On this month's episode, Annika and Ashley hear from women whose jobs in scientific fields require international cooperation, including Bonnie Jenkins, Alice Guo, Claire David, and Amy Smithson. These women discuss their career paths, dealing with sexism in the workplace, and what gives them hope in their fields.
Annika Erickson-Pearson: Welcome to this month’s episode of Women in Foreign Policy! I’m Annika. I am now officially a graduate student studying conflict in Geneva, Switzerland.
Ashley Pratt: And I’m Ashley. I’m a foreign policy professional working in D.C. You’re listening to the monthly podcast of the Women in Foreign Policy organization, where each month, Annika and I discuss a different topic in foreign policy and hear from women working on that issue. This month we’re talking about international cooperation and how that manifests specifically in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math fields.
Annika: I do not work in STEM. And I have to say I found the interviews for this month’s episode so compelling and so fascinating. So I am really excited for many of you who are also maybe not as familiar with this sector or field to be exposed and hear this conversation, particularly when it comes to the STEM field which has a reputation for being a bit more sexist than other fields. So there are a lot of good conversations about gender, and conversations about how these women found the paths that they are on. So let’s dive in!
Ashley: I really enjoyed getting to hear from the women we talked to this month, and getting to hear about how they experienced the STEM field specifically, as well as about how STEM and foreign policy intersect for them. And how these fields that we think of as being very disparate and distinct and two totally different worlds are actually very intertwined. So without further ado, let’s let these women introduce themselves.
Amy Smithson: Hi there, my name is Amy Smithson. I’m a political scientist by discipline, who has spent the entirety of my career surrounded by what we call hard scientists: chemists, microbiologists, physicists, engineers. And I’ve spent a career trying to make peace and reduce threats to soldiers and civilians alike.
Alice Guo: Hi my name is Alice. I recently finished my master’s at the London School of Economics in global population health, and just finished an internship with the World Health Organization. And my background is in microbiology and immunology.
Bonnie Jenkins: Hi my name is Bonnie Jenkins. I am a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings Institution in Washington, DC and even more importantly, I am the founder and director of an organization called Women of Color Advancing Peace, Security, and Conflict Transformation. And my area of expertise is in weapons of mass destruction, non-proliferation, and arms control. That is, chemical, biological, nuclear, radiological issues, and non-proliferation issues. I also have a background on threat reduction, which is ensuring that bad actors do not get access to bio pathogens, or chemical precursors, or nuclear or radiological material that could be used to make a weapon.
Claire David: Hi, I’m Claire. I am an experimental particle physicist. I am working at a German laboratory called DZ, a particle physics lab. Within this lab, I am part of the ATLAS collaboration, which works on a detector named ATLAS not in Germany, but in Geneva. It’s at the large hadron collider, which is a big experiment near Geneva underground, where particles are accelerated and they collide at the center of this detector, ATLAS. What I’m involved in is data analysis; I analyze the data collected by this detector along with many others on a team.
Annika: To kick things off, we wanted to know a pretty simple thing from these women: What exactly do you do? And how do STEM and foreign policy intersect in your field? Amy starts us off.
Amy: What I do is try to bridge the gap between the worlds of policy and science. And I do that in a subject field that is weapons of mass destruction. Initially I worked with nuclear non-proliferation and threat reduction on the INF treaties, nuclear test treaties, START treaties, in a classified environment as a defense contractor.
Ashley: Alice also had thoughts on this question.
Alice: I think foreign policy can really aid women working in STEM in facilitating access to education in STEM, as well as access to opportunities in STEM. I really see that a role of policy is to shape the norms and standards so that women can be on equal footing in a traditionally very male dominated industry like STEM.
Annika: Bonnie shared her background with us.
Bonnie: The area that I work on is very much populated by science, and I’m talking about a lot of nuclear physicist, biologists, and chemical engineers. There’s a lot of science specialties that get into the field of non-proliferation because they want to do something related to foreign policy. So, for example, you have microbiologists who could have done something that’s just related to biology, or pure science, but they want to do something more related to public issues or work for the government. So that’s good for people like me who don’t have that background in the areas of science, but when you are working in the nuclear field it’s good to understand how nuclear weapons are made. It’s good to understand some basic things about nuclear technology, so I surround myself with people who have a science background. You need the scientists in the fields I work in because they are the experts, and I’m also able to do my job, which has been diplomacy, treaty negotiations, etc. only based on the science around me.
Ashley: Finally, we heard from Claire about how science and foreign policy intersect in her experience.
