“Nothing should hold us back from flying, and especially not a four-letter word like ‘fear,’” says Jasmine Yamasaki, MBA’06, who works at Intel, provider of high-tech services and products such as microprocessors. Yamasaki is a Lean Six Sigma practitioner at Intel in Chandler, Arizona, and she focuses on removing waste and variability from the manufacturing process, eliminating extra steps wherever possible. Think the de-cluttering movement applied to industry.
Yamasaki believes fear often prevents people from realizing the best version of themselves. She knows how self-doubt feels. Despite a love of science and math that goes back to her youth, Yamasaki’s journey to the high-tech industry was somewhat happenstance. Growing up in Cocoa Beach, Florida, in the 1980s, she maintained a 4.0 GPA in high school and graduated as valedictorian. Her parents never encouraged her to have a profession, though. “The goal was to get married,” Yamasaki recalls.
Lacking family support, she didn’t apply to a single college. But an academic counselor intervened at the last minute, helping Yamasaki apply to a selection of top schools. She decided to enroll at Duke and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Then she attended the University of California at Berkeley, where she initially intended to study business but grew enchanted by the burgeoning field of computer science. So she switched and earned another bachelor’s degree.
While in California, Yamasaki landed a coveted internship with Microsoft. It was the dawn of the dot-com boom, and securing the job was akin to winning the lottery. Yamasaki was ecstatic. Her dad, however, told her she must have gotten the job because she is a woman. A tech friend told Yamasaki, who is half Japanese, that she got the job because she’s a minority. Her mother was upset because she had found Yamasaki a waitressing gig, a good job for meeting men.
Yamasaki held fast and followed her dreams. But the memories of her past remain strong, leading her to become active in mentoring groups at Intel focused on female success within the company, such as the Women at Intel Network (WIN), which offers mentoring and advocacy programs. “Because of my journey, I feel strongly about giving back. I help people with their skills and guide them with their careers,” she says. “I absolutely love helping the next generation achieve the next level of greatness. After all, we’re on this journey together.”
The Gap Continues
More than 30 years may have passed since Yamasaki’s youth, but a gender gap in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) persists. According to a recent survey of 1,000 teens aged 13 to 17 by the nonprofit Junior Achievement, just 11 percent of teen girls expect to pursue a STEM career. Contrast that with 36 percent of teen boys. According to data from the National Girls Collaborative Project, women account for a mere 29 percent of those employed in science and engineering, despite making up half the total U.S. college-educated workforce.
The origins of this gap are manifold. Studies have pointed to such issues as corporate infrastructures that don’t support work-life balance, outmoded perceptions of women as weaker leaders, and a lack of encouragement during their school years for girls entering STEM fields.
Recognizing a need to advance women interested in STEM, Babson introduced a Women in Technology Fellows program for students. Fellows receive a small stipend and act as liaisons between prospective and current STEM students, faculty and administration, and alumni to strengthen the College’s STEM curriculum and unearth career opportunities.
Ruben Mancha, assistant professor of information systems, helped spearhead the program and is on the committee that selected the inaugural fellows. “We sensed that female students who were interested in STEM weren’t finding the right opportunities and getting the right jobs. Then they have a hard time getting executive positions,” Mancha says. “We wanted to clearly share the message that there is no single ‘type’ of student interested in technology. Just as we focus on entrepreneurship of all kinds, tech should be open to anyone, no matter what. In academia, we need to create unbiased and welcoming learning environments where female students can pursue their STEM interests.”
Three inaugural fellowships were awarded this spring, including one to Teresa Wolf ’17, who started her postgraduate job this summer as a consulting analyst at Wayfair, the Boston-based e-commerce company. Wolf grew up tinkering with her family’s home computer, and she was intrigued by the tech industry. Hoping to forge a career incorporating technology and business, she chose Babson for her studies.
She worked as a technician at the campus IT Service Center and was known as “tech girl” by friends. As a fellow, she interacted with career services and alumni in the tech sector to strategize ways to support female STEM students. She also met with professors to drive curriculum shifts. In particular, she worked closely with professor Bala Iyer, division chair of Technology, Operations, and Information Management, to reassess the Information Technology Management concentration for undergraduates. She helped Iyer revamp several courses and introduce a new course, “Platforms, Clouds, and Networks,” which teaches students about information-systems concepts with a focus on network mapping.
