Sunday, April 15, 2012

The 2012 Spring Empowerment Conference in Review

Graduate Women at MIT had its second annual Empowerment Conference from March 12-16, 2012. The conference was comprised of six events, which are detailed below. The total number of attendees for all the events combined was over 600. It was an unprecedented success in terms of attendance, and the attendees all seemed to enjoy the events and even picked up some valuable tips and skills.

Facing Challenges, Overcoming Obstacles

On March 12, about 80 graduate students from MIT came together for the first event of the Empowerment Conference—a panel with 4 successful women focused on discussing personal experiences and tips on overcoming obstacles. This was the first joint collaboration event with Sidney Pacific Dorm's Committee on Scholarly Interaction. The speakers came from a wide diversity of experiences and backgrounds. Almaris Alonso is a Microbiologist at the Food and Drug Administration; Shari Loessberg is a lecturer at MIT Sloan and an entrepreneur; Dana Moshkovitz is an assistant professor at MIT CSAIL; and Suzanne Oakley is a CPA and part-time CFO business planning advisor. Each one of them shared their personal and honest experiences with facing discrimination, dead ends in research, difficult business partners, and much more. They gave valuable tips on the importance of finding inspiration through pursuing your passions, and making sure to build strong mentor relationships. Overall the event was an enjoyable and personal one, from the insightful anecdotes to the networking reception afterwards.

Designing with Her in Mind

Though it can be difficult for technically focused MIT students to relate their work to the arts and social sciences, attendees found the insights shared by Susan Fabry to be fascinating. Given the increasing awareness of design thinking at MIT, and Susan’s insight as the leader of Continuum’s Gender Role Dynamics Research community, she was a welcome speaker to the 2012 GWAMIT Empowerment Conference. Trained in psychology and industrial design, Susan has 15 years of ethnographic research and is an expert at interviewing people to uncover ways to improve their lives. Whilst also sending a clear message about the value of human-centered design thinking, Susan shared some interesting statistics around shifting gender roles including the increasing number of men identifying as the primary child care provider in modern families, and how women significantly outnumber men as the primary decision maker when purchasing new cars. There was an overwhelmingly positive response to the event, with a diverse range of attendees confirming that there is huge community interested in design at MIT who want to know more about how to more sensitively understand the needs of the customer. Comments from attendees included: “I never thought about the influence of gender in designing products… now I know it’s a huge part!!”, “This is the first time I see the application of design to gender.”, and “More events like this!

High Performance Work-Life Balance

Graduate students often struggle with being productive at work while also having a healthy work-life balance. Paul English, CTO and Cofounder of Kayak, addressed this problem in his talk titled "High Productivity Work-Life Balance." At this event, attended by 160 students from across MIT, Paul discussed various techniques for being efficient at work, having a healthy personal life and making massive impact. His examples and tips were drawn from the work culture at Kayak and personal life. Attendees learned about the importance of things like managing email (have only 10 items in your inbox!) and keeping meetings short while only having up to 3 people (any more and you're likely not going to end up making a decision!). Both male and female attendees seemed to enjoy the talk and were excited to implement the new tips they had learned.


Women, Communication, and Power

Dr. Barbara Tannenbaum, president of Dynamic Communication, LLC and Senior Lecturer at Brown University, came to speak to a full house of 110 attendees on the fourth day of the GWAMIT Empowerment Conference. She shared many memorable and practical tidbits including “You can’t not communicate!” (and yes, double negatives are sometimes necessary!). Dr. Tannenbaum noted that everything a person does communicates something, and suggests you grab a friend and remind each other to practice powerful communication at all times. She shared many insightful tips on how to reach your audience, how to communicate power with body language, and which words to avoid.

Keynote--Digital Empowerment for the Real World: Using Social Media, Creating Social Change

We were proud to have Latoya Peterson, owner and editor of Racialicious.com, as the keynote for this year’s conference. Peterson, a self-described “nerd and hip hop feminist,” flew in to MIT from her fourth panel at South by Southwest Interactive (SXSW), an annual gathering of top writers, companies, and artists involved in new media production. In addition to editing her award-winning blog, Peterson frequently speaks and consults on issues of social justice and social media, and has done consulting work for NPR, Wikipedia, and Weber-Shandwick.

Her talk at the MIT Stata Center focused on the concept of digital empowerment, which Peterson described as “leveraging technology against structural barriers such as race, gender, and class.” To illustrate this point, Peterson led us through a series of examples of ways technology might foster or stifle social spaces. For example, drawing from her own research on video gaming culture, Peterson argued that the male-centric focuses of gaming centers and toy companies present obstacles to young girls’ participation. She then explained that on the other hand, the web also generates new spaces for girls to connect and create community, overcoming some parts of the “leaky pipeline” of girls’ trajectory into STEM careers.

Peterson demonstrated her point by asking the audience a series of questions about MIT admissions. She asked the audience “Are you an MIT student?” “Do you feel anyone helped you get into MIT?” “Have you helped another person younger than you with admission to MIT?” “Did you use your social media outlets to broadcast upcoming deadlines and tips about admissions?” The show of hands grew less and less, in a powerful demonstration of how we may push through various structural barriers to achieve something like getting into MIT, but don’t realize that it takes an entire community to do so. Empowerment is just as much about yourself as it is about pulling others up with you. This is what digital empowerment for the “real world” might mean—understanding how you can leverage the tech resources at hand but also realize that technology is fundamentally social and we must promote community at every step of the way.

Climbing the Career Ladder: Gender and the Workplace

An engaging and talented panel consisting of Pamela Benkert (Philips Healthcare), Leah Buechly (MIT), Aditi Garg (Tesla), and Hilda Tang (Oliver Wyman) and moderated by Dean Christine Ortiz (MIT) provided the audience with diverse perspectives and advice on careers and the role of gender in the workplace. The panelists discussed work-life balance, mentorship, and the change in gender roles and policies that they encountered throughout their careers. The audience walked away with practical tips on overcoming negative gender stereotypes, workplace behavior, and succeeding on a personal and professional level. One audience member noted that “the panelists brought insights from different points of view. They were great!” Other members commented on the “very interesting speakers” and “good range of age and experience”, and that they “loved it! Loved the industry focus!”

GWAMIT co-chairs Manasi Vartak (EECS) and Luyao Li (EAPS) led the planning; the planning committee consisted of Christina Lee (EECS), Jennifer Milne (MechE), Dianne Kamfonik (CEE), Cecilia Viggiano (CEE), Mitali Thakor (HASTS), Leyla Isik (CSB), Irene Hu (CEE), Wei Yu (MSE), Laura Riegel (CEE), and Jamie Rosen (CEE); David Kwabi (MechE) and William Li (EECS) collaborated with the planning committee on planning of the CoSI event. Our sponsors included the Graduate Student Council, the Office of the Dean for Graduate Education Graduate Student Life Grant, the MIT School of Engineering, the MIT School of Science and the MIT Division of Student Life.

Note: The entire planning committee contributed to this post.

See our Facebook page for more pictures of the events!

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