Claire: Particle physics, in a sense, has nothing to do with it. It’s about how particles interact, and has nothing to do with human beings. This is fundamental, and doesn’t depend on us or our moods; particle physics is particle physics. But then, there’s fields with human beings gathering to do science. And this is perhaps where foreign policy is present here. On my first post-doc... (I started in the collaboration in 2010, so I’ve been working here for 8 years, mostly as a student during my PHD, and I prefer setting up this context so you know I do not have decades in the field to judge), I would say that the physics that we do is not biased by whoever we are. When we talk in the room about how we calibrate the energy of the electrons, it can be a Pakistani and Indian in the room. It can be an Israeli and Palestinian. It can be a US guy and a German guy. It could be some people coming from the upper class of their country, or some people coming from the lower, bottom of their country. And this is not playing a role, they will just talk about how we calibrate the energy of an electron. This is beautiful. This is beautiful, but of course it is not completely ideal. There are always some things to work on. It’s nice to realize how unifying physics is, and how diverse we are. I meet, almost every month, new people in my field. So definitely I would say it has an impact because we are knowing people from many nationalities, many ethnicities, many sexual orientations, and things like that. So growing up in a very diverse and international cooperation is helping us, each individual member, to be more open minded about things because we have all of these human beings in front of us. So we are an international collaboration. There are many institutions teaming up because the scope of the experiment is so large that we all need to gather together and be numerous and united.
Ashley: I am not a STEM person. I don’t work in any of the fields that make up the acronym and I was really interested to hear from these incredible women how they got from high school, college, or a military career, about how they got into the fields where they are today. First off, we’re going to hear from Alice who describes the path she took to get here.
Alice: I started my bachelor’s in microbiology and immunology because I’d been quite interested in public health. And for me it was a really interesting degree where I could combine the more hard sciences with a broader understanding of public health. From there I did quite a lot of research in pediatric rheumatology, so at a children’s hospital as well as the Center for Disease Control. Within that, within the life sciences, it is much more female dominated, but when it comes to the microbiology labs it’s a bit more male dominated. And from there I really wanted to go into public health more, so that is when I found myself with the opportunity to do a master’s in global population health in the London School of Economics. So it was a very interesting combination of hard sciences in my background into more of the social sciences in my master’s, looking at global population health with a health policy focus. And that led me into the internship at the WHO where I worked on the assistive technology team. Currently, where I am hoping I go with my career is working at the intersection of health policy/public health and clinical care, while trying to understand the value of inclusive technology in improving overall health outcomes.
Annika: And then Bonnie shared her background with us.
Bonnie: It was a path that was not really planned. I had received my masters and law degree upstate in Albany [New York]. I always knew I wanted to work for the government so I worked for the state government and then I came down to Washington, D.C. and I had a Presidential Management Fellowship and I worked at the Department of Defense. While I was there, I was working at the International Comparative Law Office and I went with one of my mentors to a meeting which was talking about strategic arms reduction issues. It was the first time I ever had any exposure to weapons of mass destruction issues. Once I went to that meeting, I fell in love with that issue. I said, “this is great, I want to work on these type of discussions.” But to really work on those issues full time, you had to go to a place called the Arms Control Disarmament Agency (ACDA), which does not exist anymore - it folded into the State Department in about 1999. But that’s where I went because I wanted to really focus on that and to be a lawyer of a delegation that’s negotiating a treaty on arms control or nonproliferation or even some areas of conventional weapons, you had to be at that agency, so that’s where I went. As soon as I fell in love with the issue I went there, and that’s what I’ve been doing the rest of my life. And I went back to school and I’ve gotten a few degrees on the issues, and I was fortunate to be appointed in 2009 as an ambassador at State Department. My focus was on threat reduction and I was a coordinator for threat-reduction programs not only within the U.S. but also internationally.
It’s interesting, very often I do these kind of things, I talk to young people and one of the things I do tell them is - always leave yourself open to possibilities and what can happen. I always knew I wanted to work in Washington, D.C. I’ve always wanted that. My thing was always “work in Washington, live in Virginia”. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do. And beyond that I wasn't’ quite sure. I was always open to what I would do when I got to Washington, even though I had my law degree and I had my Master’s in Public Administration. So I knew...some kind of parameters. But beyond that I didn’t have any. I was ripe to fall in love with something exciting. I couldn’t really think about what I wanted and it’s kind of like it was ordained for me to fall right into this area of work.
Ashley: Claire also had a really interesting path to get to the position she now has.