Off campus, though, she found less support for women in tech professions. “I had my first internship with a Boston tech firm, and they didn’t know what to do with me,” Wolf says. “I worked with developers, and it was the same. They were all male. The only females were on the design team. I wanted to say, ‘Hey. I’m here. I’m smart. I know stuff. Utilize me!’ If a company is paying me to deliver value, gender shouldn’t be in the discussion. And that’s what I want Babson women to feel like.”
Wolf feels secure about her own career prospects, saying Wayfair is a vocal supporter of gender equality in the workplace. She hopes that future STEM graduates experience the same positivity. To this end, she also worked to lay the foundation for a mentorship chain at Babson that starts with prospective students and continues as graduates rise to executive roles. “I’d love to see a prospective student linked to a first-year, a first-year linked to a senior, and a senior to a young professional and on to executives, sharing insights, mentorship, and development opportunities,” she says.
Have a Strategy
Women working in STEM careers need to formulate coping strategies that work for them, says Angela Hohl-AbiChedid, MBA’08. When she was growing up in Germany and considering a career in STEM, her parents were worried and encouraged her to pursue a less demanding field that would leave more room for family.
She continued nonetheless. “I was attracted to physics, in particular, because it’s so logical, and to me it came so easily. There was no guessing—it was either right or wrong, and there’s something comforting about that,” she says. So Hohl-AbiChedid earned a Ph.D. in physics, much to the puzzlement of friends. “I didn’t get support. There was a lot of, ‘Are you sure?’ I was stubborn, and this is what I wanted to do. I knew I was good at it, and I went ahead,” she says.
That persistence paid off. She’s now director of marketing and strategy with new ventures at Philips Lighting in Somerset, New Jersey, where she launches innovations such as organic lighting technology. The company is a global leader in lighting products, systems, and services, helping users save energy and reduce their carbon footprint with LED lighting solutions. “I love my job, because I’m working at the intersection of technology and business, and this is where the most impactful strategic decisions for a business are made,” Hohl-AbiChedid says. “How can we grow? What new product lines would support our growth? What adjacent markets can we address, or what new customers and channels can we reach? I find it very gratifying to be in a role that has such impact.”
While gender bias does exist in high-tech, says Hohl-AbiChedid, she finds it to be more reflexive than nefarious. Her advice: Acknowledge that bias naturally exists, and then implement policies to combat it. “Gender bias is common among women and men,” she says. “Basically, our brain works to categorize things. That’s how our brain is able to take information and interpret it in a speedy way to make functional decisions. It’s not a bad thing; it’s a human thing. And if we acknowledge that biases exist, we can actually talk about them and move forward.”
Sometimes that bias is overt. For example, when Hohl-AbiChedid was interviewing for jobs at the beginning of her career, she was asked if she was married. “I countered with a deadly stare,” she says with a laugh.
Even when bias is not intentional, its effects can be challenging. Moving up the ranks can be tough, for example, when advancement hinges less on technical skill and more on perceptions of like-minded leadership styles. “A lot of times, when managers are looking to hire higher-level teams, they look for people that are like them and that they can trust,” she says. “If you’re different, then it will be more of a risk for someone to hire you in that position, because they’re not quite sure how you’d react.”
Hohl-AbiChedid says that she has been successful by not dwelling on perceived bias as a form of slight. “Go through every day, and ignore the nonsense,” she says. “Focus on the essentials; perform above and beyond.” She tries to learn from mistakes, instead of feeling helpless and assuming that setbacks are a result of bias. Use the experience as an opportunity to improve, she urges, and don’t get discouraged. “If technology is your passion, follow it. Do what you love to do, and then challenges are easier to overcome,” she says.
