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Alum talks underrepresentation in STEM

Fernández stresses importance of mentorship in bolstering diversity of STEM industries

The rapidly expanding workforce in science, technology, engineering and mathematics industries faces what Mary Fernández ’85 ScM’89 P’16 P’19 described as “a critical deficit of talent” in her lecture Thursday afternoon on the significant underrepresentation of women, non-whites and first-generation college graduates in these fields.

Fernández is the president of MentorNet, a nonprofit social network platform that connects current STEM students with mentors from similar underrepresented backgrounds who work in STEM fields. These mentors understand the challenges of pursuing a degree in STEM and are able to provide students with the much-needed tools to persevere, Fernández said.

Fernández’s lecture, titled “Hidden in Plain Sight: Changing the Face of the U.S. STEM Workforce,” marked the convergence of two separate, sporadic lecture series — one regarding life after Brown, and the other dealing with diversity, said Tom Doeppner, associate research professor of computer science, vice chair of the department and the event’s organizer.

Doeppner hoped the lecture would encourage those in STEM to help broaden the appeal of STEM fields while also showcasing the work of a successful Brown graduate and role model for women in the field. Before joining MentorNet, Fernández worked for 17 years as a research computer scientist at AT&T Labs Research.

Fernández began her talk by describing current dynamics within the STEM community. Over the next 10 years, 25 percent of STEM professionals — almost all white and male — will retire from the workforce, leaving a vacuum in terms of strong leadership, she said. This coincides with a nationwide demographic shift toward an increasingly non-white population, Fernández added.

Given these changes, STEM corporations are eager to hire young, qualified professionals and expect the higher education system to produce a flood of diverse talent. But the millennial workforce that these corporations are receiving is “more of a trickle than a flood,” she said.

According to Fernández, this is because underrepresented minorities face numerous barriers in obtaining STEM degrees, including the financial strain of college, the time-consuming nature of classes and the psychological challenges that result from a lack of role models.

In the face of these barriers, MentorNet gives underrepresented students a platform where they can be connected to and heard by a mentor who understands their situations. The sharing of aspirations and the subsequent sense of belonging allows students to persevere in their field of choice, Fernández said.

The lecture’s balance of data and personal stories impressed attendees, including Betsy Hilliard GS, who thought Fernández presented a “really nice set of data that did a good job handling the full spectrum of racial, class (and) gender diversity,” she said. “You don’t always get that full picture.”

Fernández saw the lecture as a “thank you gift” to her former department at Brown, she said.

While Fernández acknowledged the enormity of cultural change needed in STEM industries, she closed with a strong and hopeful message: MentorNet’s mission to help individuals will change institutions, which will change the workforce and ultimately its culture.


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