Claire: So I decided to work in this field and I didn’t decide to work in this field at the same time. It started from my enhanced curiosity without actually knowing it was enhanced curiosity. I was in high school, I was 15, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do later on. I was working hard to have good marks, and yet having intrinsic questions - “yeah, it’s 3,000 Newtons but why not 4??” - there was always this basic questions and I was never happy with this. Luckily, my mom talked to another mom and learned about scientific work camps, so when I was 15 in the summer I landed in the middle of nowhere in France talking math and physics until 3 AM with people of my age who were also fascinated by these questions, so I realized it was possible to be interested by what we learn at school the way some are interested by soccer, or horseback riding.
And then I went into an engineering school of Applied Physics, which was something that would make me an engineer and my parents were also pushing me in that direction so that after 5 years I will have some degree to ensure a living. I did an Erasmus program, seven months, where I was working at DESY in the Zeuthen campus. It was in 2009. I was a 4th year student in a 5-year engineering program. At that time I was doing my training as an engineer and taking the classes at Humboldt University on particle physics and trying to ramp up and learn new stuff and I adored this. The idea of being in a theory that is fascinatingly precise and yet not done yet, there are some caveats - this is really being at the cliff of knowledge and you stand on the cliff and what’s below you is what we don’t know yet. So I like that thing and I realized, “Ok, I want to continue [with] this.”
So I was working with the electronics, working downstairs and then when I was upstairs I was talking to the experimental physicists and I remember that moment where I was seeing very nice plots on the screen of one [of the physicists], and I was asking him, “Oh wow, that’s what you do with the data? How are the data? What type of files do you get and how do you make these things?” And he looked at me, he was busy, but he looked at me and he said, “Ok, for this you need to do a PhD, ok?” And I really took this saying very literally because then going back to my engineering school I finished my degree, not with a master’s as everyone was thinking I would do, but with just the instrumentation specialty. Very technical, because I knew that then, after graduating, I would just do another degree mostly on fundamental science.
That engineering school requires us to spend the last semester doing an internship, to be in a company or a research lab. There was no lecture, we had to work. I wanted to discover North America, and I applied for some stuff and that’s how I found TRIUMPH, the national laboratory in Canada for particle physics and nuclear physics. Some people responded to my cover letter and said, “We have some work to do that your profile is interesting as an instrumentation engineer, and it will be on ATLAS.” And I got this internship, that was meant to last five months in Canada, but yet I just entered into the cooperation of ATLAS and just got myself known and my supervisor, after the second month, told me “if you’re interested in particle physics, you should consider studying in the University of Victoria.” That was his university, he was affiliated with this institution. I went as a prospective student there, I discovered the team, and as I knew some of the people already, I decided to jump in and sign in for this PhD offer. So I was finishing a 5-year engineering degree and I was going for 5 years more.
In between, I did the lectures, I’d ramp up to doing a master’s in particle physics, and then I went to CERN in the middle of it for my duty service. Because if we want to be an author of the ATLAS collaboration, we have to do a qualification task where we have to work a bit on the detector. The detector is a big baby requiring a lot of babysitting, and I was part of the data-taking in 2012, the very same data that served for the discovery of the Higgs-Bosun [particle], and then I went back, it was 2013, and I finished my PhD in 2016. I applied for jobs and got the DESY fellowship which is a nice program where basically you could choose whatever you want to do. As soon as I arrived in Hamburg and I discovered all of the lab facility downstairs to work on ATLAS upgrade again. I voted to stay in the ATLAS collaboration and joined the analysis team, looking for the Higgs-Bosun and then I continued my work on the upgrade, trying to make sure things are smooth and this tracker is going to be produced.
Annika: And Amy walked us through her path as well.
Amy: Well initially I studied Spanish, then French, then Russian. So my initial career objective was maybe to be an interpreter. Then I thought about being an ambassador. And then as I came to DC with my language skills and I got my initial jobs, I clearly decided, “Oh no, I don’t want to be the person in between the two important people, interpreting from one language to another. I want to be the person actually making policy maneuvers. And I want those maneuvers to be for the betterment of mankind.” And that’s how I transitioned over into the national security arena. Again, first as a defense contractor and then really started spreading my wings when I joined the Henry L. Stimson Center, and began publishing research with policy points on how to make sure we got to a treaty (on the chemical weapons convention) that was as strong as possible. And technically feasible to implement. And this is where I started working with the chemists. Not only the people who make the weapons, but those who are charged with destroying the weapons in the United States, and the people who make the verification technologies. So I was doing a lot of work with the Army and its technical experts, as well as with the National Laboratories in the United States. And gradually this spread into the international arena. I started doing a lot of work overseas.
