It’s been years since an advisor told School of Medicine Dean Betty Drees, M.D., to go into medicine, but she remembers the moment clearly. She shared the anecdote at the Central Exchange’s panel discussion on “The Intersection Point of Women, Science, Technology and Medicine” on June 26.
As more than 100 women listened, Drees set the scene: She was an undergraduate transfer student, sitting with an associate dean who had just reviewed her transcript.
Drees always enjoyed science, but she had never considered medical school. That was no surprise. At the time, she said, women made up just ten percent of medical school students. In fact, Drees had never even met a female doctor.
Plus, she had a family. She couldn’t become a doctor.
“Why not? Men do it all the time,” the associate dean retorted.
The crowd of women burst into appreciative laughter.
The event was part of the Central Exchange’s WiSTEMM (Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine) program. The WiSTEMM initiative was designed in 2011 to put a spotlight on Kansas City women in STEMM careers. Drees was one of three Kansas City women, along with Michelle Lewallen of the Stowers Institute for Medical Research and Michelle Brush of Cerner, to speak at the panel.
As the laughter and applause subsided, Drees said that sometimes even the smallest bit of encouragement can go a long way. After all, those two sentences changed her life.
That story rang true for Brush, who has always loved math, but only changed her major to Computer Science after meeting with an especially encouraging advisor. Several women in the crowd gave understanding nods as Brush talked about how awkward it felt to be the only woman in a class of 30 students, and how intimidated she felt by her confident classmates.
That is, until they got the results of their first test. Brush got a perfect score. Those confident classmates lagged behind.
“That’s when I realized that I was in the right place,” Brush said.
Today, Brush develops curriculum for new engineer training programs and instructs new engineers on best practices for Cerner.
Although each panelist specialized in a different area of STEMM, concerns about a lack of female role models, institutional barriers, and getting more women interested in STEMM careers seemed universal.
Each of the women shared their advice on maintaining a healthy work/life balance. The question was particularly timely for Lewallen, who is considering starting a family.
“For me, it comes down to expectation management,” Lewallen said. “You have to assign priorities.”
Drees and Brush nodded in agreement. For Brush, expectation management meant realizing and accepting the fact that she wouldn’t be the type of mother her stay-at-home mom was. Instead, she and her husband split parenting responsibilities 50/50 for their child.
Ultimately, events like the WiSTEMM panel discussion are designed to inspire women to pursue STEMM careers in the hope that over time, the STEMM fields will become more diverse and inclusive. It’s a goal Drees believes will be helpful to everyone.
“In inclusive climates, men prosper as well as women,” Drees said.