I try not to be too ra-ra about Stevens Institute of Technology, where I work, but sometimes I can’t resist. In January (an eternity ago!), I posted a Q&A with one of my favorite colleagues, Chris Search, a professor of physics. He deplored the lack of diversity in physics, including gender diversity.
Later, Search told me that one of his students had just founded an organization to help young women planning to enter physics and other male-dominated professions. That was when I first learned about Kaitlin Gili and EWAAB, which stands for Encouraging Women Across All Borders. EWAAB’s website describes it as “a non-profit organization that aims to strengthen the confidence of young women through personal mentorship, a strong support network of inspirational role models, and projects that encourage participants to go outside of their comfort zone in their careers of choice.”
Gili, a senior, created EWAAB while pursuing a degree in physics. After I reached out to her, we met in my office, and she told me a little about herself. Growing up in Ocala, Florida, she loved math and science, and especially physics. One of her favorite books was How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog by Chad Orzel. She wanted to go to a science-oriented college. Her family has modest means, so she needed a scholarship. Stevens offered her a good financial package.
At an orientation meeting for physics majors, 10 students showed up, and Gili was the only female. Later, she had a hard time finding older female students or professors who could guide her and serve as role models. Stevens was all-male until 1971. Today, 29 percent of undergraduates and 26 percent of the faculty are female.
Over the next few years, Gili found mentors at Stevens, including Lindsey Cormack, a professor of political science, and Hoveida Farvardin, an official at the World Bank and wife of Stevens President Nariman Farvardin. Gili also served as a mentor herself. She taught computer-programming to girls in New Jersey through “Girls Who Code,” an organization that seeks “to close the gender gap in technology.”
But Gili began to feel the need to do more. She met women in other majors at Stevens, including chemistry and business, who confessed that they, too, sometimes felt isolated by their gender. She had similar conversations with women she befriended during summer programs in Belgium, Japan and England. “We kept coming back to the idea that there is a need for female mentors,” Gili said.
Last June, doing research on quantum optics at the University of Oxford, Gili and a student from the Slovak Republic, Dominika Ďurovčíková, decided to act. “We pulled together all the strongest women we knew and said, ‘Let’s do this.’” They started creating a network of female mentors for female freshmen and sophomores. Mentors can be faculty and other professionals, graduate students or senior undergraduates.
Within the EWAAB mentorship program, called Encourage Her, mentors have face-to-face meeting with a group of 3-5 mentees roughly once a month over the course of a school year. Mentors and mentees work on CVs, resumes, presentation skills, confidence-building, overcoming imposter syndrome and handling mansplainers.
It's hard to imagined anyone, male or female, cowing Gili. She comes across as both modest and confident, chill and ferociously intense. She wants to pursue a career in quantum computers. In fact, she hopes to run her own quantum-computer company someday. Caltech and Oxford have both admitted her into their graduate computing programs. She has accepted Oxford’s offer, but she is deferring her graduate studies until next January so she can devote herself fulltime to EWAAB. For the organization to thrive, Gili says, “will take a lot of tender loving care and passion.”
EWAAB is already an international organization, with branches in the U.S. (Stevens, Caltech, William and Mary), Canada (McGill), United Kingdom (Oxford), Belgium (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven), Australia (University of Melbourne) and Slovak Republic (Comenius University). Gili is trying to raise money to broaden EWAAB’s reach. “I would love to help women in community colleges,” said Gili, whose sister attended a community college. Also on Gili’s wish list is a Facebook-style webpage that can help mentors and mentees stay in touch; a conference, ideally in late 2021; and funds for research and scholarships.
I hope EWAAB enlists more and more women and spreads to more and more schools, because it’s sorely needed. As journalist Angela Saini reported in her book Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story, sexism has deep roots in science, and many women in STEM fields still face discrimination and harassment. (See my posts on Saini’s work here and here. Gili and Saini met, it turns out, when Saini came to Stevens last fall to talk about her book on scientific racism, Superior.)
After the coronavirus pandemic passes, women seeking careers in STEM will still face obstacles. You can help them by donating to EWAAB, starting a branch at your school or just telling people about it. In the meantime, stay safe!