According to the 2018 Science & Engineering Indicators Report by the National Science Foundation, while college-educated women make up half of the U.S. workforce, women represent only 28 percent of the country’s science and engineering workforce.
“That’s just discouraging,” said Wheeler, who holds a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science and an MBA from Wharton. Through WISE, Erhemjamts, Wheeler, and a network of highly successful women in STEM aim to change this paradigm and pull other girls and women up the career ladder behind them.
“Part of the reason I got involved in WISE is because of my experience in disciplines where females are grossly underrepresented—math or engineering or finance—all of these fields basically have a ‘woman problem,’” said Erhemjamts.
“The opportunity to be involved in WISE was perfect because if I could encourage future generations of young women to pursue STEM fields, and if I could make a small, tiny difference, that was very appealing to me.”
WISE was founded in 1997, with the mission of inspiring, engaging, and empowering women and girls in STEM. Ledby founding chair Jaishree Deshpande, committee members advised and supported programs designed specifically to engage women and girls in STEM learning at the Museum. Shortly after its founding, the WISE committee established a bi-annual forum, the WISE Speaker Series, and in 2012, to celebrate the committee’s 15th anniversary, committee members established the WISE Endowed Innovation Fund. This fund, the first endowment established by a Museum affinity group, supports innovative and experimental programming to promote the development of women and girls in STEM fields.
Building on the committee’s early successes and support from the endowment, WISE’s work has expanded beyond the walls of the Museum. For example, WISE helps to organize and support Women and Girls in STEM Month, which the Museum has celebrated each November since 2017.
This year’s celebration kicked off on November 7 with the WISE Mentoring Evening, a night where female STEM professionals shared their career experiences and real-world advice with female college students majoring in STEM fields. The program included networking opportunities, panel discussions, and breakout sessions on topics like, Connectivity: The importance of finding a mentor, Navigating bias, and Salary negotiation. The event drew women from private companies, prestigious local research institutions, and a diverse range of universities and colleges, including Northeastern, MIT, WPI, Bridgewater State, Harvard, and Bunker Hill Community College. “There are so many isolated women’s affinity groups that are dominated by women who need advice, information, and mentoring,” said
Erhemjamts. “What’s unique about WISE is that because of the reputation and location of the Museum, we have such a strong network of professionals in the Boston area that come from biotech and health care and finance and tech.” This grants college students and women needing help at other pivotal moments in their careers incredible access.
“WISE brings in all of these world-class, highly qualified, highly successful professionals from local firms, women who are happy to mentor and be involved with WISE. Then students can see and access these role models and women who have been there more readily than they would be able to in their school environment. I think that makes WISE stand out from other affinity groups,” said Erhemjamts.
Wheeler agreed that the WISE Mentoring Evening helps build connections among women. “Last year, I was in one breakout session about the decision to attend graduate school,” said Wheeler. “At least twice during that discussion women who were in the audience and not on the panel got up [in response to students’ questions] to say, ‘You know, I have a very specific answer to your question. I’d like to put you in touch with someone,’ and then went up to the students, connected with them, and gave out a personal contact. And that was awesome.”
On November 9 and 13, the Museum also hosted women as guest educators throughout the Museum. These days were designed to give Museum visitors, especially girls, an opportunity to have authentic conversations with successful female STEM professionals. “Our primary goal is to get girls interested in STEM,” said Susan Heilman, the Museum’s program manager of community initiatives and a staff liaison to the WISE Committee,
“But we also want to show everyone–men, women, boys, and girls—that women are in a variety of STEM fields and can do anything.”
The month-long celebration concluded with the annual Fall Speaker Series on the morning of Friday, November 22, at the Royal Sonesta Boston. Dr. Deborah Bronk, president and CEO of Bigelow Labs, delivered a presentation exploring the ocean as a tool to combat climate change, and all proceeds will support the WISE endowment.
Looking past its successful Fall Speaker Series and November programs, WISE has ambitious plans for its future. “With WISE, we’re now looking to not only create personal efficacy among women, but also drive cultural change,” said Annette Sawyer, the Museum’s senior vice president of education and senior staff liaison to the WISE Committee.
With support from the endow-ment WISE has recently begunpiloting new programs designedto not only get women started in STEM, but also keep women in the STEM career pipeline.
“Where are other leaks in the pipeline? Oftentimes it’s when women choose to take some time away from work to have children or take care of family members,” said Annette Sawyer, the Museum’s senior vice president of education and senior staff liason to the WISE Committee.
Over the past year, WISE has forged new relationships with organizations like ReacHIRE and the Tufts Gordon Institute to deliver programs targeting early- and mid-career professionals. Upcoming events include panel discussions on how to navigate corporate culture, how to thrive in the workplace, and how tobe authentic to your own brand. They also include a “bootcamp” to empower women to successfully return to the workforce following a career break, as well as a seminar designed to educate HR professionals about return-to-work talent pools.
“There are all of these women trying to get back to work. Do not overlook them” said Sawyer.
WISE has also recently broadened its definition of “Women in STEM” to encompass all women. WISE and the Museum have now begun exploring ways to ensure that all women become lifelong STEM learners regardless of the career they enter.
For now, Erhemjamts and Wheeler are thrilled to be at the helm of such a dynamic and powerful network of women, and they welcome others to join them in this important work.
“WISE is an opportunity not only to pay it forward, but also to meet so many amazing women,” said Erhemjamts. “I’m just constantly amazed by how many successful women there are every time I go to Museum events. WISE is inspiring, and it expands your network and expands your horizons.”
“Through joining our education efforts on the floor of the Museum, through our mentoring opportunities, through directly supporting the endowment – it’s a way to personally make a difference,” said Wheeler. “And besides, the women in WISE are rockin’!”