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The 12th Annual Stanford Women Winter Welcome

by Ellen Merrick Petrill
BS ’77, MS ’78, Mechanical Engineering; Chair, Cap and Gown Stanford Women Winter Welcome Committee

January 30, 2017

What is the Stanford Women Welcome? It’s an event hosted by Cap and Gown to celebrate the community of Stanford women. The event welcomes the newest members of the community: undergraduate students, especially freshmen and sophomores. Cap and Gown was formed in 1905 to bring together Stanford women. Just as this organization of women gathered together 112 years ago, Cap and Gown brought Stanford women together again on January 23, 2017.

Why do we gather women together? Because we have much to learn from each other.  In fact, I learned something from Stanford women a dozen years ago when I was 50: I learned that what I think – and what other women think – is different from what men think in the same situation.

This is a HUGE generalization. But please indulge me.

Let’s go back in time for a moment. Twelve years ago, Cap and Gown met with the most powerful women on campus and brainstormed how Cap and Gown could support women at Stanford. The powerful women were Sharon Long, Dean of Humanities and Sciences, Pam Matson, Dean of Earth Sciences, Julie Lythcott-Haims, Dean of Freshmen, and Laura Harrison, Director of the Women’s Community Center. Sharon Long told a story to illustrate an issue her school faced — losing women from science majors.

Here’s the story: A woman gets a 50% on a chemistry midterm. She thinks “OMG! I’m not cut out for this major!  I’m not good enough!” A man gets a 50% on the same chemistry midterm. He thinks “There is something wrong with this test!”

The women blames herself. The man blames the test. Now that’s different thinking!

That midterm story was my story. I got 50% on my first midterm at Stanford. It was a shock, and I felt inadequate. Years later, at the age of 50, a credible woman told me that I was not the only one to feel inadequate. Sharon Long’s story made me feel enlightened and more free. If many of us feel inadequate, it can’t be true; we all can’t be inadequate. It’s just our thinking.

Here are more examples of how women think differently from men: Men raise their hands even if they don’t fully know the answer. Women feel they need to know everything to raise their hands to answer or even to ask questions. In a group discussion, when a woman makes a good point, it is often not recognized. When a man makes the same point, it is repeated and gets recognition. Unconscious bias? Probably. Certainly different thinking. Again, these are generalizations.

Cap and Gown member Dr. Shari Kuchenbecker conducted research on our own Cap and Gown colleagues and found that Cap and Gown women are extremely conscientious. Maybe so much so that we judge ourselves too harshly.

These examples and research findings are why we created the Stanford Women Winter Welcome:  to share stories that may help young women see opportunities and to recognize what might get in the way of success. We chose Winter Quarter, because for freshmen, it’s past the first thrill of being at Stanford. Perhaps first quarter grades were not as expected or you’re not sure what your major should be. In any case, wouldn’t it feel nice to be supported by other women?

After that 50% midterm in Chemistry freshman year, I realized this was not high school anymore. I didn’t have a network of women to turn to. I did have Mom and Dad – by phone.  I got a tutor, worked my tail off, and did well on the final exam. I realized later that I didn’t need that tutor. Instead, I just needed to work harder. And I did! I got a C in the course, but I thought it should have been a B.  It was my thinking— that it was my fault —  and my fear of bothering a professor kept me from meeting with him which may have led to a B, or not. In any case, I went on to major in – not Chemistry – but Mechanical Engineering, which led to an exciting career in energy research. That Chemistry C did not hold me back.

At the Winter Welcome, Stanford women meet, encourage, and learn from each other. We help each other to think like winners every day.  

This year’s event was especially poignant. The 2017 Winter Welcome welcomed Dr. Margot Gerritson, who hails from the Netherlands, where she earned her Masters of Science from Delft University of Technology in Applied Mathematics. Margot came to Stanford for her PhD in Scientific Computing and Computational Mathematics. Now Margot is a professor in computational mathematics in energy resources engineering in the School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences. Margot and her colleagues develop algorithms and computer tools to simulate natural processes and optimize engineering processes.  An accomplished academic, Margot is also Director of the Institute for Computational Mathematics and Engineering. On top of that, she’s Senior Associate Dean of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences.

As a leader, Margot gets called on frequently by Stanford for leadership roles, such as chairing Stanford’s Task Force on Women In Leadership at Stanford, convened by Provost John Etchemendy. The task force found that to help move Stanford toward fully inclusive leadership, the university should provide training, networking opportunities and mentorship for aspiring as well as newly appointed leaders. These are what we are doing here tonight.

In her talk, “Walking Fine Lines: How to find and keep a healthy balance and positive perspective as a woman in a male-dominated field,” Margot spoke and told of true situations that would have thrown many of us. She fired back answers to surprising comments by men she had encountered that gave us confidence that we can do it too. Margot debunked theories like needing an innate ability to do math in order to succeed and that there is a limit to what you can learn and do. These are negative thoughts that feed “Imposter Syndrome,” a sense that one doesn’t belong because one isn’t good enough. Margot admitted to having had these thoughts.  However, she has learned to push them out of her mind and remind herself, “Don’t believe everything you think.” This mantra has been so helpful that she’s made this into her own bumper sticker.

Helping our community of Stanford women be all that they can be will continue to be important in the years to come. Hearing stories from Stanford women adds to the tapestry of knowledge and experiences we learn from each other. Cap and Gown continues to be committed to this important work and will continue to reach out to you all for your support.

We thank our sponsors, without whom we would not be able to gather here. Each of them want all the members of the Stanford community of women to flourish. Our sponsors are the Schools of Humanities and Sciences, Earth, Energy, and Environmental Sciences and Engineering, WISE Ventures, Undergraduate Advising and Research, Program in Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies, The Clayman Institute for Gender Studies, and the Women’s Community Center.

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