In Part 1 of her interview last Wednesday, engineer and data scientist Lillian Pierson talked to us about her professional background and training. She also shared some interesting aspects of her personal journey, which have made her work and experiences unique over the years.

 

Today, Pierson delves a bit deeper into the topic of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) specifically, describing her own experiences as a woman in a male-dominated field and her beliefs on why it is important to change the dynamics of STEM. She talks to us about why it is not only important for society to change how it views women in these fields, but also why women themselves must break free of confining gender stereotypes in order to realize their true potential and identity.

 

MUIPR: When did you first decide that you wanted to go into data science, and what drew you to it?

LILLIAN PIERSON: I’ve always been a data person, even when I was entry-level. Having a job in college, I did data entry, and I remember sitting there thinking, “I wonder if we put all of this data together, what sort of correlations we could draw between people, and how we could predict things about people based on, like, their birthday, or something like that.” So I’ve always had a mind for it, and then I got into engineering and doing data modeling and using statistics for environmental engineering purposes. As an engineer, you can work in design or you can also work in data modeling. I just went into the data modeling path and then I ended up doing more and more spatial work and learning some more Python and statistics. Then I got into data analytics, and I was just really thrilled with working in data. Standard engineering design work didn’t get me that excited, so I went into data.

 

One of Pierson's many passions is travel, and she has enjoyed the opportunity to take her work with her all over the world.(instagram.com/lillianpierson)

One of Pierson’s many passions is travel, and she is grateful that she has had the opportunity to take her work with her all over the world.(instagram.com/lillianpierson)

MUIPR: We recently featured an article on the blog which focused specifically on the importance of encouraging women to get involved in STEM, which are these typically male-dominated fields. Can you tell me, in your own opinion, why it’s important to get women into STEM, and can you share maybe some of your own experiences and any struggles, either gender related or otherwise, that you have had to overcome as you pursued your work in data science, if any?

LILLIAN: I think that it’s really important to get women involved for several reasons. Women tend to have not only a different approach, but they also have different motivations. I mean it’s hard to make gender classes, but I worked in environmental engineering, and [that’s] the most gender neutral field of engineering. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that it’s for the environment and women want to feel like they’re giving back or something, so it draws women. I think maybe women…It’s really hard, because I’m a feminist and so for me to make blanket generalizations about how women do things and how men do things is kind of against what I believe in. But I know that, as an engineer, it was pretty difficult. Even in environmental engineering, there was a lot of, like, “We’re men so we do the hard stuff; you’re women so you do the report writing.” Even as an engineer with a license, there was always this sort of discrimination that I experienced. Then I went into law school for a while, and I didn’t get that anymore, and I was like, “Wow!” I just really didn’t know how endemic it is, so we really need more women in [STEM] because it’s kind of like a fight. We need women in there to democratize things.

 

MUIPR: I think one of the most amazing things about you is that you break so many of the common stereotypes about women in STEM. Even for those who advocate that women deserve a place in these fields, I think there is still a strong mentality that women who are scientific or mathematical cannot still be free-spirited or passionate about more “feminine” things like fashion, but you express possessing all of these qualities. Why do you think it’s so important for women to understand that these stereotypes are not so rigid, and that you can kind of be all of these things at once?

LILLIAN: People, myself included – we limit ourselves to things we believe about ourselves. So if I believe that because I’m an engineer then I can’t enjoy a pretty shade of lipstick or something [and] that I have to be fully locked into one mode that was prescribed to me – like “Okay, now I’m this tech person, so that’s all I get to be” – then I don’t have a vision to see. [I can’t] really experience myself and the world around me as it is in its entirety. I get locked in, and I’ve done this. I’m struggling with this even today. It’s hard; it’s a little scary. Now we’re getting into philosophy, but if you come from a fear-based belief system that if you break the mold in any way and that you say you’re “this,” but then you want to explore in [another] area, it can be very scary to just be who you are, and not to listen to the people who are going [to criticize]. But it’s important. I’ve learned from people, and I have role models who I aspire to be more like, and they empower me and strengthen me to keep stepping out and being brave. The more of us that can do that, and the more we can inspire each other, the more we can be fully confident that, “Yes, this is me, and I’m okay. I’m fine.”

 

Check back next Wednesday to see Part 3 of Pierson’s interview, in which she discusses her upcoming book “Data Science for Dummies,” and hints at what we can expect from her in the future.

 

If you are a woman working in STEM and are interested in being featured in our ‘Women Leaders in STEM’ series, shoot us an email at blog.muipr@gmail.com or tweet me @tamarahoumi