Originally published October 11, 2017.
In recent years efforts to close the gap of female representation in STEM fields have increased worldwide. But for the past decade, the percentage of women with undergraduate degrees in STEM hasn’t changed. It has remained frozen at roughly 37 percent. Digging deeper into the disparity, women earn more than 40% of the degrees in mathematics, however only 18% of women earn degrees in computer science.
Piqued by the further imbalance within the STEM fields, researchers at the University of Washington concluded that the current masculine culture- increasingly stereotyped as consisting of “nerdy male geniuses”- discourages women from participating.
Growing up in a small town in the Middle East, Felora Derakhshani early on recognized these institutional barriers that stood in front of her. But with the constant encouragement of her father, she became an electromechanical engineer, where she worked in the nuclear power industry for over 16 years.
She believes that women should be empowered to participate and thrive in science to negate the stereotype that only men can succeed in STEM. Additionally, she argues that society should aim to have a “pluralistic approach to STEM education that values the diversity [of] individuals regardless of their gender.”
With the lack of women in engineering, comes a lack of role models for women entering the field, which only continues the cycle for female underrepresentation in STEM. And female role models for incoming women are important because they often experience more barriers than their male counterparts.
“I had many barriers as a project manager, and later as an engineering manager. I had to work much harder compared to my male colleagues in order to prove my technical capabilities and my leadership skills.” Derakhshani said.
From that experience, Felora founded ACT Women, a non-profit organization for the empowerment of women to “pursue their passion and realize the outcome they truly desire.” In doing so, she tapped into her longtime dream to mentor women to overcome the duality of identity that they often struggle with.
As someone that had to strengthen her professional skills, negotiation aptitudes and determination during her career as an engineer manager, Felora now focuses on breaking the cycle of female underrepresentation across a variety of fields. Six years ago, Felora founded Crimson Woman to assist professional women and women entrepreneurs to advance their careers through invigorating leadership and entrepreneurship programs, seminars, and workshops.
Recently, Felora joined Tech Ranch, a business incubator for start-ups, as the managing director of its Middle East Operation
“The startup community in the Middle East is still at infancy (depending of course on the country), and there is a huge need to have access to entrepreneurial development training,” Derakhshani said.
Through all of this, Felora remains an active community member by serving on multiple boards. She currently serves as the board president of the United Nations Association chapter in Austin. Beyond her dedication of peace building and conflict resolution, as past board president of Peace Through Commerce and Interfaith Action of Central Texas (iACT), Felora is an advocate of furthering international business education through her role as a member of the Center’s advisory board.
Previously referred to as CIBER, Felora was proactive in the center’s transformation to become the Center for Global Business. With the new name, came new priorities. Serving on the Programs Committee, Felora and other advisory board members strategically reviewed existing programs supported by the Center to identify those that needed more focus or expansion.
One of the programs expanded since then has been the Global Business Leadership Institute (GBLI). GBLI is a summer program where students from UT and other worldwide top-ranked universities collaborate and compete in the international marketplace. In addition to cultural excursions and company visits, guest speakers are invited to provide further insight on global business.
This year, through her talk entitled Global Entrepreneurship and Leadership, Felora discussed the advantages of businesses being global, and what she refers to as the need for “entrepreneurial culture”.
In conjunction with her overarching goal to expand and improve education, Felora also took part in the Hemispheres Summer Institute, an annual 4-day workshop for K-12 teachers.
The theme of this year’s talk was how to combine STEM and social studies in the classroom. In her presentation, Developing Future Global Innovators Using the 70-20-10 Leadership Model, Felora addressed a NAEP report that concluded that 40% of graduating seniors are not college or career ready.
Providing a couple of case studies, Felora advocates an education system that not only improves the knowledge and critical thinking skills of young adults, but also their sense of “good citizenship” in which they become contributing members of their community.
Felora undeniably believes that a forward-thinking attitude is the impetus that would close the gap of female representation in STEM fields and leadership roles. In her latest book titled “The CODE- How to Unlock Your Inner Genius for a Life of Equanimity”, to be published in November 2017, she advocates:
“What you choose to concentrate on and cultivate drives either your success or your failure.”
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