Two Perspectives on Celebrating Women in Statistics


For three days in mid-May, approximately 300 women statisticians and biostatisticians from business, industry, pharma, academia, and government came to Cary, North Carolina, to participate in the inaugural Women in Statistics Conference: Know Your Power.

The conference was designed to celebrate women in statistics, but more importantly, it served to educate them. Women celebrated each other’s success throughout the many career paths in statistics. They also educated one another in ways beyond simple “success” in a career. While many came wondering exactly what to expect, all left pleased they had come and looking forward to the next Women in Statistics Conference.

The seed for the conference was planted nearly 20 years ago when Dalene Stangl, one of the key organizers, saw an advertisement for the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. The website for that conference shows thousands of women participating in activities targeted at women whose chosen career path is in computing. As Dalene put it, she had a good case of “conference envy,” and decided it was time for women in statistics to have a similar experience. She pulled together a team of women who crafted a three-day event that enticed others to participate.

During the conference, ASA Past President Sally Morton said she purchased her shoes before writing her ASA presidential inaugural speech. We all laughed and understood completely. The personal stories inspired the crowd, making the path to leadership seem more easily attainable.

The first day began with a challenge that concluded as a testament to the determination of the attendees. Thunderstorms rolled through Cary and lightning caused a power outage for nearly two hours. Alicia Carriquiry gave a talk titled “Building a Professional Network: Why? How? When?” during the blackout using her battery-operated laptop. When the floor opened for questions, the women raised their lit cell phones instead of their hands to be seen.

Grace Wahba (University of Wisconsin) shares her “Ah Ha Moments” with the audience.

Grace Wahba (University of Wisconsin) shares her “Ah Ha Moments” with the audience.

Potentially mundane meal times were designed to be constructive, positive experiences. Lunch was served in the venue’s large atrium, which offered time for more discussion.

Sign-up sheets for informal dinner groups were available upon arrival. Any woman who bothered to get out of bed a little earlier than she may have wanted could attend a networking breakfast. All were rewarded by renewing an old friendship, making a new friend, finding a younger woman to mentor, or gaining insight from a more experienced one. Women seemed to enjoy hearing other’s experiences.

Women on varying career paths in statistics came to the conference from all over the United States. Their levels of experience ranged from undergraduate students majoring in statistics to presidents and past presidents of the American Statistical Association to those who had long been officially retired, but remained active in their careers.

The conference program included a variety of topics. For women still working on their educations, topics included surviving graduate school, answering tricky interview questions, choosing the right career path, and the value of internships. Women beginning their careers were able to participate in discussions about addressing the two-body problem and trailing spouses, balancing their contributions, creating career flexibility, growing their research program, preparing for promotion in academia, and negotiating their worth. Those women in the midst of their careers enjoyed sessions about what to do after tenure, taking on leadership roles while keeping research vibrant, and getting the most out of mentoring. Everyone benefitted from sessions about various venues for professional networking, the role of professional societies, research and funding opportunities, editorial roles, and managing career and family.

The general audience talks and panel discussions were presented by highly reputed women statisticians. The interactive session by Janet Bickel provided a clear understanding of the forces in play that keep women from fully recognizing their potential and why women have a harder time using their voices effectively.

Lynne Billard gave a historical account of contributions of early women pioneers and trailblazers in the development of statistics.

Grace Wahba shared some of her favorite times during her research career, reminiscing about the “serendipitous interactions with colleagues and students that provided a solution (‘the ah-ha moment’) to some interesting problems.”

Sallie Keller offered insight into some of the unforeseeable challenges she has encountered in leadership.

A panel discussion led by Francesca Dominici and titled, “Why Can’t Women Have It All?” allowed five women from business and academia to share their experiences trying to balance career and family while offering options, opinions, and a lot to ponder.

Another panel consisted of past ASA presidents Mary Ellen Bock, Lynne Billard, and Sallie Keller and ASA President-elect (2016) Jessica Utts. Many were amazed to learn that even these women experienced “imposter syndrome”—that feeling they just didn’t fit in. Many admitted to an “Are you sure?’’ reaction when asked to run for presidential candidate.

The conference was not an “I am woman, hear me roar” or “woe is me” gathering. There was no man-bashing, no complaining. It was a meeting during which women came together to celebrate how far they have come, share common experiences, help those just beginning, and reminisce about from where they came. The environment was uniquely supportive, tailored for the challenges women face. It was an entertaining, uplifting, reaffirming event that acknowledged the achievements women have accomplished. The next Women in Statistics Conference is scheduled for 2016.

Two Perspectives

The Professor – Jane Harvill

As an academic statistician who has been newly promoted to professor and is active in service to the statistics profession, I hesitantly decided to attend the Women in Statistics Conference. I’ve been to conferences for women that were less-than-positive experiences, so I have shied away from them for many years. I also was expecting to be a little bored. Having come far in my career, I have learned how to manage the conflict between raising a family and having a career, dealt with the two-body problem, and navigated tenure. I was not looking forward to going to the conference, but I am so glad I did.

The main impetus for me to attend was to set a good example for the female graduate students in our department at Baylor University. I encouraged three students to apply for a travel award and all three received support to attend the conference.

