Finding work in the field of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics as a woman is often seen as an unfeasible task due to insufficient representation rather than actual skill level. Though this may have been the reality of earlier generations, my older sister, Nikki, and many other females in this industry, have managed to break free from the limitations of how society views women in STEM. I look up to my older sister as she helped break the societal norms associated with STEM. Nikki graduated from the University of Michigan in 2020, with a double major in Business and Computer Science. She currently works at Facebook as a Product Designer in San Francisco.
When it comes to balancing a vigorous schedule such as Nikki's, I admire her unique way of unwinding and relaxing after a long day at work. I sat down with Nikki over the holidays to learn about her new hobbies in San Francisco, including surfing, which helps her unwind and relax. Nikki shared, "I always knew I wanted to learn how to surf, and it was something that I have always wanted to do. Surfing gives me the freedom to let go of the day, enjoy the sunshine & catch a wave!”
Sammie: Would you say that you personally fit into the engineer stereotype?
Nikki: I would say the general stereotype for an engineer tends to be pretty quiet, someone who tends to keep to themselves, and you know, male. When I used to look at engineers, I would see all of the tendencies they had and the traits they shared and I'd just think to myself, "you know what, I think I adhere to zero of those traits and I want to prove them all wrong." Even if you don’t have a single stereotypical engineers trait, you can still be successful in the field. So I'd say no, I do not fit into the typical engineer mold. I think it has helped to be on the other side of things, to have my own unique style and strengths.
Sammie: Would you say being an unconventional engineer helped you in the competitive field of technology? If so, in which ways?
Nikki: Yes, I would definitely say it has helped me, as having a diverse perspective in the way that you view problems and the way you view the world tends to give you an advantage in more prominent companies. This mindset can even provide you with the same advantage in smaller companies that solve problems for a wide range of people. What sets companies apart is having people with different perspectives in order to spark collaborative conversations. You can learn from one another and broaden the umbrella of what problems you're solving and adhere to more people worldwide. You're never going to gain unique ways to solve different problems from one type of viewpoint. You're going to get it from a broad spectrum of intelligent people from several different backgrounds. Once everyone comes together, they can actually solve a problem that is bigger than they all are.
Sammie: What has made you the best possible version of yourself in engineering and life?
Nikki: Balance, first and foremost, is what has made all of this possible in my life. I want to help solve the world's most significant problems through my work in the engineering field. To be the best possible version of myself I must have balance in my life. This is achieved from the activities I enjoy outside of work, such as my new surfing hobby, learning how to skate, snowboarding when I can, and traveling on weekends. Making a commitment to hobbies and time to destress is so important because I return refreshed and ready to tackle the workday. Think about what drives you and why you get out of bed each and every morning are one and the same; whether that is doing an activity like surfing or dedicating time to solving intricate problems and complex mathematical equations. No matter what this outlet is for you, incorporating balance into your life is key as it always lets you experience life through someone else’s shoes. Thus, the more shoes you're able to put yourself into, where you can see something from someone else's perspective, the better you can approach problems.
Sammie: Is there a gap in teaching STEM, and how can we improve and inspire the next generation of women in this field?
Nikki: A lot of the time, the way we learn in school and education, in general, can be very much one-dimensional. It is a very linear process with one correct solution. This can also be quite repetitive as you're solving many problems with that same mentality. You initially learn to solve the problem based on a correct outcome, with more emphasis needed on the “why” & “how” you're doing it. Students should be taught how to think and solve before they are faced with the problem itself. This mindset is especially relevant with STEM as it revolves centrally around problem-solving. Educators should provide their students with less formulated lessons, allowing students to come up with a solution on their own terms. Learning how to think and solve problems is arguably one of the most important aspects of STEM.
Educators inspiring women in STEM should give younger generations someone they can look up to and see themselves in. I struggled to make sense of it all until I saw my future aspirations represented in a female role model. It's only until you see someone that looks like you, thinks like you, that you could see yourself in their shoes. Then you realize I could be doing this, I can do this, if I put my mind to it, no matter what, I can get there.
In closing, Nikki shared this advice, not only for women in STEM but for all young women pursuing their dreams and breaking down the barriers!
“The happier you are as a person, the more you're going to accomplish in life because you're going to feel more driven to do the things you love to do. Find your balance outside of the 9-5, whether it's surfing, skating, or snowboarding, do things in life that give you joy! When your unconscious mind is thinking about challenges you want to tackle at work, and you're having fun, de-stressing with hobbies and activities, the synapses fire! When you're happy, things happen, you make things happen for yourself, inspiring you to solve problems differently.”