UCSD panel pushes for women in STEM field leadership


Part tribute to late astronaut, physicist and UCSD educator of almost 20 years Sally Ride (1951-2012) — and part panel discussion with influential women — the second UC San Diego (UCSD) Women in Leadership event, May 22 attracted a crowd of 900 people to the Price Center ballroom.

Hosted by Sally Ride Science @ UCSD, the sold-out event was moderated by journalist Lynn Sherr with an audiene of men and women, Girl Scouts and senior citizens.

Speakers included Chelsea Clinton, former first daughter, vice chair of the Clinton Foundation and New York Times best-selling author of several children’s books including the “She Persisted” set; Sylvia Acevedo, a former NASA scientist who now leads Girl Scouts of the USA; and Jedidah Isler, an astrophysicist at Dartmouth College studying blazars (super-massive black holes at the center of galaxies).

Over the course of almost two hours, the panelists answered questions from the moderator and audience. They talked about their influences; the importance of surrounding yourself with supportive people; children, marriage and racial prejudice; and whether working on a team with other women helps each attain their goals (no surprise, they answered “yes”).

As the first American woman in space (1983), Sally Ride was touted for her mission to encourage more women in leaderships fields.

Executive vice chancellor Elizabeth Simmons called Ride “a personal hero of mine” and said: “Decades after Sally Ride came into prominence as an astronaut, physicist and leader, we still, unfortunately, find that women, African-Americans, Spanish-Americans, Native Americans and members of the LGBT community all remain underrepresented or relatively invisible within STEM fields — especially within STEM leadership positions. We need to make accomplished women, and members of other underrepresented communities in STEM, visible to students and one another.

“The fact that Sally Ride was a revered professor of physics, is still making a difference to other professors here on campus. We have to include women’s achievements in the narrative of scientific achievement, so it’s crucial we keep Sally Ride’s story and legacy visible for generations to come. This event is an appropriate tribute to Sally Ride.”

Ride’s life partner and co-founder of Sally Ride Science, Tam O’Shaughnessy, conceived the event. “For this year’s program, I sought out panelists who could offer insight on what it takes for women to become leaders, including the barriers they face and the mindset that allows them to succeed,” she said. “The panel brings together leaders from diverse backgrounds who share a passion for inspiring girls and women to strive and persevere.”

Here are some highlights:
“Where on an imagined clock of equality do we now stand?” moderator Sherr posed. “Have we struck midnight? Are we ready to go? Or is it sooner than that?”

Acevedo: “Looking at it through the Girl Scouts lens, half of all female elected officials in America were Girl Scouts,” she said, to applause. “So in this record class of women elected to Congress, 60 percent were …” she paused and let the audience yell “Girl Scouts!”

She continued: “We are the only youth non-profit in American focused on civics and democracy, and really teaching girls how to get involved and make the world a better place. We still have a long way to go, so we want the rising generation to have the skills, the talent, the courage and the confidence to run for office and be leaders.”

Isler: “When you look at time, I would think of time zones. The way equality meets folks depends on where they sit. So some folks are getting closer, like with the pay wage gap; we still have a long way to go that can be distinguished by identity — there is a pay wage gap for white women, a larger one for black women and an even larger one for First Nation women. Our role is to make sure everyone gets there, but we’re not all getting there at the same time.”

Clinton: “We had an unprecedented number of women run in the 2018 cycle, yet if we look at who ran for Congress, we were only a quarter of the number of people running. That is progress, but not close to parity. Oftentimes, when we celebrate progress, that can obscure how far we all have to go. I’m an optimist … but recognizing that women’s rights to make decisions are under attack, we have to have a clear view of where we must go and the solidarity that must be required to get there.”

Moderator Sherr posed: “What is the role of boys and men in all this? What we do want them to do?”

Acevedo: “We focus on girls and girl-potential at Girl Scouts. We are very happy when parents support their daughters … we have T-shirts for the dads that say ‘Man enough to be a Girl Scout,’ but we really work on making sure the girls have their voice, their confidence and their skills to create the positive changes they want to see around them. In that space, they can attempt, fail, succeed and that’s OK. They know they’re going to get called on to try something; which isn’t always the case in the classroom. We know when they have confidence, they can go out in the co-ed world and succeed.”

Clinton: “You shouldn’t have to have a connection to a woman to care about women. It kills me every time someone says ‘as the father of a daughter …’ it should just be ‘as a decent human being.’ ... I have a son and a daughter — and whatever this is (motioning to her belly, as she is pregnant with her third child) — and we need them all to care about children’s rights so they can engage later in life in other things they care about. It’s never too early to start this engagement.”

Isler added: “And it’s never too late.”

Addressing the critique of the “angry woman,” Sherr asked: “There’s a lot of talk right now about anger and how women’s anger is necessary for social and political change. Do you have to get really angry before you move forward, and do women even have to be likeable? Women are criticized if they don’t smile enough, women are seen as aggressive and men are ambitious, women’s voices are shrill while men’s are loud.”

Acevedo: “If you are prepared and know what you are up against, you don’t need as much anger because you know what to do. But anger can get you at some point, which can motivate girls to identify a problem and decide what to do.”

Isler: “When you talk about anger, I think about how women are perceived differently because of the bodies we inhabit. Black women have been fighting the ‘angry black woman’ stereotype since there were stereotypes … some women are read as angry and therefore unworthy of any success or being taken seriously, so they smile and stunt themselves to prevent that.”

Clinton, speaking about anger and social media prevalence: “I don’t remember a time when my family wasn’t being attacked viciously and personally. When my dad was running in 1992, I remember Rush Limbaugh and Saturday Night Live both referring to me as a dog because I was an awkward 12-year-old kid … thankfully, I knew it was ludicrous that these adults were picking on a kid. I knew that was about them, not me. Now, with social media, people can unleash the hate that has always been there. I soon realized that radical kindness is a possibility. We don’t have to engage hateful language and we don’t have to ignore it, if that doesn’t feel right. We can respond in a way that is authentic to who we are but is brimming with kindness.”

— See a full video from the program at