I love attending panels of talented women and hearing about their experiences in STEM. It’s always a valuable experience to hear from women who are already succeeding in their fields, which shows me that I can succeed, too. That being said, I hate the question, often asked: “what is it like to be a woman in tech?”
First, I don’t feel that questions structured as “what is it like to be/do XYZ?” reveal any specific helpful information, since the question leads people to answer in generalities. Particularly with minority identities, like being women in tech, this question leads to complaints about the state of women in the field, but it doesn’t speak to the specific experiences of the panelists. Of course, it would be a mistake to not acknowledge that the panel is made up of only women, but as a young woman entering tech and engineering, although I want panelists to be honest about the challenges they’ve faced, I also want to hear about the opportunities available for women and how they have navigated the field themselves. Further, I feel that “what is it like to be a woman in tech?” focuses on the system as it is, and not the necessary transformational change that women can lead and are leading. This question plays into survivor bias (“I’ve made it this far, I’ve played by the rules, I must be right”) rather than supporting all women in the field and broadening our idea of who a “woman in tech” can be. In this way, I don’t think it’s a very interesting question to ask, and that there are far better ways to discuss the state of women in STEM.
This came up because the Cooper Union Admissions Department invited members of the Society of Women Engineers section to speak on a panel as part of their series of virtual information sessions this fall. I was lucky to moderate this panel of students, an alumna, and two professors. Although I’m not an expert, I knew I wanted the panel to be lively, informational, and smart, so I put quite a bit of work into preparing it, which I’ve detailed here: my guide to hosting a diversity panel (or any panel) that doesn’t suck.
Set an Objective and Know Your Audience
You could be having a panel for a number of reasons, at a number of venues: exploring a specific field or technical topic, promoting a university or company, etc. In all of these cases, your goal should be to keep the discussion as specific as possible to the panelists’ experience, while achieving your broader objective. It helps to write it down!
Here’s what I wrote:
Goals for the panel: - showcase excellent women (students, alumnae, faculty) at Cooper Union - showcase engineering degree programs at Cooper Union - encourage panel attendees to apply to Cooper and to pursue STEM careers by showing that STEM is a valuable and innovative field
Knowing your audience will help you determine which topics to cover. Our audience was made up of high school students who were considering applying to Cooper Union or another engineering school. It’s worth noting that what matters to high school students is different from what matters to me now as a college student. Overall I chose to cover: academics (focused on the fact we are a teaching college), research, SWE, other extracurricular activities, and jobs/internships.
Know Your Panelists
Knowing your panelists will allow you to be specific to their experiences. To achieve this, I spent a few minutes looking through each person’s LinkedIn, faculty website, personal website, publications, etc. to ensure I had the most up to date information, and collected this data in a table. I then matched the topics of interest and objectives to each person’s experience and created a list I called “avenues to explore”. This helped me draft a list of more specific questions that were thoughtful and that I believed would deliver interesting answers and spark discussion. I also sent out the questions ahead of time so panelists could formulate responses more easily. Here are some examples, below: (note that directed questions to certain people or groups with those experiences!)
Avenues to explore: - Why did you come to Cooper? What did you learn since you have come here? Why have you stayed? What kind of engineering background did you have? - what was the transition to Cooper like? Associated questions: - How did you find out about Cooper and why did you choose to attend? What have you learned since you've come here that you wish you had known? - Follow up to our sophomore: what's the biggest challenge you had when adjusting to Cooper? What resources and people made it easier to adapt? - Something special about Cooper Union is that we're an undergraduate-focused institution. - For students, can you talk about how Cooper being a teaching college has impacted advising and mentorship for you? - For professors, how is teaching at Cooper different than another, larger institution? What is valuable to you about our model?
You’re thinking — did you ask about being a woman in STEM at all? Yes, I did: because this was a panel of women, I wanted to showcase their experiences as women in engineering. I feel that simply showcasing excellent women in engineering is already powerful, but I also asked about what being a member of SWE meant to our panelists and the opportunities they’ve accessed. Here are the questions I used, in case you want to steal them:
- To students: what does your involvement in SWE mean to you? How has it been a meaningful part of your Cooper experience and what kinds of opportunities has it given you? - To professors: How has SWE at Cooper influenced your teaching / pedagogy? What does it mean to be a mentor to female students?
This worked really well - our students had a lot to say about their favourite aspects of the SWE community, events they’ve enjoyed, and how it has helped them develop as engineers, while professors spoke to SWE’s presence on campus and the importance of mentorship from a faculty perspective. Taken together, their answers showed prospective students that they would be supported both by their peers and by their professors in an academic, professional, and social setting. These questions were far more effective than “what is it like to be a woman in engineering?”!
Panel Time: Connect the Answers and Questions
When it was time for the panel, I pulled up my list of questions and a short introduction prepared, and we were off! I didn’t want the panel to feel just like a list of questions, or rehearsed and monotone rather than a conversation. In general, I have a tendency of listening to respond rather than listening actively — although I’m working on this in my personal life, it was an asset here. While my panelists were speaking, I was thinking of a way to connect themes in their answers to my own experiences, and the next question. Because I didn’t know their answers, this made everything more fluid.
It’s also important to recalibrate in real time. The representative from Admissions reminded me to keep track of the time, and asked me to direct questions to certain students who he felt would have good insights. I wasn’t able to end with the question I wanted to (“tell me about a time at Cooper you felt like you were part of a community”), but having that question as a bit of a buffer meant we could still hit the most important topics and still have time for Q&A.
Pick Good Questions from Q&A
I was woefully unprepared for the barrage of questions at the end of the panel! We asked attendees to type their question into the Zoom chat box, so this might not be a problem in in-person panels where you call on people. It did become a bit chaotic - panelists started picking questions to answer themselves and I don’t feel we devoted enough time to more interesting questions that could be answered by everyone. There were a lot of technical admissions and factual questions that could be answered on our website (“Is Cooper still free?” “Do I need to submit my FAFSA?” “What classes should I take?”, in order: no, it’s helpful if you do, and the highest-level math and science courses you have access to). Although we had Admissions staff on the call, it would have been more fruitful to pick one or two interesting questions and go in depth, perhaps by asking panelists to refrain from checking the chat, and devoting more time to individual questions by asking for responses from multiple people.
As my sister, an attendee, put it, “it’s not interesting to discuss whether Cooper is fully or half free when you have such incredible women at your disposal.” It would have been far more valuable to answer questions like “what’s the most frustrating project you’ve worked on, or a time that things didn’t work as expected?” I think that’s a great way to set expectations for young engineers - not everything will work all the time and that’s to be expected, and people you look up to have had their fair share of failed projects.
Overall, the feedback was quite positive! The Admissions staff and professors told me we did a great job of representing Cooper Union and showcasing the programs and people we have here. My sister, an applicant, said it was very interesting and gave lots of compelling reasons to apply. I was really happy to hear that folks felt like it went well: I love Cooper, and this was my first time moderating a panel. Preparation is everything!
To sum up my tips:
- set objectives
- get to know your panelists
- ask questions that are valuable and will spark discussion
- listen such as to connect from topic to topic
- manage q&a by directing questions to specific people (because you know your panelists)