Annika: So, now that we know a little bit more about what these women do and how they got to where they are, we have some questions about how their identity as women affects their experiences working in STEM. And, just a reminder, STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. So we start off with Alice.
Alice: Reflecting on how I found myself in STEM, the thing that really stuck out to me is how early on traditional women roles and traditional men roles are categorized in education. So as a kid growing up, computer science was off the radar for me because it was a very male role and not something that I actively engaged in as a result. And I think moving more into my undergraduate, and my fellowship in immunology, even within the sciences there is a gender difference in people choosing life sciences and more material sciences like engineering, physics, or maths. And so I think for me, my experience within STEM is this realization that there is already a difference in traditional career paths based on gender. And then while working in STEM, because of that traditional male-dominant role, I found it challenging often to find key, or a lot of female mentors. There are some really great female mentors out there and I think the environment is changing, but generally there is still a lack of mentorship as a result of the traditional gender roles that are within STEM.
Ashley: Bonnie also talked about her identity as a woman and as a black woman and how that affected her experience in the field.
Bonnie: Well, for a long time, I was one of a very few women of color in the field. When I entered the field in the early 1990s, there were women - not that many, but there were a few here and there in the area of arms control. My first delegation overseas we had a woman who was in a very high-level role. So when I entered the field, there were a few scattered but not that many. Particularly when we were working overseas, most countries didn’t have any on their delegations. But I could at least point to one or two [women] who were in a professional role. Foreign Service Officers, of course, were also there, and there were very few women of color. I think I was the only professional woman of color in my delegation. That was true for quite a while, whether I worked on conventional weapons or during a nuclear weapons phase, or a biological weapons phase, the chemical weapons phase, I was the only woman of color. And the way that affected me - well, it’s the usual ways in which you try to prove yourself more, you feel you have to work twice as hard… I was also very young at the time, so I was very young and in a field that was very male-dominated, white male-dominated, older, establishment. But I was also the lawyer for the delegation. So I also had a pretty prominent position at that time - this is through several delegations. And I guess what it did was it made me obviously work harder because I felt like I needed to prove myself more, and recognize that since I was a lawyer, I was going to be called on to do things on a regular basis, and I was representing the ambassador and the delegation in many different aspects. So that put me in the front, that made me say, “Well, as much as I may want to sit here and be nervous, and feel like I’m the other, I don’t have time for that because I’ve got to get the job done, they’re going to rely on me as a lawyer to be able to answer questions.” So it was good in the sense that it forced me to not sit back and be nervous. It forced me to not be able to spend time second-guessing myself, because I really didn’t have time for that, I had to go and do a job. So it was a good way of dealing with what normally would be a difficult situation.
Annika: Amy had a lot of really interesting stories to share about her identity as a woman and the way that that impacts her work. We really struggled to cut down the number of stories that she had. We’re going to have a couple throughout the episode, so here’s one to start us off.
Amy: Well I’m delighted that you’re asking that because although I may seem like not the right person to be in this discussion, at the time at which I entered the field I can tell you that at the defense contractor’s office where I worked, there were roughly 150 professionals and I was one of two professional women. Well, three. One who was the chief editor for the publications that we wrote. And as I transitioned into the nonprofit world, I remember the first time I went to a big meeting. It was at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. I remember I looked around, and there were 250 people approximately and there were three women. So I came of age, so to speak, as a working professional being vastly outnumbered gender-wise. And I very clearly remember the first time it dawned on me that it wasn’t necessarily going to be an easy ride.
When I was at the defense contractor, first of all, I got a contract in the door that allowed my boss, who was a retired two-star general, to hire retiring colonels. And in those staff meetings, I remember always coming in prepared because I was aware that I needed to work my hardest and do my best. That’s just the way I am. As the general would ask for suggestions for how we should do something, I would plop an idea out on the table and routinely, the first couple of times, the guys around me would shoot it down. And then it dawned on me toward the end of the meeting, one of the guys would put my idea back on the table except for it would be phrased differently. And I would just sit there flabbergasted. So after one or two times around this mulberry bush, where my idea wasn’t recognized and supported as it was when it was suggested by a man, I decided I was gonna call it what it was. And the next time that happened in a staff meeting, I simply piped up and said, “Gee, that’s a great idea. As it was when I first stated it X minutes ago.”
