I love that I am an engineer.
But if you asked me at the beginning of my undergraduate career how I liked my major, I would admit that I found the classes difficult, the classroom experience lonely, and that I wanted to switch to another discipline. In college I studied biomedical engineering, a field of designing and implementing medical devices and interventions. Throughout my undergrad, I would hear comments in my classes like, “biomedical engineering is the easiest engineering major because it has the most women.” This left me feeling discouraged and confused. In retrospect, I am not sure how that comment makes sense, but at the time it stung.
After a study abroad trip to Thailand, I came back more excited for my classes because I had hands on experience in engineering, beyond what I was making in the classroom. My theoretical classes were behind me and I was learning how to do engineering drawings, machine physical parts, and learn biomechanics through my own physical movement.
Once I had completed my undergraduate and masters, I still didn’t feel like I knew enough for what I wanted to do. I wanted to design appropriate technology medical devices for low resource areas. So, I pursued my PhD in Mechanical Engineering. On orientation day I saw more men than women, which was to be expected in this current atmosphere, but when they asked the master’s students to leave and PhD students to stay, I looked at the room of 50–100 students and saw there was only one other female besides myself. I felt a little lonely again.
In my PhD I was co-advised by a male and female professor in biomedical engineering, and during my postdoc and second female biomedical engineering professor was an additional postdoc advisor. During this time I was working on new methods for rapid detection of different diseases, when I learned about cholera. I learned that it was a manageable disease, but only when people had access to doctors or medications. I learned that it took days to detect cholera in water, leaving communities vulnerable and at risk. I began to tailor my PhD research to developing rapid and sensitive methods to quickly detect cholera in water, and OmniVis was born.
My PhD advisers are now my co-founders at OmniVis. I consistently had strong role models, male and female, who were absolutely brilliant and thoughtful individuals. They cared about my professional development, moving the field of engineering forward, how I mentored younger students, and how I received and integrated feedback.
Today, OmniVis has 75% female founders, a 62.5% female team, and collaborates with biomedical and mechanical engineering students with a breakdown that is 50% female. Sometimes people ask “why” we have so many females in our team. Reflecting on this question, I’ve come up with three key points.
1. People can be what they can see:
Of course, there will always be the pioneers out there, who went above and beyond when there was no one like them out there. But the world is not just pioneers, the many people out there who believe in the vision of those pioneers are necessary to also make real change in the world.
OmniVis is majority female (engineer) founded team, and I believe that this creates interest for other women to join our team. Women see female scientists, engineers, financial managers, CEOs, and realize they can be part of that too. People can be what they can see applies not just to women, either. It applies to any group. That is why diverse teams are so important because it continues to attract more diverse talent and knowledge.
2. Empowered women empower women:
Really, people who feel empowered want to empower those around them because they know strong and confident teams will go far. When women are un-represented in a particular field, but feel confident in their skills and position, they want to mentor other women and advocate for them. Organizations for women in coding, science, engineering, entrepreneurship are designed around empowering other women.
3. It’s your job to change the narrative:
People will mention how we have so many women on our team and will even ask how we find so many women to hire. I feel like it’s my job to change that narrative. It is vital to a business to have a diverse team and it’s my job to make sure that everyone from every background is welcomed, heard, and respected. It’s my job to eliminate a gender pay gap* in my company. The second we stop actively trying to change the discussion, the second we lose a path to success.
On today’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science, I am happy to share my story and invite others to share their experiences. Women have an instrumental role to play in many fields. Their unique perspectives and insights into problems marginalized groups face are the exact reasons they should be supported and championed as leaders at the forefront of innovative solutions for our Grand Challenges. By sharing who we are, empowering each other, and changing the narrative we not only have a chance to bring STEM representation to an equal balance between men and women, but we will be much more successful at tackling issues facing us today.
* Currently all females in the USA are only paid a portion of white, non-Hispanic men’s earnings with Asian women at 90 percent, white, non-Hispanic women at 79 percent, black women at 62 percent, Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander women at 61 percent, and American Indian and Alaska Native women at 57 percent. Source: AAUW).
Katherine Clayton is the CEO & Co-Founder of OmniVis. OmniVis is a Creating Hope in Conflict: a Humanitarian Grand Challenge supported innovation.
Creating Hope in Conflict: A Humanitarian Grand Challenge is a partnership of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the U.K. Department for International Development (DFID), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, with support from Grand Challenges Canada.