be done. The Ambassadors Program brings together 125 innovators to highlight a wide variety of disciplines; we spoke with two such women who shared their experience with the initiative and how they hope their tech careers can inspire the next generation.
Picture a developer or IT administrator. You’re probably envisioning a white man, perhaps a little disheveled, hunched over some glowing monitor in a server room, right?
To be fair, the numbers support the stereotype. Even though women make up just shy of half the workforce, they hold only 25% of available computing jobs. And less than 9% of those women are Black, Asian, or Hispanic.
While women are increasingly getting degrees in science and engineering, they make up only 19% of recent computer science graduates.
IF/THEN, an initiative created by Lyda Hill Philanthropies and supported by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, seeks to change that notion by encouraging more young women to explore careers in STEM — science, technology, engineering, and math.
To lead by example, the IF/THEN Ambassadors Program showcases 125 women from various STEM fields and life experiences. Among them is Siobahn Day Grady, the first woman to graduate with a Ph.D. in computer science from North Carolina A&T State University.
“Advocacy is so important for other people,” she said. “You’re not just doing it for yourself, you’re doing it for other people so someone else doesn’t have it as bad as you did.”
In addition to inspiring future generations of programmers and sysadmins, the IF/THEN collection of STEM women — or STEM-inists, as many in the organization are fond of saying — excites those involved with the initiative.
“People come from all different backgrounds, ages, races, disciplines, and industries,” said Afua Bruce, an ambassador with a background in computer engineering. “That is super exciting and encouraging for me, too, getting to learn about all these new opportunities and partnerships.”
IF/THEN aims to demystify and humanize science education and careers, making technology fields more accessible, inclusive, and equitable.
“It’s really fun to be part of the group and make science and engineering accessible to people,” Afua said. “So often, science is just something that someone does way over there. But no, I’m just right here. I’m a normal person, and you can talk to me and ask me questions. This can be you in a couple of years.”
Afua Bruce: Using Data Science and AI to Help Humanity
Afua Bruce has just the right track record to be an IF/THEN Ambassador, a title she’s held for two years. She’s led outreach programs at IBM for middle school girls and a robotics program for kids at her church, among other efforts.
“I’ve always done a variety of different activities helping children, and girls especially, to get to know STEM,” she said. “So this has been a natural fit, and one I’m so proud to be a part of.”
She credits grants from the IF/THEN initiative for enabling her to counsel more girls about possible careers in STEM. One of her partnerships involves creating trading cards of female STEM professionals, while another collaboration will feature those women in picture books.
As Chief Program Officer at DataKind, Afua oversees the organization’s projects and offerings. The global nonprofit aims to extend the impact of data science and artificial intelligence to solve community-based problems.
“We help (nonprofits and governmental agencies around the world) figure out what their problems are and what data science or AI can do to help make their operations easier,” she said.
DataKind accomplishments include decreasing the time it takes to make deliveries in underserved areas like Haiti, helping colleges increase their graduation rates, and training frontline healthcare workers more efficiently.
“We have volunteers all around the world, on every continent except Antarctica,” Afua said. “We face a variety of challenges, but it’s so great to work with so many people to solve these problems related to data science and AI.”
Siobahn Day Grady: Overcoming Challenges in Computer Science
It’s hard to imagine many “firsts” happening these days when it comes to earning a degree. But that’s exactly what Siobahn Day Grady accomplished in 2018 when she became the first woman to graduate with a Ph.D. in Computer Science from North Carolina A&T State University.
“There were a lot of things I had to overcome, being the only girl sometimes in a class, or the only woman in a group project where they might have wanted to make me the secretary when I should have been the developer,” Siobahn said. “I had to learn to speak up for myself and be an advocate.”
The message of advocacy resonates especially strongly with Siobahn, who grew up watching her father work as a programmer. She didn’t realize until much later that not many women have the same exposure to STEM careers — and that even fewer pursue them.
“I’m part of this initiative to show other young ladies that they can achieve and do these things even though, at times, it may seem impossible, or they may face challenges that at the time can feel pretty gruesome,” she said.
Now as an Assistant Professor in Information Sciences at North Carolina Central University, Siobahn incorporates technology, inclusion, and accessibility every day in her classrooms via screen readers, closed captions, and others.
Siobahn calls her experience as an IF/THEN ambassador life-changing. Her hometown museum recently featured her in an exhibit and invited her to connect with young people and teach them about machine learning and algorithms.
“It has surpassed anything I could have imagined for myself,” she said of IF/THEN. “I’m truly grateful for the opportunity to continue to do what I already love and am passionate about, while sharing that work on a national and international level.”
Statues and Stock Photos: Creatively Representing Women in STEM
Following the mantra of “seeing is believing,” IF/THEN amplifies its ambassador initiative with a multifaceted approach to bringing women in STEM to the forefront.
The organization compiled the world’s largest exhibit of women statues, which recently closed in Dallas, Texas; the organization is exploring new locations for the exhibit and will make an announcement in the coming months.
The largest 3D-printed project of its kind features more than 120 life-size statues of contemporary female STEM professionals from industries including entertainment, sports, business and academia.
“I never thought there would ever be a statue of me, let alone while I’m still alive,” Afua said. “I love dropping it into conversations that I have a statue.”
To create the statues, each subject stood in a scanning booth featuring 89 cameras and 25 projectors to create a 3D image. Printers took 10 or more hours to build up the layers of orange acrylic gel to construct the full-size figures.
“I’ve had a chance to see the exhibit, and it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” Siobahn said, calling the experience surreal.
Once while visiting her statue and viewing the larger exhibit, Siobahn said she ran into some locals who were also visiting the display
“They were blown away it was me,” she said. “We took some pictures, and it felt really amazing to be recognized for the work I’m doing in computer science and to be among so many other women doing the very same things in their respective fields. I don’t think I’ll ever live that one down.”
On a smaller scale — but no less impactful — is IF/THEN’s digital library of free resources featuring authentic and relatable images of women in STEM.
The largest collection comprises thousands of pictures, videos, worksheets, posters, and other assets for museums, educators, nonprofit organizations, parents, and students to use for free.
“I have a number of friends who are teachers or work in museums, and they often struggle to find examples of contemporary women in STEM for all sorts of different disciplines,” Afua said. “You can go to the IF/THEN Collection and easily download images of women who are computer engineers, rocket scientists, fashion designers, physicians, or Olympians. You can hear their stories, play their clips, and really expose students and children to what STEM can look like for anyone.”