But I remember very clearly the first time I heard of an organization called WIIS: Women in International Security. And I turned up in a meeting, and all of the sudden there I was in a room with other women in the field. We were so far and few in between in government offices. There certainly weren’t very many women in my particular company. But this organization was just getting started and I remember feeling like a weight was lifted from my shoulders. I could have conversations with these women unlike anything that I could attempt with the men who were surrounding me. I was so conscious of wanting to be taken seriously for my brains and my capabilities that I essentially dressed like a nun, with things covered to my knees, to my throat, to my wrists. I didn’t wear anything that most women today would not even take a second thought to wear, because I didn’t want to give a man any excuse not to consider me as anything other than a professional colleague. And yet still, that nonsense happened as well. And I’m talking about physical, sexual harassment on the job.
Ashley: Finally, Claire had some comments she wanted to share about how her identity as a woman affected or didn’t affect her experience as a STEM practitioner.
Claire: The fact that there aren’t many women in STEM isn’t where the problem lies; the problem is when women are prevented or discouraged from doing what they are interested in because of bad cultural templates or biases. There could be, in a room, 25% women and if a society is equal, if the women have equity, that would be just 25% women in a room. Where it’s not ok is where it’s when women are discouraged from what they want to do just because they are women. It also goes the other way - I would also be concerned if there are jobs for women that men are discouraged from doing them because they are men.
Within my collaboration, there are subgroups. Some have 40% women and others with different scientific activity have much less women, 4 or 5 percent, so it really varies.Even, within my collaboration, if there are lower numbers of women, I have never felt degraded or diminished. I feel a lot of support from all of my colleagues, male and female.
Ashley: Another thing that we talked about when we talked about this episode, conceiving of what it was going to look like, what we wanted to talk about, what we wanted to cover was the idea that STEM fields can be notorious for more blatant sexism than other fields. As professional women, we know that sexism permeates every field and every profession, but I think STEM has, rightly or wrongly, a reputation for being worse, and more blatant, and more obvious and upfront, and just kind of terrible. So we asked the women we spoke to if there were particular strategies they use to establish themselves in the field, in a new office, on a new team. We asked how do they deal with the particular kinds of discrimination that someone working in STEM might face. We asked them to offer some tactics for someone less senior to address discrimination or sexism they might encounter. To start off, we’re going to hear from Bonnie about the tactics she used when she was establishing herself in this field.
Bonnie: I think one of the best things to do is to recognize the situation that one is in. To realize that this is a situation where women are not as prominent or not as pushed forward or there are stigmas out there, just recognize what it is from the very beginning. At that point, for me, it’s just doing what i have to do or recognizing that it is a situation where you may have to do twice as much to be recognized. But also meeting things head-on. I know it’s probably more difficult for young women in the field because you don’t yet have the confidence, but when you’re pushed back or made to feel like you’re not as good, to remind yourself that you are, to believe in yourself. Many times women will get to a pretty successful level, even at a young age, and still doubt themselves. Even though they’re sitting right next to their male counterpart, even though their grades are just as good. Still they’ll say, “I’m not as good” because society has filled women with so much of this belief that they’re not, that you have to constantly be fighting against that. But when you recognize what it is, then it’s a little easier to fight against it. Because when you get past the cultural things that have made you think that, you start to be able to separate it out. You start to be able to say, “I’m sitting right next to you so I must be as good as you are, and I’m probably better because I had to work twice as hard, so I’m going to go ahead and do what I need to do because I understand where that’s coming from and why I think that and why I’ve been conditioned to think that.” But it takes time to do that and so I recognize that as a young person it’s a little harder, but the longer you do that, the easier it gets. Because you start to realize that you’re not the one that has the problem, it’s the other person. It’s the society that’s made you think a certain way. So, when you recognize that, you’re a little more able to tackle problems, you get away from the way your mind has been colonized to think a certain way.
Ashley: Alice also discussed how she felt perceptions about femininity and womanhood shaped her field.
Alice: As a female there are general expectations of what a feminine role is. One being that she doesn’t speak out very often, or isn’t confrontational. She isn’t “aggressive” or angry or necessarily assertive. And for me growing up, that combined with my personality, assertiveness, being confrontational, and being direct is not something that I learned just by being female and being me working in STEM. And so I think that’s something I’ve had to learn in academics and the workplace. To be okay with being assertive. To be okay with being confrontational. To be okay with speaking out when it’s needed, even though I can tell that when I do speak out sometimes the look that’s given to me is very unexpected. They don’t expect that coming from a female, and particularly a petite Asian female.
Annika: Amy also shared some tactics with us, as well as another story.
