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Promoting STEM Success For Women

Ranjani Saigal
02/09/2018

The women of the IIT Alumni of Greater New England organized a workshop to provide a forum for advocates of women working towards building STEM careers to collaborate with industry and university leaders on crafting a strategy for paving the path for continued success of women in STEM at the undergraduate level and beyond. The event was held at MIT 32-141 on Sunday, Feb 4, 2018. 

Women in STEM traditionally have been a minority. The percentage of women at IIT is smaller than other STEM institutions. Recently, the Indian government required IITs to increase the number of women students to 20%. Women alumni of IIT AGNE were concerned that increasing the quota without providing proper support would make the experience at IIT a difficult one for women. The alumni sponsored this workshop to understand the opportunities and challenges for success for women in STEM not just at IITs but everywhere. 

The event opened with the introduction of the core team members, Ranjani Saigal (IITB), Mandy Pant (IITKGP), Durriya Doctor (IITB), Jayanthi Narasimhan (IITM), Surabhi Bhandari (IITD), Neeta Agarwal (IITD) and Rukmini Vijaykumar (IITM).

Dr. Sanjay Sarma, an IIT Kanpur alum, who is the Vice President for Open Learning at MIT gave the keynote address. Sarma outlined the many technology driven initiatives that are dramatically changing the modes of teaching and learning on college campuses. “Blended learning – where students learn in class and online is now a reality” said Sarma. These new modes can help women learners who have traditionally have had a disadvantage in a male majority traditional classroom. Sarma also emphasized the role AI will play in the future as machines may replace much of what is being done by humans. Sarma shared the story of the “They Bot” experiment by Microsoft that tried to train a bot with twitter feeds that made the bot extremely racist and sexist within 24 hours. “Remember the robots work as they are trained. If they are trained to be sexist, they can be infinitely more dangerous than a sexist human. It is important to be very vigilant” said Sarma. 

The keynote was followed by a panel discussion moderated by Ranjani Saigal(IITB). The panelists Sanjay Sarma, Vice President for Open Learning, MIT, Hamsa Balakrishnan, Professor at MIT, Chitra Javdekar, Dean of STEM, Mass Bay Community College and Geeta Aiyer, Founder of Direct Action for Women Now addressed a wide range of issues that need to be addressed to ensure success for women in STEM.  The participants shared their own career paths and talked about the special things they are doing to support women in their current roles. 

The panel discussion was followed by remarks by Surabhi Bhandari, (IITD) who outlined issues currently being faced by women students at the IITs. The group then split into two and Durriya Doctor (IITB) and Jayanthi Narasimhan (IITM) conducted a brainstorm session to gather ideas on what the group should work on. Mandy Pant (IITKGP) presented the outcomes of the brainstorming sessions. 

The attendee list was diverse including entrepreneurs, engineers, high school STEM teachers, community college professors and culture consultants. This made for the emergence of a rich set of ideas that is being worked on. If you are interested to join in these discussions or support these efforts, please check out IIT AGNE at http://iitagne.org.




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