A celebration of women in leadership

On Thursday, March 30th, the Development Office along with Student Affairs and Alumni Office held “A Celebration of Women in Leadership” event in Bissinger, as a part of the Week of Women. The event was held to not only discuss women’s leadership at Stevens but also as a way to celebrate the relaunch of the Lore-El Center as a hub for women’s programs for undergraduate women, faculty, staff and alumni.

The event started with a welcome address given by Susan Metz, the Executive Director of Diversity and Inclusion, followed by further remarks by President Farvardin. Both made clear in their speeches the importance of women and their ground-breaking accomplishments at Stevens. Path breakers included the first female professor at Stevens, Emme Fishell, a refugee woman who taught physics at Stevens in the 1940s — a full three decades before women were admitted as students. Another who was mentioned was Beatrice Hicks, who was the first woman engineer to be hired by Western Electric, and both co-founder and first president of the Society of Women Engineers. She attended Stevens for her master’s in Physics.

The highlight of the event, however, was a panel conversation with female alumnae leaders.This panel notably included Martha J. Connolly ’75 M.S. ’75 (Director, Mtech Baltimore and Director of Bio-Entrepreneurship at University of Maryland) who was the first woman admitted to Stevens in 1971. To put that in context — women engineers were almost unheard of in the early 1970s. The year Stevens admitted them, a mere 361 women across the country had earned undergraduate degrees in engineering, and women accounted for less than one percent of the Ph.D. students to receive doctorates in engineering, according to data from the National Science Foundation.

Other panel members included Mary Anne Cannon ’86 (Vice President Commercial Engine Programs at Pratt & Whitney), Suzanne M. D’Addio ’07 (Associate Principal Scientist at Merck), and Laura A. Dorival Paglione ’90 (Director of Strategic Initiatives at ORCID). The panel was moderated by the Chair of the Honor Board and Staff Writer for the Stute Olivia Schreiber.

The panel conversation was casual in nature and littered with humor, profound self-awareness, and wonderful anecdotes of wisdom from all four panelists, who, despite the weight of the issues, carried the topics of conversation lightly.

The conversation started with a great question — what moment what impelled these women to keep going, even in the face of so many challenges?

Suzanne M. D’Addio kicked off the conversation by talking about how she used failure led to success. High school was not great for her, so Stevens was a fresh start. As she put it, you have to take it one day at a time, and you have to put the time and sweat in to get the results.

Martha J. Connolly, who was the first woman admitted to Stevens, gave an unusual response to the same question by choosing not to talk about herself, but rather, someone else who inspired her– her mother. She was an incredible woman, Connolly said, and incredibly smart, too. She told the audience how, during the second World War, her mother joined the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES), the women’s branch of the United States Naval Reserve.

Given that her mother was a schoolteacher, a profession that did not immediately lend itself to transferable job skills, the hiring folks had her mother take a math test on a whim. Her mother ended up scoring the highest in math in the nation and ended up having a long and successful career with the US government, doing work that including research that laid the groundwork for the modern GPS systems.

Connolly also told the audience how her mother passed her love of mathematics to her children, and eventually inspired Connolly to become an engineer. She also joked that her mother would not give them dinner until their math homework was done. They all wanted dinner, so they all became very good at math.

The topic of the panel then shifted to discrimination on the basis of gender. Mary Anne Cannon, who graduated in 1986, related an extraordinary story about a time she faced discrimination based on her gender. During her freshman year, the chemistry professor addressed the class and openly stated that he did not agree with the policy of letting women study engineering at the school. Instead of becoming despondent, Cannon simply redoubled her efforts in the class, determined to prove him wrong and show that women, too, could excel in STEM. She succeeded, getting an A in the notoriously difficult class but also striking up a genuine friendship with the professor who once believed she should not have been there.

When asked about what advice they would give to current female engineers, Suzanne M. D’Addio said to appreciate the nuance of modern day approaches to women’s issues. After all, she argued, the issues important to women are no longer just “women” problems. Issues like the pay gap, paid maternity and paternity leave, and diversity are quickly becoming issues that people, men and women included, are more willing to discuss.

Meanwhile, Laura A. Dorival Paglione advised female students to do something, however small, to get involved with the campus and remain in touch with other women at Stevens.

Martha J. Connolly capped off the discussion with a trite piece of advice to women at Stevens — to stop railing against other women. It doesn’t hurt you to help each other out, she said. There are so few women, and such huge odds against us — it’s better that we stick together.

The closing remarks were given by Marybeth Murphy, the Vice President for Enrollment Management and Student Affairs, and then attendees were free to mingle further. Overall, the event was a highly successful celebration of women at Stevens and timely kickoff to the renovation of the Lor-El Center, which promises more advancements for women at this school for the years to come.

About the Author

Namankita Rana
Passionate about technology, women's issues, art, fashion, and global politics. Though maybe not in that exact order.