It is no secret that historically, the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields have struggled with diverse integration and representation of minority groups. Many argue that such challenges to inclusivity are stifling the field's potential and, as a result, preventing many people from engaging in what can be rewarding professional or personal pursuits. But we are moving in the right direction. In 2020, for example, the number of women in STEM board positions increased by 18% globally. However, young girls need STEM role models to inspire them for this to continue.
An important part of supporting this movement is changing the conversation and raising awareness of inherent biases, stereotypes, or discrimination, which can often discourage people from pursuing their passions. As a result, the theme of International Women’s Day 2022 is #BreakTheBias. This movement, which focuses specifically on gender inequality, advocates for a gender-equal world that values and celebrates difference.
To participate in this year's conversation, we wanted to highlight one of Cognitive's amazing women: Catherine Cha, a Graphic Design Co-op Student on the UX & UI team. Catherine's work at Cognitive involved refreshing our graphics by curating a more diverse stock photo selection as well as bringing in a more approachable and relatable feel with new character and UX/UI illustrations. Catherine has always preferred digital to other types of art. It offers techniques, colours, movement, lighting, and other features that are not possible on physical paper. She hopes to use her creativity to help highlight women and other minority groups in STEM and, ultimately, break the bias.
What is your experience working in STEM?
Cognitive was my first significant experience in STEM. While my high school's arts and culture specialist program was both unique and rewarding, my exposure to other fields was quite limited. Overall, working in STEM has taught me that graphic design serves as a bridge between the consumer and the engineering/product team; it is the visible element that everyone is familiar with. It is critical, especially in technology, to help explain things in simple terms and engage consumers of all backgrounds.
Why is proper representation (especially in STEM) so important to you?
Proper representation in STEM is important to me because the most well-known faces in the industry are not very diverse and are often perceived as the sole representatives of the field. It can be extremely isolating then for those who do not see themselves in the field. I want the representatives of STEM to reflect the people we are trying to help and design for. We need to strive towards being more accepting and inclusive of others to break free of the biases that discriminatory structures in our society impose on us. Everyone is interested in STEM, and all must be represented by role models to whom they can relate. It is extremely discouraging for young girls to hear about women who are struggling for visibility and equality in the field. I want to contribute to the creation of a welcoming environment so that others will feel comfortable participating in STEM. I want to challenge more traditional ways of thinking so that we can respect everyone, not just those we know.
How have you been trying to bring your views on breaking bias into your role at Cognitive?
My role at Cognitive has been to reimagine our imagery and to participate in critical discussions about Cognitive's current and future brand direction. It's great to be part of a team where I can raise important concerns about bias, representation, and inclusion. I believe that having an open forum where new ideas can be freely discussed without fear is what is most important to me on any team. I want to help reinforce the idea that inclusion should be at the top of a company's priority list, not for brownie points, but because diversity reflects reality. A good way to ensure this is to engage in constructive internal dialogue and be honest about your design intentions.
What have you learned through your role?
From a practical standpoint, I've discovered that there are vast differences between industries, even within STEM. When creating visuals for any field, you must be aware of current standards and conversations and learn how to contribute to them in novel and exciting ways. I've learned, in particular, how to present technical knowledge in a more easily understood medium. This concept is especially important for Cognitive's graphics team because WiFi Sensing is not well understood by those outside of the telecommunications or wireless industries. Art is unique in its ability to visualize technology that would otherwise be difficult to understand if only read or heard about. Finally, I've been fortunate to work with several strong female role models. I've had the opportunity to learn from and listen to their experiences, which I hope will shape my own academic and professional achievements. They have taught me that if they can succeed in STEM, so can I. And perhaps I can serve as a role model for others.
What would be your advice for others looking to break the bias?
Don't be afraid to have those hard conversations. Speaking up for what you believe in is a big part of breaking the bias. Just because no one is saying it, does not mean that no one is thinking about it. The more people who participate in these conversations, the closer we will be to normalizing them. You may be shut down, but that does not mean you will always be shut down. Try again! You never know if the next time will be the one. And if it is, own it.
What does International Women's Day mean to you?
It’s been a long journey for society to be much more inclusive and to challenge traditional ways of thinking about gender. I do think things like International Women’s Day help facilitate conversations about representation and diversity. After all, we are more likely to find solutions if we keep these issues at the forefront of our minds. As with initiatives like this, it's important to remember that celebrating women should be about all women, not just an idealized version. That means we should be talking about and uplifting women of colour, women with disabilities, women of all ages, women from the LGBTQ+ community, and extending that towards feminine non-binary people.
Why did you choose Cognitive?
During my co-op, I realized how important company culture was to me. When I met with Cognitive people during the interview process, I was struck by their encouraging and friendly demeanor, particularly when it came to bringing in more representation and diversity. Unfortunately, I was turned down when I attempted to express my views on inclusion in previous roles. But, with Cognitive, I felt confident in putting forward my ideas in team meetings because I knew they would be considered. In addition, as a newer and smaller company, I get to work with ambitious, talented minds on collaborative and diverse teams. What really mattered to me was an environment in which I could push the envelope a little, develop my skills, and begin to see the diversity I desired in STEM.