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Northwestern University

Women in STEM

"Be a part of the growth and capitalize on it," alumnae tell Northwestern students

By Daniel P. Smith

Though women continue to enter STEM fields at an increasing rate, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that men still represent three-quarters of the nation’s STEM workforce.

“There’s a glass ceiling that isn’t breaking very quickly,” acknowledged Emily Zarefsky, a functional synthetic chemist at Northbrook, Ill.-based Stepan Company who earned a master’s degree in chemistry from Northwestern in 2011.

In the face of those odds, Zarefsky and four other Northwestern University alumnae gathered on campus May 19 to offer current female students in STEM fields encouragement and counsel.

During the panel discussion, hosted by the Weinberg College Student-Alumni Engagement Program, the five alumni covered a diverse array of topics related to STEM’s professional landscape, including obstacles and opportunities, mentorship and particular STEM growth areas.

On promising career opportunities in STEM fields

As senior director of the University of Chicago’s Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Kristin Barrett ’06 leads the strategy and operations of the university’s coworking space, as well as educational content for entrepreneurs looking to scale their business.

Barrett, who majored in economics and journalism, sees tremendous potential across the STEM landscape, particularly in areas such as genomics, microbiology, software and financial technology, and says STEM’s ever-accelerating maturation is a promising development for women looking to enter such fields.

“In an industry that’s growing, you can be a part of the growth and capitalize on it,” Barrett said.

On launching a STEM career

Though Alexandra Dobkin ’12, who triple-majored in mathematical methods in the social sciences, economics and anthropology, was “hell-bent on going into finance” as an undergraduate, she detoured into tech. After attending an all-female web development boot camp program, Dobkin began her software engineering career and now works at Bloomberg LP in San Francisco.

“With the growing number of diversity and inclusion initiatives businesses are developing, you can actually use being a minority to your advantage,” Dobkin said.

On functioning in a male-dominated world

A double major in math and psychology, Sheena Desai ’14 began working on the retail sales team at Twitter’s Chicago office shortly after graduation before moving to New York and joining the social media giant’s revenue strategy and operations team. She acknowledged that working in the male-dominated tech world has fueled her to become a stronger advocate for her ideas.

“At a meeting, it will happen where someone will talk over you. Be aware that these situations happen, acknowledge them and make a point to speak up,” Desai said.

On finding mentors

Zarefsky, who performs organic synthetic research in support of key business areas at Stepan, stressed the importance of people skills in the professional world, particularly in the hard science fields, while also urging students to actively seek female mentorship.

“Odds are you will have few options for female mentors, but you have to seek them out, even if they might not be in the same career field,” Zarefsky said.

On being reflective and nimble

Since earning her degree in mechanical engineering from Northwestern, the professional life of Kim Hoffmann ’97 has taken numerous turns, from product marketing to co-founding a jewelry design firm. Now the associate director of Northwestern’s Segal Design Institute, Hoffmann manages operations and leads the execution of new initiatives focused on human-centered design.

“You’re never going to have a complete map of where you should go,” Hoffmann said. “You’re always navigating with a compass, so the best way to get somewhere is to get going and then pivot.”

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