Amy: Well, there are things that not only I figured out how to do… I think every woman handles these issues differently, depending on how senior she is, what her natural inclinations are, and what it is she’s dealing with. I’ve had conversations with women since; actually in Geneva, another colleague of mine who is a few years older and I were having dinner with three other younger professionals in the field and this subject came up. And this other woman and I started telling a few war stories and I remember very clearly a German colleague of ours saying, “Well I would have hauled off and slapped him.” And had I done that, at that time in my career, the reverberations would have been 100% negative. Not only with the person who had mistreated me, but also how the other men in the equation and also the guys and gals who were running security affairs (because I was dealing with classified information) that would have gone on security reports as a confrontation between two employees. And if you’re the younger woman surrounded by older, more experienced men, just how will this be evaluated? So all of that had to calculate into how I handled myself on the job in the early years. Again, you can find ways to communicate these things and give people a face-saving way out. But it takes a lot of composure and restraint. And anybody who needs a model for that can look to Anita Hill. And talk with the older women, perhaps, in your work setting and ask them how they handle these things. To have somebody to talk to on the job is really important. And now in most situations, human resources departments are supposed to handle these things. But at the time when I was a young woman working, those options weren’t necessarily available to me. The HR department for the company I was working for was in California and this stuff wasn’t talked about.
Ashley: I think that it’s really important that we talk about the variety of ways women have to deal with sexism they encounter, and that there is no right way to react to a sexist incident or to continued sexual harassment or even just a general atmosphere that tells you that you as a woman are worth less than your male colleagues. I think in a lot of conversations about this issue, people will get very self-righteous and say there’s only one good way to handle it, there’s only one acceptable way to handle it, it has to be handled in such-and-such a way or you’re letting every other woman who’s ever experienced this down. It’s really important to me that we are gentle both with ourselves and with other people and we realize that there is no one other than the person operating in that situation who can tell you what the best option is and what the sum total of constraints they’re experiencing is. So when we’re thinking about situations where we don’t particularly love our reaction and maybe we feel like we let down feminism, or we’ve really hurt the cause of professional women in male-dominated fields, it’s so important to me that we realize that what we feel capable of in terms of a reaction, whatever makes us feel safest, whatever keeps us in the best possible position is the most appropriate reaction and there’s just absolutely no way for anyone outside of that situation to know what we should have done or what we could have done. As someone outside the situation and as the person inside the situation, in both instances, you need to have a lot of compassion.
Annika: Ashley, I really could not have said that better myself. The responses to sexism and sexual harassment really range from the #MeToo movement where we’re calling men out or getting them fired, getting them demoted, etc., to the other side of the spectrum, which is really trying to protect ourselves, to create the highest amount of protection in a given situation and a lot of times that means not necessarily calling that person out publicly. Your comment is so important - that we acknowledge that there really is a range of appropriate reactions and responses and that they really depend on the woman herself. I have a very good friend who likes to remind me: “No girl-on-girl violence.” And that means that we don’t get to judge the actions of the women around us because we aren’t in their shoes.
Moving on, given the complexities of being a woman in this field, we wanted to know what advice these women had. How best can we navigate the STEM field? How best can we navigate foreign policy? Alice started us off.
Alice: One of my biggest pieces of advice would be empowering each other. Stay optimistic. And also, I’d like to think that things are slowing changing. It may not necessarily be as rapid as I’d like to see it, but I think that things are slowly changing in the right direction. So for anyone who’s interested in STEM and is female, stay persistent. Stay motivated. Stay optimistic. And empower each other other. But I think the biggest thing is to also encourage males who are supportive of gender parity as well. And encouraging and embracing them into these conversations will help broaden the community and help move the gender parity gap a little bit closer as well.
Ashley: Bonnie had some excellent advice that I will immediately be implementing in my own life.
Bonnie: One thing that I have always done is to see where I want to be, let’s say 5 or 10 years from now, and then go back and think about how I get there. And develop a plan for how to get there. I would look at other people - say I see a person who is in a job I think I would like to have; I would check out their resume. I would look at what they did to get there: what education did they have, what kind of jobs did they have? For more than one person. Since it’s a longer-term goal, it gave me time to put things in place where they need to be for me to get there.
Annika: And Claire shared some advice with us as well.
