In our Women Who Inspire series, we’ll be talking to influential women who are making a difference in their communities and the world at large. Through their leadership, we are inspired to do better, work smarter, and continue to create opportunities for women in STEM.
Kirsten Crear has been with AT&T since June 2014 and currently works as an Application Developer in our Software Development and Engineering organization. Hear how her teachers inspired her to pursue a degree in computer science and what she thinks about math education for middle schoolers.
What inspired you to pursue a STEM-related career?
Teachers. When I started looking at colleges, I thought I was going to be a political science major. But my junior year pre-calculus teacher really pushed me to move up a level to honors calculus my senior year, which I did, and I loved it! Sometime in my senior year, I was talking with my pre-calculus teacher and told her how much I liked calculus, and so she suggested I consider majoring in Math. So, I signed up for my first semester classes based on the requirements for a Math major, including Computer Science 111. I vividly remember sitting on a friend’s bed on a Friday night, and starting and finishing my CS homework as soon as it was posted – I liked it that much! That’s when I realized I wanted to be a programmer.
What’s the most fascinating aspect of your field to you?
How the tools and skills we know can impact so many people. There’s this really cool open-source project whose goal it is to make custom prosthetic limbs cheaper and more accessible to those who need them by using 3D printers. Many of the contributors to the project are kids learning to code at summer camps. The same guy who created the Segway is the mastermind behind this whole project. But you don’t have to be involved in biotech to change people’s lives. We’re constantly changing how people access and use the Internet. I’m currently working on one of AT&T’s cloud solutions, and I can see how the software we’re building will impact how the average population accesses their data. I wouldn’t be surprised if in a few years time, the average person stores a majority of their data remotely rather than on physical devices.
What are your goals for this coming year?
My main goals are to continue working to get more girls interested in STEM, as always. I also really want to get better at taking the high-level architecture, and the end goal of a project, and translating that into what low-level software needs to be implemented to make it all work. I think that’s probably the hardest part of software development, bridging the gap between non-technical and actually implementing technical features.
What advice can you give women who are seeking a career in a STEM-related field?
Keep going. And find a mentor, or advocate, or a few. Never turn someone away who is willing to cheer for you. If you find someone really reaching a hand out to you, then make an effort to reach back and connect. Really having that strong support structure makes it easier to reach out for help or advice if you need it. I found it really easy to find mentors throughout AT&T when I started, and have only strengthened those relationships since arriving. It’s only been a year, but I would not have had such a successful first year if it weren’t for my leadership really rooting for me, and extending a helping hand to reach my goals. Also, read Sheryl Sandberg’s book.
What advice do you have for women technologists that are struggling on all-male teams?
That’s a really tough one. If someone’s struggling, the unfortunate part is their team probably doesn’t realize that what they’re doing is not conducive to a welcoming environment, and changing that once it starts is really hard. My first suggestion would be to change the team – whether that’s further changing the dynamic of the original team, or moving out of it all together. Talk to your boss and be honest about why it’s not working out. They will (hopefully) try to either make the environment better for you, or work to find one you’ll like better. If that doesn’t work, the last thing you want to do is try to be one of the guys. That never works. I hate when people tell women to do things like “play golf” or “subscribe to Sports Illustrated” if that’s really not something you’re interested in. You don’t hear men being told to read Cosmo, do you? So if moving teams or changing the dynamic isn’t an option, I’d say really concentrate on getting your ideas heard, even if that means being a little louder in meetings. If you think you have a great idea, do not leave that room until someone’s heard it. Don’t be afraid to interrupt someone or talk over someone for a second before the conversation goes in another direction, especially if you feel you’re about to lose your chance to express your ideas. If your team can’t appreciate the benefits of diversity (and not just gender diversity), show them why it’s valuable. I wish it didn’t have to be that way, but sometimes we have to try extra hard to prove ourselves because it’s the only option.
Who are some of the women who are game-changers in the Technology industry right now?
My first go-to’s are always Sheryl Sandberg (author of Lean In and COO of Facebook) and Marissa Mayer (CEO of Yahoo), who took the job while pregnant! But Whitney Wolfe is another name that has recently sprung into the spotlight. She’s also a millennial, and has already launched two very successful dating apps, Tinder and Bumble. She co-founded Tinder, but left because she was a target of sexual harassment. She then used that experience as inspiration to start up a new dating app, Bumble. Bumble’s catch is that it gives women a little more control and a safer environment than Tinder, which I love.
Which female leaders do you admire and why?
Any woman who is happy with their career and home life, whether that’s being an expert in their field, moving up the ladder, having a family, or just having a successful relationship. They’ve figured it out for themselves and paved the way for women like me who are just entering the workforce. They can really give us newbies great insights on how to navigate all this “work/life” balance stuff that seems to be such a daunting challenge.
Were there any mentors who have made an impact on your life? If so, who were they and how did you connect?
Plenty. It’s very clichéd, but the first was my mother. She owns an incredibly successful climbing and life safety systems manufacturing company – two industries that are very male-dominated, but that never stopped her. She traveled a lot when I was a kid, but always brought me with her if she could. Unfortunately, that meant that any “vacation” would be her working at least half the time, but it also meant I got to see her in action, and sometimes even participate! That definitely gave me the confidence to pursue a career in STEM and get involved in recruiting more diversity.
What do you think will have the strongest impact on closing the gender gap in STEM-related careers?
Not what, but who: parents, teachers, and role models. We really need to start not just telling, but showing all middle schoolers that math is really cool! That’s when the foundations of math are laid down, and it only builds upon itself from there. If they don’t care about math because they want to be cool, and miss something key, then it’s really hard to catch up again. We need to stop taking “I’m not good at math” as an excuse to give up. Instead, realize it’s a call for help, take a step back, and find the gaps in their knowledge.
Why do you think women are leaving the STEM arena? And what can employers do to retain more women in STEM?
That’s a really hard question. I think the biggest thing is that it’s really hard to stay passionate about a career when you have kids and a family and also have to answer production support calls at 3 a.m. Couple that with not being able to find people who have been through what you’re going through to offer advice, and that would take the energy out of anyone.
So first, I think we need to start in the home and really encourage men to become more equal in duties at home. As Sheryl Sandberg said, we need to encourage men to lean into the kitchen table. That’s an entirely different subject I could go on and on about, but the end result would hopefully be more ways that coworkers could relate to one another in the workplace. Something as simple as leaving at the same time to go pick up kids from school can go a long way.
On another note, there’s also the fact that men and women communicate differently, especially in negotiations and highlighting accomplishments. Men talk with more purpose, while women talk with more emotion and concern for the other party. Conversations serve different purposes for us, and that can easily cause a disconnection between coworkers and alienate a team member. I think this is the biggest factor when workplaces are described as a “boys’ club.” This is just one of those things that we really need to be aware of. Once we are, I’m sure things will change.
Connect with Kirsten on Twitter.