Take a Risk
Ellie Hagopian, MBA’09, took that lesson to heart. She grew up loving to tinker with computers, but it wasn’t until college that a risky leap threw her into the world of tech. During the dawn of the dot-com boom, she became the 15th employee at Ask Jeeves, the search-engine precursor to Ask.com. She initially worked part time during her sophomore year of college, but then she was approached for a full-time role during the summer break. Abandoning her rhetoric degree at the University of California at Berkeley, she joined the fledgling company.
Hagopian has been involved in the high-tech industry ever since (she eventually obtained her undergraduate degree from the Harvard Extension School). While earning an MBA at Babson, she took an offshore course that led her to fall in love with South Africa. Today she leads Wi-Fi strategy and product management for Liquid Telecom in Johannesburg and is working on wireless solutions in countries such as Kenya and Zimbabwe. The company is the largest fiber-optic telecommunications carrier in eastern and southern Africa.
She also co-founded Connect Earth, which designs, builds, manages, and monetizes telecommunications networks. “There were no companies that did what I wanted to do with Connect Earth,” she explains. “What I really love is that we can innovate quite rapidly in new areas. This sort of agility is very challenging for larger companies.”
Hagopian has tried not to get bogged down in gender roles, though cultural norms in Africa add another layer of complexity to workplace dynamics. In certain African cultures, she says, women often are expected to be quiet and deferential. As an American, she has had a slight advantage. “Not everyone, but a lot of people look up to America,” she says, “and there’s almost an expectation that I will speak my mind and with confidence.”
A Nigerian woman in her professional network, Hagopian says, is not so fortunate. “People make comments about her appearance. She’s such a dynamic person, but she faces so much more overt sexism than I do,” Hagopian says. “I’m sure some is cultural, but wow. If I ever feel like I’m on the back foot in a man’s world as a white woman, it just makes me think how much harder it is for others.”
More subtle dynamics come into play for her. At Hagopian’s startup, her two male co-founders handle lead generation, because they tend to get better responses. “Before I met them, I was working in a similar space, running my own company, and I wasn’t getting as far. Maybe it was the wrong value prop or messaging. But it seems strange to me that, a year later, the same conversation happening between men is resulting in all sorts of traction,” Hagopian says.
Technology is transforming the world, she says, and women need to be among the leaders driving those changes. “The proportion of women in technical or leadership roles is shockingly low, and women bring a diversity of experience and outlook,” Hagopian says. “The industry as a whole is missing out by not having more women in these roles.”
The World She Knows
Kelly Mendell, MBA’00, is used to being surrounded by men. She is president of Mikel, a Middletown, Rhode Island-based provider of submarine technology for undersea warfare. Its products improve underwater warfare and submarine navigation capabilities, similar to a GPS system in a car. The company also provides engineering services to various naval organizations.
The naval community is dominated by men, Mendell says, as were her undergraduate industrial engineering classes, but it doesn’t bother her. “You get used to it. It’s the world you know,” she says. “I always liked math. In my classes of 30 kids, maybe three were women. It was lopsided, but I went through my college years like that. I expected it. I didn’t feel less of a student.”
Mendell’s father was an engineer, and she knew he enjoyed his job and made a decent salary. This overrode any sense of otherness. Now she runs the company he founded and believes the benefits of working in tech transcend gender. “It’s fun. It’s challenging. It’s high paying,” she says. It has great job security for true performers, regardless of gender, adds Mendell.
She prides herself on keeping Mikel forward-thinking. Although her industry has been historically male-oriented, she hopes to provide a demanding yet family-friendly workplace that recognizes the work-life burdens placed on both genders. “I hope the child-rearing responsibilities are more spread out. I think employers need to respond to that more,” Mendell says. “Women take maternity leave. Women coordinate the kids’ activities. Companies are kind of used to that, but there are many instances where the husband has chosen to stay home or have that responsibility. And it doesn’t feel very well accepted or common. As time goes on, and there’s more gender equality on both sides, hopefully it translates to all aspects of life and companies nurture that.”
Female employees tell Mendell that they are drawn to her company. “I think they like the idea of working for a woman because it’s a good example of someone who is able to have some success in business,” she says. “It gives you confidence that a lot of things are possible, which is what I tell my daughter.”
Kara Baskin is a freelance writer in Arlington, Massachusetts.