Women at the Institute

I came to this program after a decade of calling myself an economist. Even in the last year and a half when that hasn’t been my job title, I’ve clung to it on the grounds that economics shapes much of how I understand the world and work within it. That is to say, I didn’t enter this space from one of the more innovative tech spaces. My time at the Institute has represented all of my time in the tech sector, and I am continually impressed and invigorated by how different things are here.

More notably, despite all of the talk about the difficulties women face in this field, I have found the Institute to be a radically different space for women than any space I’ve worked in before. To all of the women outside thinking of applying or recruiting from our program: here are the two essential things you need to know about what it’s like to be a woman at the Institute for Advanced Analytics.

Science, tech, engineering, and math (STEM) careers are dominated by men, but the Institute is not.

I came to this program with almost a decade of work experience and a first, much more traditional, master’s degree under my belt. I know what work feels like just as well as I know what graduate school feels like. While I spend many hours every day in class, the environment at the Institute more closely mimics work than graduate school. We learn by immediately applying new knowledge to real, messy problems that almost never have a correct answer. My days are an equal mix of class, meetings with my various teams, practicum sponsors from outside of the Institute, and instructors and staff, along with solo time working at my desk.

One key difference between my past career in economics and my “work” environment now is that more than 40% of my colleagues are women. While this is relatively consistent with the representation of women in science and engineering graduate programs, it is in stark contrast to actual work environments in STEM with women only making up 24% of the workforce. Not only are there more women present, but we are frequently assigned to teams that are just as often led by woman as men. This is despite the fact that 86% of my colleagues hail from STEM backgrounds.

Carrying even more weight– more than 60% of the Institute staff and instructors are women. My primary career and communication coaches are women. I’ve been taught programming, optimization, linear algebra, and marketing analytics by women. To get here, I was interviewed by a group of 4 women and 1 man. The influence of these women extends beyond the Institute’s walls. It is through them that I found and attended my first women’s coding workshop, Django Girls hosted by the Caktus Group in Durham, and connected with women-centric programming groups including the Triangle’s PyLadies.

For someone with experience, this has an exceptional opportunity to have access to strong female mentors. What I am gaining here I will carry forward with me for the rest of my career. For my younger colleagues, I am grateful that their very first professional experience could take place in such a setting.

It’s different to be a woman, and that’s openly acknowledged.

The fact that I’m a woman means I have to navigate my career differently. I gauge my audience before engaging in conversations about future family plans. Every time I’ve negotiated my salary I’ve been simultaneously aware that women are paid 21% less than male counterparts and that if I negotiate using the same exact tools employed by those male counterparts I may be perceived negatively. Every time I offer insight during a meeting, I have to weigh value of what I’m saying against studies showing that the perception of my competence is inversely related to how much I talk (and that the exact opposite is true for men). Each major professional step is a balancing act between being true to myself and acknowledging the difference in how men and women are perceived, and yet I have rarely heard this openly acknowledged in my professional spaces. Until recently.

My female coaches and instructors acknowledge these differences both in the classroom and in one-on-one interactions. Earlier this semester, a female instructor noted the difference between a woman’s open discussion of her family and a man’s in front of our entire class. During one-on-one coaching sessions with female mentors, I feel entirely comfortable instigating frank conversations about feminism, and I have unanimously been met with candid and insightful advice. This is not guaranteed in the workplace, even among female colleagues, and I don’t take it for granted.

Columnist: Viola Glenn