I recently encountered a Reddit thread listing "the most intellectual jokes you know." Many were indeed nerd wit-laden, but one response caught me off guard. It began: "A physicist, a mathematician and an engineer stay in a hotel. The engineer is awakened by a smell and gets up to check it." A fire emerges in the hallway, and the three must use their expertise to think of ways to extinguish it.
What troubled me was that the default pronoun used to describe the characters — “he” or “him.” This is emblematic of a persistent cultural assumption that women don't ever become physicists, mathematicians or engineers. Congress’s Joint Economic Committee reported last year that only 14% of engineers are women, and only 27% are working in computer science and math fields. The same under-representation occurs in leadership positions, as only 4% of women make the Fortune 500 CEO list.
Enter millennial entrepreneur Kristen Van Nest and the team of researchers behind Innovating Women: Past, Present, & Future. The ambitious crowd-sourced e-book and surrounding project aim to shed light on why women are underrepresented in STEM and leadership positions. The title gives us a hint: Women encounter obstacles not just when they enter the workforce, but throughout the course of their lives.
I met Van Nest at a café last Thursday to talk about the book, its role in steering the conversation on women, and what her research has inspired in her own endeavors as a female millennial navigating professional life.
YA: Tell me a little bit about how you came aboard the project.
KVN: Last year, I did a Fulbright in Luxembourg and there, I studied nation branding. My research was on the image of Luxembourg and how it impacts their power — their business and their tourism. I was working on another project that focused on American competitiveness, and Neesha [Bapat, project director] knew me through that. We went to GW (George Washington University) together, and she thought that I'd be a good fit because of my background.
How my kind of background fits in is that it's on how women position themselves and how they're viewed within the market. How does that impact their place? Only 3% of founders in technology are women … Why is it only 3%? What's causing that?
YA: Tell me a little bit about the book and how the anecdotal research was done via a crowd-sourcing platform.
KVN: Our focus is on looking at everything from what a girl might be told at a young age to her education and experience there, to entering the job market, to having children. What are the things that are causing this [gender gap] to happen across the board? How can adding more women to your Board of Directors of the company increase ROI? It's not just about saying they should be there. It's about focusing on why they should be there.
Over 300 women are participating, and they have a crowd-sourcing platform. We have discussion boards online where they can all share their stories. And we have prompts so we can focus on specific areas, whether that be STEM and education, navigating the workforce, funding. The greatest part is that the women can respond to each other. Then you have that dialogue, which is so much more valuable than just having kind of one-off discussions.
YA: I was under the impression that the focus is on when women enter the workforce (since much of the national discussion seems to revolve around this period a woman’s life).
KVN: A lot of issues within the STEM area start a lot earlier. Some of the women have said that they were the best at math in their classes and they thought they were bad at math. Why is that? One [participant] had a guidance counselor who told them that they wouldn't be able to get a job in a few years in science. So, there's this outside feedback before college that's deterring [women] from going into these fields.
YA: How would you respond to the criticism that the book focuses too much on female introspection, that the onus is on women to mitigate gender inequality?
KVN: I think that a lot of what's going on is very subconscious. I would think that some of the cultural and external and atmospheric impressions are causing what we're seeing: a fear of risk and a lack of confidence.
YA: So you’re saying that this perpetuates some of the existing external pressures, so the problem that you would target is boosting consciousness?
KVN: I think it's all of it. We're focused on so many different bottlenecks that I don't think it's just women or just society. It's kind of this chicken before the egg.
From my example earlier where a girl doesn't think she's good at math: Is that an internal thing or is that an external thing? I think at an early age, it's a little more external. If from a young age, you are told constantly that you're not good at something and that you should be quiet. Or someone brought up The Big Bang Theory. Look at the women in that show!
YA: [The message they send is] "Penny is dumb!"
KVT: She's pretty! The girls who are smart are awkward! So it's kind of [these] external factors. I don't think you can blame one or the other; I think they both play on each other. I think women do need to get over that and feel comfortable with risk and failure and feel confident in who they are. But I don't necessarily blame women for that issue. I think it's both society and how that has impacted them.
YA: Well certainly, I think this book will be a good insertion into that discussion.
KVN: I just think the coolest part about [the project] for millennials is how you can look at it and see how people have been successful and learn from it. At least for me, that's been the most exciting part, and I want that to be a big part of the project.
For millennials, you don't have people working as long for the same companies that you've had in the past. And I think part of being able to be successful — and this is my opinion and not necessarily the book's — is that you need to be able to sell yourself. You need to be able to concisely explain your value and what you can add. I think that confidence and fear of risk means that this new kind of job market insecurity more constant transition from different positions means that women need to get better at that. Both men and women can learn from that.
Innovating Women: Past, Present & Future will be available in fall 2013 on Amazon.com.
Follow their IndieGoGo campaign.
Follow millennial entrepreneur Kristen Van Nest on Twitter.
(In case you were wondering how the rest of that Reddit joke went, read it here. Maybe the last sentence will resonate with you.)
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]