Women’s History Month Panel Empowers Women in Management and STEM

Women’s History Month, celebrated every March, recognizes and honors the contributions of women to our history, society and culture — and more importantly, gives rise to conversations and initiatives that work to make the future brighter and opportunities more pervasive for women around the world.

On March 5, Syracuse University’s Martin J. Whitman School of Management hosted a panel, discussing how to close the gender gap for women in management and STEM-related fields. The panel, moderated by Jamie Vinick ’20, featured three panelists: Michele Wheatly, special advisor to the Chancellor; Shobha Bhatia, professor of civil and environmental engineering and WISE co-director; and Fatma Sonmez-Leopold, assistant teaching professor of finance.

Vinick kicked off the panel by referencing a quote from Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code, who said, “You cannot be what you cannot see.” Given that the management and STEM fields have been and still are dominated by men, Vinick asked what it was like to enter and persevere to build a career in an environment where there was barely anyone who looked like you.

Bhatia shared that when she went to college to study engineering, she was one of three women out of 110 men, but that all three of the women would sit in the front row of the classroom and wouldn’t look behind them.

Her support system at the time may only have consisted of two other women, but Bhatia stressed the importance of building a circle of allies and advisors throughout your professional career. “It’s not that difficult, but you have to look for them,” Bhatia shared. “I always try to find people I can talk to. It doesn’t have to be in your department, it doesn’t have to be in your program.” At Syracuse University, the first allies she found were in the Women and Gender Studies program.

Vinick then brought up that Sonmez-Leopold was the only female finance professor that she’s had in Whitman and she had changed all of her perceptions of what a so-called traditional woman in business had to be — her combination of fun, colorful outfits and fluency in finance was inspiring to both the men and women in the class.

The panelists were asked how to include men in conversations about addressing potential biases.

Wheatly spoke directly to the men in the audience and emphasized that they have the power to change situations and empower women. She also added that through her son, a young professional, she’s seen that men of this generation seem to understand issues of gender and racial equity — and she remains hopeful that this generation is “going to really change tomorrow.”

Sonmez-Leopold said that these problems persist not just because men don’t pay attention to them, but also because on some level, women think the problem just impacts them. “We kind of think this is an only for women issue,” she said. “It’s not necessarily — it’s a societal issue, it’s a cultural issue, it’s everyone’s issue.” And if you see something, you have to say something, Sonmez-Leopold added. It’s the best way to open people’s minds.

Vinick wrapped up the panel by asking the panelists what advice they had for all the ambitious women in the room. 

Bhatia emphasized the importance of having fun at work and being passionate about what you’re pursuing. That passion will help sustain and grow a career, she shared, and will help prevent burnout. She added that there are so many resources available for young female professionals and to seek out organizations that already exist, referencing WiSE — Women in Science and Engineering — as one such example. 

And Sonmez-Leopold further stressed that Syracuse University has so many resources, and that it’s just up to every individual to make the most of them. When she was growing up in Turkey, the same kind of resources didn’t exist, she said, so everyone in the room is lucky just to have a chance at those opportunities. 

Wheatly added that the women at Syracuse University are doing extraordinary things across the board – winning competitions and prestigious grants – and that she’s hopeful for the future. “Even though the change has been slow, I think it’s going to become exceptional,” she said. “And I think it starts with each and every one of you.”

Learn more about Whitman Women in Business.

Sandhya Iyer