Helen Powell and Jenna Krall of John Hopkins University play superhero with their conference posters.

Helen Powell and Jenna Krall of John Hopkins University play superhero with their conference posters.

The large sessions with Grace Wahba and Lynne Billard were incredibly interesting. Billard’s history session left me pondering how different professional women’s lives were only 50 years ago and celebrating how far women have advanced.

The discussion panel of ASA past presidents left me smiling. To hear that some of these women—who have it all together and who are so well-reputed in our field—had the thought, “Are you sure?’’ when asked to run for ASA president was reassuring. They wonder if they’re really up to the task, just as I do.

Likewise, to learn they also had experienced “imposter syndrome’’ was eye-opening. I can’t count the times I felt like the odd duck in the room or hallway. It’s nothing any of my colleagues have done. It just is. So I came away from the conference realizing I wasn’t the only one who wasn’t sure of herself. That realization actually resulted in feeling more confident.

I enjoyed the conference immensely and came away with so much more than I expected. It was a positive, upbeat, informative, and restorative experience. Learning so much and watching my graduate students learn so much was wonderful. I left so impressed with the positive impact of the event that I hope to be involved in planning the next one in 2016. I am eager to attend accompanied by another set of women graduate students.

The Graduate Student – Kristen Tecson

I am thrilled that the Women in Statistics Conference exists and that I was able to participate in its inaugural event. In the opening remarks, Dalene Stangl explained that the conference was born out of “conference envy’’ and thousands of subsequent (wo)man hours. The hard work of the committee members was apparent from the pre-conference correspondence and website font all the way to the flowers on the tables at the awards dinner.

Upon arrival at the registration desk, my party was welcomed warmly with a smile. Throughout the activities of the first day, I picked up murmurs regarding how visibly happy and enthusiastic the organizers and attendees were and how different the environment of this conference felt compared to others.

Little did we know that the weather would soon make this conference’s environment even more memorable. Due to storms in Cary, North Carolina, the hotel lost power for 1–2 hours on the first day, which happened during afternoon breakout sessions. Instead of inhibiting the speaker’s presentation, Alicia Carriquiry continued her well-rehearsed speech in the dark by the light of her laptop and was able to command the attention of the room, even with so many additional opportunities for distraction. At the end of her session, attendees waved cell phones instead of raising hands to ask questions. The darkness even seemed to encourage more women to ask questions than normal—maybe more conferences should be held in the dark. I will never forget the admirable poise or sense of humor of the presenter in those unexpected moments.

Thumbing through the program between sessions quickly revealed early-morning networking breakfasts. Considering I lost an hour of sleep by changing time zones, I instantly worried I would not be chipper enough to maintain pleasant conversation. Those worries vanished when the alarm clock sounded because I felt energized from the buzz of the conference and I was excited about who I would meet over breakfast.

I enjoyed talking with the accomplished women. I especially appreciated hearing the different types of experiences, which ranged from those of undergraduates to active retirees from all three major sectors of employment. Regardless of the age or experience of the women I talked to, it was clear this conference served to elevate and celebrate the careers of women, but it never did so at the expense of men.

During the panel of ASA presidents, the attention in the room was particularly fixed on the presenters. It was an interesting experience to learn that the names I heard while studying in graduate school were associated with real women, and we were all in the same room. It is difficult to describe how truly awesome it was to witness these four impressive women share their experiences. What I found most inspiring was that as impressive as they were, they were even more humble.

Many of the presidents admitted to an “Are you sure?’’ reaction when asked to run for presidential candidacy. While perhaps not on as large a scale, that reaction was a common theme mentioned among the attendees.

Sally Morton shared with the crowd that she purchased her shoes before writing her ASA presidential inauguration speech.

At the close of the conference, all attendees entered the large, well-decorated banquet room to enjoy the beautiful work of Wendy Scott & Associates, Inc. The music from the Pete Joyner Quartet was a pleasant addition to the background for conversing with new friends. In the final hours, everyone was fed well, celebrated, and encouraged.

The awards dinner was the perfect send-off. Dalene, Susmita, Lynn, Merlise, and their “crew” created the most uniquely supportive environment that I have ever been part of. The event fostered lively conversation and the ability to learn and share with like-minded women. It far exceeded my expectations and has already bettered my career and personal life.

I left Cary feeling energized, empowered, and confident. Other than pursuing my graduate degree in statistics, attending this conference may prove to be the most beneficial action for my career.

Further Reading

Celebrating Women in Statistics. Conference information can be found here, along with a link to a YouTube presentation of photos and comments by participants.

Committee on Women in Statistics

The Caucus for Women in Statistics

The Association for Women in Mathematics

Committee on Women in Statistics, International Statistical Institute

The Joint Committee on Women in Mathematical Sciences

About the Authors

Jane Harvill is a tenured professor in the department of statistical science at Baylor University. Her primary research interests are in semiparametric methods for nonlinear vector time series. She is the current president of the Southern Regional Council on Statistics and the recent recipient of the H.O. Hartley Award from the department of statistics at Texas A&M University.

Kristen Tecson is a PhD candidate in statistics from Baylor University. Her research interests include investigating properties of order-constrained models using Bayesian methods. She is working as an intern for Baylor Scott & White as she completes her dissertation.

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