Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Embedding Networking Opportunities for Women in STEM into your Outreach Events

We hosted (our first annual) Girls Do Hack at the Adler Planetarium this past Saturday… and it was awesome. Fifty Chicago Public School high school girls came to the planetarium to participate in a full day of STEM-tech activities, like mobile phone app coding, detecting planets around other stars, designing low-cost water filtration systems with 3D printers, creating their own planetarium shows using World Wide Telescope, and much more.

While I could wax poetic about what I learned about successfully recruiting a diverse population of students, about leveraging community resources, etc., I thought it might be of particular interest to this audience to focus on the service that this event provided for the adults involved. A major goal for our event was to provide women in STEM role models for the girls. To this end, we partnered the girls with 25 women in STEM-tech professionals for the day (a 2:1 pairing)*. The women’s jobs included software designers, financial analysts, data scientists, editors, people in marketing, web designers, academics in STEM/CS departments, etc.

The diversity of companies and backgrounds made for a fascinating and incredibly useful exchange of information, resources, best practices, and lessons learned. To facilitate those conversations, we hosted two events just for our women mentors. The first was an info/orientation session before the Saturday event. We held this at a bar downtown and most of the women stayed long after the orientation was done. We swapped stories, resources, and contact info over drinks. This past Saturday, those conversations continued. We started the day with a breakfast reception, just for the adults – our women mentors and special invited guests like the very cool Lieutenant Governor of Illinois, representatives from the Mayor’s office, CEOs of companies (including our Keynote speaker and head of Femgineer), etc. This provided our women in STEM professionals an additional opportunity to network, learn about resources, and meet role models of their own. Throughout the day, as they interacted with their mentees, they continued to get to know one another and deepen the connections through a shared experience.

If you’re planning an EPO event that could lend itself to including the time/space for networking amongst women in STEM professionals (who are also volunteering their time to help support your event), I strongly recommend it. It’s a great service to your local community of women in STEM and it’s a great service (let’s call it a reward) for yourself as an organizer. Definitely one of the most rewarding, both personally and professionally, aspects of the event turned out to be having the opportunity to network with this amazing group of women in STEM. A happy surprise this time around, and one that I’ll definitely try to build in to all my future EPO endeavors.

*While recruiting this many women for a Saturday event may seem like a large number, we had over double the number of mentor applicants as spots available. There is clearly an interest among the women in STEM professional population to help at events like this.