Claire: I would tell them to follow their interests. If you start to feel uncomfortable with not knowing, it’s a good start. Look up [information] and search and feed yourself - it’s a sort of food, a psychological food of gathering knowledge and being thirsty to know more. So following your interests is perhaps what you should do, and not worry too much about things that are there on the outskirt of your interests. If I had known all the difficulties there is to become a physicist when I first got interested in physics, perhaps I would not have started. Because I had some interest, I said, for the moment I will do this; not because I was seeing things short-term, but because I was just not giving too much computation of the career patterns and so forth, and just staying at the interest level: “I want to know that; so here, with this contract, I will be able to know that.” So this is why I would say not to worry too much about how competitive a field is; just focus on what brings fun and what is nice to investigate.
Ashley: Amy also had some great advice for taking care of yourself when you’re facing a sexist work environment.
Amy: In all candor I ran a lot. My outlet was exercise. I did a lot of running, I ran a marathon at about that period of time while I was both working at the defense contractor and going to school at night. That’s how I let it out, because the meetings of WIIS where I could talk with women were far and few between. And because I was fairly isolated as one of just a handful of women as I started rising through the ranks, when I became a senior associate at Stimson Center, I had projects where I would hire research assistants… now I hired according to capabilities. Always have, always will. But with the young women that were beginning to come into the field, that started to somewhat change the dynamics and I always made sure that I spoke with them about these issues. To say, “Listen, if somebody’s ever giving you the heebeegeebees, come talk to me about it.”
Ashley: This is a foreign policy podcast. Maybe the past few questions you’ve been thinking, “Hmm, where did the foreign policy go?” One of the issues we really wanted to talk to these women about wa show their jobs require international cooperation or, for some of them, facilitate cross-cultural communication and cooperation. A lot of these women have really interesting positions that sit at the intersection of these two fairly disparate ideas, and Bonnie had a really great description of how her job is the absolute epitome of the nexus between these two things.
Bonnie: My whole career has been about that - about working with different cultures and working with different perspectives. In fact, a lot of what I do, even my job at State Department was called Coordinator for Threat Reduction Programs. I’ve always been kind of a coordinator, a collaborator. I did that when I was at the Ford Foundation for U.S. foreign and security policy, so I did a lot of looking at different perspectives on foreign policy. I actually enjoy doing that, I enjoy finding areas of commonality among different perspectives, finding ways in which different sectors can work together. The key is finding something that everybody cares about or wants to prevent.
Annika: Claire also shared a little bit about her experience in the very, very international CERN.
Claire: CERN stands for Centre européenne pour la recherche nucléaire, European Center for Nuclear Research, and it is a name that has stayed but now it’s a world-leading lab, the place for particle physics on earth; among others in the world, but this is really a huge hub for doing particle physics and nuclear physics. I know CERN from the particle physics side and from the big project called the Large Hadron Collider, which is an enormous particle accelerator that is near Geneva. It’s a tunnel of 27 km circumference that is 100m underground. Particles there are accelerated and they collide at different spots and where they collide, there is built around the collision point a huge detector, four big ones, one of which is ATLAS. And the ATLAS detector is physically at CERN, in the same ring so also 100m underground, has a collaboration of people that is spread all around the globe. There are many institutions - 165 institutions - working for ATLAS. In total it gathers a collaboration of 5,000 people that are dedicated for making sure the detector works, takes data, makes [correct] physics analysis, creates nice publications, and also they work for the future ATLAS that is going to take collisions in 2026. The collisions are going to be enhanced.
Annika: We were really curious, talking to these women, what challenges they thought were unique to the STEM field. We asked them, is there something you think might be misunderstood about your work or the field that you work in? Alice gave us a great answer.
Alice: I have a life sciences background. And life sciences within STEM is traditionally more female-dominated, or at least female-oriented than other areas of STEM, like engineering and maths and more material sciences. A current misconception or challenge within life sciences is that because it is perceived to be more gender equal and female-dominated, that the challenges of women working in STEM no longer exist. And I would like to say that it does still exist. It’s maybe less pervasive than what you would see in engineering and technology, but I would say in general, within policy and within STEM, irrespective of whether or not that particular area in policy or STEM is more female-dominated, the challenges still exist. And it can often be overlooked as a result of that perception of it being more gender equal.
Annika: And finally, as usual, we were really curious about what gives these women hope in this field. What do they look forward to coming in the future? Alice started us off.
Alice: What gives me hope and excitement in this field is seeing really kick-*** women working in STEM. And working in leadership roles. It gives me a lot of inspiration and hope. Realizing just how supportive that community is is also very encouraging. So reaching out to women that work in STEM and being able to connect so personally on challenges that women face is, in a way, a little bit disheartening because there are challenging, but in a way very nourishing as well because we have a strong and supportive network. So I’d say the biggest hopes are seeing really inspirational women working in STEM and also being able to connect with them in a very supportive community.
