Now is the time for women to break down boundaries in STEM

By Lin Sun, Director of Open Source, Solo.io

A career that began with a summer internship at IBM more than two decades ago has grown into a lifelong passion for technology. But like so many other women in the industry, my trajectory can hardly be considered smooth sailing. This just reinforces how important Ada Lovelace has been as a role model for every woman, regardless of age, who wants to pursue a journey in STEM. Just from my own experiences, I know how critical it is to get more women into the sciences, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) fields from as young an age as possible.

Much work still needs to be done in this regard. From 2015 to 2019, the number of female graduates in core STEM subjects only increased by one percentage point (from 25% to 26%). However, the same research found that from 2017 core STEM employment for women grew by more than 6%. As the proverb goes, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Change is constant and won’t happen overnight. The signs are positive. In the US, female high school students who entered The Research Science Institute’s summer STEM program will outnumber male students for the first time this year. Just from my own perspective, I have seen a continual evolution in how women are treated in STEM and how more opportunities are becoming available, albeit slowly.

The world is significantly different to when I started as an intern in 2000. Countless technology innovations, market developments, financial crashes, and even a pandemic have contributed to an awareness from women that there’s nothing stopping them from pursuing a career in STEM.

From the time I spent at IBM and Cisco, and my involvement at the OSGi Working Group and the Apache Software Foundation to my more recent work as a member of the Istio Technical Oversight Committee, and Director of Open Source at Solo.io. We live in a time where opportunities are there for the taking. Unfortunately, not all women, especially girls in school, realise the scale of what’s available to them.

All of us must, therefore, play an active part in highlighting the opportunities on offer in STEM. Girls must be encouraged to participate in maths and science clubs, attend coding boot camps, and build and experiment on engineering projects. These can form the groundswell of female STEM leaders, which future generations of women can look up to in the same way we’re drawing inspiration from Ada today.

Engaging with others

I’ve been fortunate to work on container and cloud-native technologies since 2014. At the time, these were radically different technologies from what was available. Being involved from the ground level in building and operating highly available cloud-native services reinforced my commitment to helping play a role in educating women and girls on the fulfilment that STEM can provide.

I’m an IBM Master Inventor and hold more than 200 patents issued by the Patent and Trademark Offices all over the world. This illustrates just how much Ada's inspiration drew me to pursue more challenging targets and achieve greater heights continually. If all of us women can take her example and awaken that same passion in today’s generation, then the world of STEM will become a significantly more diverse one than the one that currently exists.

From my various speaking engagements at leading cloud-native conferences like KubeCon, ServiceMeshCon, ContainerCon, and DockerCon, I’ve been exposed to so many different viewpoints on technology issues. Engaging with others, debating hot-button topics, and featuring as a guest speaker on various podcasts are all examples of how we, as women, can achieve great things in STEM.

Don’t hold back

Any woman looking to start a career in STEM must not be afraid of speaking up and having her voice heard. It can be as simple as networking with fellow professionals, asking questions or providing insight in a meeting, or even writing blogs, speaking at conferences, and chatting over podcasts. The central message is to get yourself involved in the conversation. It’s as much about having confidence as it's about putting the necessary STEM skills to work to make a difference.

Technology is not just about hardware and software, coding, and networking. We need to show children the broad context of technology and its potential and teach them the problem-solving skills essential to making a difference in the future world of work. Because STEM permeates every industry sector, women can play a role across any vertical and at any size organisation, whether a humble start-up or a rapidly expanding multinational. The key is not to hold back.

I spent ten years working at the same job level, with countless hours of overtime and many a weekend spent at the office. Getting increasingly frustrated, I spoke to another woman at the company who was a distinguished engineer. Her advice was that working hard is only part of the equation. I needed to make myself known to others both inside the company and externally. This was a lesson that is still close to my heart as I continue to position myself through writing or speaking on the topics I am passionate about.

Following through

By harnessing their passion and channelling that in a STEM field, women can bring fresh perspectives and invaluable insights. The hybrid world of work has shown us that managing the complexities of our professional and personal lives can be overcome. Organisations are more flexible than they were even two years ago. As long as the job gets done, it doesn’t matter where people are working. This flexibility provides women with a great enabling environment to still raise a family if they choose to do so while remaining influential in STEM.

It comes down to increasing awareness of the possibilities for women in STEM and showing them that they can pursue any opportunity they want. Thanks to the work Ada and other influential women have done in this regard to help empower my generation of women, we can build on their legacy and create even more capacity for change.

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