Marking the "first woman" to do something shouldn't really be cause for celebration in 2022, says Meena Harris. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't be talking up phenomenal women doing remarkable things.
That's the story behind In Her Element, a 30-minute documentary created by Reese Witherspoon's Hello Sunshine media company and Hewlett Packard Enterprise that highlights the accomplishments of three women who've succeeded, in part, because of their ability to leverage technology. It's directed by Emmy winner Kate Kunath.
"What [the film] is about is showing that, making it visible, elevating it on screen and really diving into their individual stories. And hopefully inspiring both women and the next generation of girls to think about opportunities and pursuing their passions through technology," says Harris, a lawyer, author and activist who serves as narrator, interviewer and executive producer.
Even with efforts to increase diversity and inclusion, the technology industry remains a male-dominated field. At large global technology firms, women account for about 33% of the workforce in 2022, according to Deloitte Global. Women make up just 28% of the workforce in science, technology, math and engineering, with parents and teachers continuing to underestimate girls' math abilities starting as early as preschool, according to the American Association of University Women. Women continue to cite pay inequity, inflexible work hours and a lack of equity in opportunities and professional development. The pandemic has also exacerbated the challenges women face, prompting more women than men to exit jobs across all industries.
In In Her Element, now available to stream at HPE.com and on services including Netflix, Amazon Prime and Apple TV, we learn about women like Aisha Bowe, once a struggling high school student whose guidance counselor advised her to pursue a career as a cosmetologist. Instead, she worked to become an engineer and ended up as a NASA rocket scientist.
While at NASA, she visited schools to talk about her work but found that students had a hard time believing a Black woman could be an engineer.
"I used to do this activity where I asked them to draw what an engineer looked like after I got done telling them I was one. They never reached for a brown crayon. They almost always drew a white man in a lab coat," she recalls. "If I was going to be a role model, I had to think about how I wanted to show up in the world."
That experience convinced her to start her own company with a goal of figuring out how to "challenge what people think they can do in life." She's now founder and CEO of STEMBoard, an engineering solutions company that aims in part to help inspire kids to pursue a career in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math.
Susie Wolff, a British race car driver, shares how she made history at the 2014 British Grand Prix by becoming the first woman to take part in a Formula 1 race weekend in 22 years. She's now CEO of Venturi Racing and oversees a Formula E team competing in the racing series for all-electric cars.
"There was always a lot of noise around my racing and could a woman make it to Formula 1," Wolff tells Harris. "I was never on a journey to prove what a woman could achieve in the sport. I was simply on my journey -- I wanted to be the best racing driver that I could be."
Wolff started her own project in 2016, FIA Girls on Track, to help make racing more diverse, not just on the track but in all the professions within motorsports.
"It's a little bit of me handing the baton on, making sure the next generation can learn from my mistakes but also benefit from my experience," she says. "We need to get more women entering the sport, from engineers to journalists to mechanics to racing drivers, for the talent pool to increase."
One-third of her team today is female because, she says, she approached recruitment understanding the skills she needed rather than just the job experience. Meanwhile, her focus on electric cars is about racing "with purpose. We're not just racing to create entertainment, but we're racing because we want to make the world more sustainable."
Musician and engineer Laura Escudé, who describes herself as a "huge music technology nerd" and shows off her acoustic electric violin, talks about being a playback engineer for Kanye West, Jay-Z and other artists. Her original music compositions also serve as the soundtrack for In Her Element.
"Growing up, I didn't consider myself being into technology -- I was afraid of it," Escudé says. But in college, she met a friend's boyfriend who was a DJ and became interested in playing her violin over electronic music.
"It was terrible at first, but I started playing violin with a DJ and started recording violin. Pretty soon, I thought, well, I didn't want to have this guy here just so I can perform and play my own violin," she says. "I want to learn how to do it myself."
All three women tell Harris about their desire to encourage and inspire more women. The documentary, released in March to mark Women's History Month, arrives as surveys show that more women plan to leave their jobs or exit the workforce altogether because of continued challenges in equal pay and career advancement and because they feel burnt out after taking on more caretaking during the pandemic.
"We've not solved gender bias," says Harris. "We still have a lot of work to do, and we need to acknowledge that." And that may start, she adds, by telling even more stories about the women who are succeeding today and increase their visibility.
"We know that you can't be what you can't see."