When Mary Jane Daly, MCP ’83, was a graduate student at MIT, women made up just 19% of the grad student population on campus. And the figures for undergrads were only marginally better, with women accounting for just 23%. So Daly knows firsthand the value of establishing a network of female mentors, advisors, and friends—and said yes when asked to serve as the new president of the Association of MIT Alumnae (AMITA), whose goal is to foster greater participation and inclusion for women at the Institute.
“Women have to address many systemic, material, and cultural challenges to get an even playing field,” says Daly, who began her two-year term as president in July. “I believe that cultivating a strong network of MIT women graduates can serve as a supportive resource and a voice for individual women, MIT alumnae, and the wider society.”
As the number of women at MIT—and therefore of alumnae—increases, so too does the capacity for groups like AMITA (and MIT itself) to make a positive impact, she says. While women account for just 23% of the 137,765 living alumni, they now make up 39% of the student population, including 46% of undergraduates and 35% of graduate students. Those statistics represent significant progress in bringing women to MIT since Daly’s student days, but there’s still plenty of work to be done to make an even playing field possible on campus and beyond.
Daly, a city planner and expert in community engagement, earned her master’s and later consulted for a range of public, private, and nonprofit clients. That MIT experience has informed her work as professional-development director and lecturer in the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning, where for the past 18 years she has integrated alumni engagement as a key component in the successful program she established.
“Research shows that the value of networks to women promotes their presence in leadership positions as well as advancing careers at all levels,” Daly says.
AMITA has been working to foster community since Ellen Swallow Richards, Class of 1873, founded the organization in 1899 as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Women’s Association (MITWA). The first female student and instructor at MIT, Richards started the group to encourage women to pursue careers in math and science and to help female MIT students find housing. (The organization was renamed the Association of MIT Alumnae in 1964.)
Today, AMITA hosts a range of programs to support female students and alumnae; it encourages STEM education among female high school students while supporting scholarships and other educational efforts. The group awards two undergraduate scholarships, annually honors a female student for exceptional achievement, and sponsors the Ellen Swallow Richards professorship at MIT.
“Looking ahead, the important question is ‘What does it mean to be AMITA in the 21st century?’” Daly says, adding that the group launched a strategic planning process to develop an agenda for the next five years. “Some priorities in support of extending our reach and impact include celebrating our legacy, expanding research in the area of alumnae outcomes, growing membership, developing relevant programming, and creating an effective communications strategy.”
Since taking office, Daly has been approached by women across the country interested in forming local AMITA groups. She views it as a sign that timing is right to expand the AMITA network globally.
“With more women in leadership positions, and more women in the workplace, there is an increased chance that the world of work can be shaped and reshaped in ways that are more conducive to supporting balanced, healthy lives for women, men, families, and society,” she says. “I feel that AMITA can play a meaningful role.”
Making time to mentor
AMITA is one of multiple organizations within the MIT community advancing alumnae connections and growth. And many alumnae are taking it upon themselves to build such connections one to one.
“Most MIT people are pretty passionate about mentoring,” says Cait Crawford ’91, who holds the title of distinguished engineer at IBM. “As a woman, you learn that nobody else is going to fix this problem but us. It’s really up to women to get more women into technology, and the best way to do that is through mentoring.”
As Crawford advanced in her career at IBM—where she has worked for 22 years—she consciously carved out time for formal mentorship, helping young women, including many young moms, try to figure out how to balance career and children. A mother of three herself, she also says that observing her daughter’s experience in high school motivated her to get more involved.
“My daughter had always been interested in math and science,” she says, “but as she started to go through high school, I noticed subtle changes in confidence, and it started to hit me—this need to help young women navigate the process.” Since then, Crawford has established mentorship relationships with several MIT alumnae and current students, and she is also on the MIT Alumni Advisors Hub—an MIT Alumni Association online platform that lets alumni offer quick advice to students and other alumni on navigating MIT and planning their future.
“There’s nothing like drinking from the MIT firehose,” says Crawford, “and I just see it as part of what I can do to give back to keep mentoring students, alumnae, anyone. When you graduate from MIT, they tell you that you now carry this great responsibility. For me, it wasn’t just having some great research career or starting a company; it meant having some sort of community and societal impact as well.”
One relationship that has been particularly rewarding for Crawford is mentoring a fellow IBM research scientist, Aisha Naima Walcott-Bryant, SM ’04, PhD ’11. Walcott-Bryant is working to make an impact in Africa using AI, all while raising two young children. “Any helpful advice that I have given her is paid back in how much she inspires me to continue to think about how to use technology for social good,” says Crawford, who adds that in three years of mentorship, they have become close friends and have even written patents together. “Through Aisha, I also know that my influence will live on to help the next generation through her impact,” she says.
Jazlyn Carvajal ’03 says her MIT experience inspired her to encourage fellow Latinas to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math. According to the National Science Foundation, Latinas held only 2% of science and engineering positions in 2015. Carvajal has made it her mission to improve that statistic, cofounding Latinas in STEM in 2013 alongside Diana Albarrán Chicas ’03, Veronica Garcia ’02, Luz Rivas ’95, and Noramay Cadena ’03, MBA ’11. In addition, several alumnae have served on its board, including Maribel Gomez Mendoza ’02, Kimberly S. Gonzales ’11, Desiree Lin Ramirez ’02, Cecilia Fernandez ’04, and Madeline Salazar ’13.
The organization, which was named California nonprofit of the year in 2017, hosts academic conferences, partners with colleges across the US, assists with grants, and provides mentoring services. Carvajal—a successful construction project manager and entrepreneur who cofounded SOYD, a business consulting firm, in 2014—values the perseverance that she learned at MIT and hopes to teach the same values to a younger generation.
“There are kids out there just like us: first-generation Americans, getting ready to go to college. I feel like our stories can really inspire,” says Carvajal, president emeritus of the MIT Club of Northern New Jersey.
“There are so many young women that have the support at home, the math and science ability to succeed, but simply don’t have a blueprint on how to get there,” she says. “Latinas in STEM was created to address these issues via education for parents on the process, creating a STEM support community for Latinas seeking to enter these fields, and continuing that support once they graduate.”