Ashley: We also asked the women we spoke to what their favorite thing was about their work; what gets them out of bed in the morning. And, a corollary to that, what’s their least favorite thing about their work, or what keeps them in bed those extra five minutes and makes them hit snooze the second time around? Bonnie had a really fun set of answers to this question.
Bonnie: What gets me out of bed is a new day, a new opportunity to look at whatever I was dealing with the day before with a new perspective. I’m a morning person, first of all, so I always get up with a positive, open, ready-to-go way; as long as I get a cup of coffee, I’m fine. I wake up all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I always wake up thinking I can have a new perspective. I automatically have a different way of thinking about something. I like new ways of looking at challenges, that’s kind of what gets me going. It’s not so much the topic as the perspective and outlook about the challenges. What keeps me in bed is the things that I know are going to be more difficult to find a solution to; instead of jumping up and being ready to go, I may lay there a little longer and say, “wow, that’s a difficult one to deal with, I don’t know how I’m going to deal with this issue.” A lot of things are difficult to answer, but as long as you can figure out what the strategy could be to get to the answer… If I don’t have a strategy, that’ll keep me in bed frustrated because I don’t have a strategy and I can’t figure one out.
Ashley: I think that this episode was really important for us because we often focus on careers that are explicitly and obviously about foreign policy. Siloing ourselves as a podcast, ourselves as an organization off like that is really problematic but I also think that it doesn’t fully encapsulate the range of things that are foreign policy jobs ultimately. Regardless of whether you will find them on a foreign policy job site. I think that it’s really important to realize that good foreign policy-making relies on the expertise of a lot of people who aren’t necessarily foreign policy practitioners in the strictest sense. It’s utterly ridiculous if you phrase it at its most basic to say, “We’re going to make nuclear foreign policy without any nuclear scientists or nuclear weapons experts.” No one would do that because everyone acknowledges that expertise is important - and I know that the idea of expertise being important has come under fire a little bit recently from various corners and that’s an issue, but I think there’s just no real substantial argument against the importance of people who know what they’re talking about. I think this episode is really important to highlight that there are people who know what they’re talking about in two directions, if you will. There are people who have quite a lot of scientific expertise and also people who want to be involved in foreign policy-making; so you don’t have to restrict yourself to just one or the other if these are things that you’re interested in jointly. I think that it’s important to introduce the idea to people who maybe have never even considered combining their interests in this way. If you’re listening to this and you’re thinking, “wow, how cool, I never thought I could do that.” Here are four women who have these great careers that combine their scientific knowledge and their foreign policy expertise and you can do that too. That is a pathway that is open to you.
Annika: Yeah, I felt really inspired, actually, by this episode. Really particularly inspired. Because - not that podcasts existed 50 years ago - but I don’t know that we could have had these kinds of conversations and to see how far women have come, particularly in the STEM fields, particularly when we’re not encouraged to go and train in these ways in our childhood, I just felt really inspired about the opportunities that are open, like you were saying. Yes, there are so many opportunities that are open at the intersection of STEM and foreign policy. It’s really heartening to me to know that that exists. We want to know what you think about this as well, we want this to be a conversation, so please do come talk to us on the internet. We’ll be back at the end of December with our next episode. It’ll be a bit of a special episode on professional development so we will be talking to different organizations that have advice for you about your career. In the meantime, we’re on Twitter at @WomeninFP. Also we’re on Instagram, and we’re doing videos every weekend over the next few months. If you really want to see my face, I am on Instagram right now. Each Women in Foreign Policy team member is introducing themselves, so definitely go and check that out. And then my personal Twitter is @annikaep.
Ashley: Yeah, the videos are looking really cool, like she said, Annika’s is already up and you guys will get to see mine in December, so prepare yourselves. We really want to hear back from you about what you thought about this episode, what you thought about our previous episodes, what you think about the podcast in general, anything you’d like to hear in upcoming episodes, themes you want to suggest, people you want us to talk to, anything like that. If you’ve got thoughts that you don’t want to tweet at us, we also love emails. You can find contact information for all of us on the Women in Foreign Policy website. I am on Twitter @vaguelyacademic. If you like the work we’re doing, please consider supporting us via PayPal at lmgoulet or on Patreon at Women in Foreign Policy.
Annika: Thanks so much for listening and for being here, share it with everyone you know and then we will see you next month!
Ashley & Annika: Bye!