Perspectives

Encouraging more women in quantum: four insights from four women

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Encouraging more women in quantum: four insights from four women

There’s a shift in perspective right now towards women in physics and Quantum may be the discipline that’s exemplifying that shift. We are accepted for our capabilities and are not viewed as rarities.“ – Christa Zoufal, Quantum Machine Learning, IBM Research Europe

Four women making strides in IBM Quantum research share their experiences and give their thoughts on how to encourage more women into careers in Quantum computing:

  • Heike Riel, IBM Fellow, Head Science & Technology and Quantum Lead Europe & Africa, IBM Research
  • Bei Chen, Research Staff Member (Data Science) and Master Inventor, IBM Research Europe
  • Pauline Ollitrault, Quantum Chemistry, IBM Research Europe
  • Christa Zoufal, Quantum Machine Learning, IBM Research Europe

1. Make science cool at school

Heike: The barriers between girls and science start early. As a young teenager, being good at maths is not always seen as a positive thing. At an age when image is all-important, sometimes it’s even cooler to be bad at maths! We need to change mindsets to where success at maths (and physics) is accepted by peers and by girls themselves.

Bei: Some girls don’t want to admit that they love maths – this was the case for me. There’s a fear of being seen as different or nerdy. If a young girl enjoys mathematics, it’s really important to encourage it. We should be teaching young people not only to accept what they are good at but also to be proud of it.

Christa: Teaching physics and maths should involve more fun stuff – lots more experiments and visits to science museums. My young teenage cousin is really good at maths and I try to encourage her to pursue it because to be gifted in natural sciences is very special. It’s a door opener to many great opportunities.

2. Mentoring is vital

Bei: A reflection of IBM’s inclusive culture is the commitment to mentoring women. We devote time to helping promising interns with many aspects of their career development. As a Master Inventor, I work with women to help them develop their patenting profiles. Being mentored by inspiring role models has also helped me in many ways, including practical advice on combining motherhood and a career.

Heike: When I see young female researchers being more hesitant when doing experimental work than their male colleagues or less inclined to take opportunities to show their capabilities, I make it a priority to help them.

3. Building confidence makes a big difference

Heike: One of my early managers and mentor at IBM gave me the same opportunities as my male colleagues, but he also gave me the confidence to seize them. And that confidence has had an enormous impact on my own career growth. Confidence-building and encouragement is rightly at the core of our mentoring culture at IBM Research

Pauline: Building self-confidence is a challenge for some women and hearing others’ experiences at round tables and open discussions can be very helpful. I also appreciate that IBM Research gives us platforms to express ourselves and to promote our work.

Bei: Despite their brilliant capabilities, some young women do not have confidence in themselves. They then fall under the radar when it comes to career opportunities. Other “soft” skills such as presentation skills are very important too. Here’s where a mentor’s encouragement and training can make all the difference.

4. Approach your career with an open mind

Pauline: My advice to any young girl would be not to worry if you don’t have a fixed plan for your future. Instead, take it step-by-step and do the next thing that interests you. Young people change a lot so having a big plan can be too restrictive.  I never knew I was going to have this career – I took small steps and today I am really happy with where I am. 

Heike: I advise women starting at IBM to approach their careers with an open mind. The company offers so many possibilities that if you have a deep technical knowledge and a flexible outlook, you can have an unexpected career that’s fulfilling and successful. For example, when I started at IBM, I never considered the possibility of doing a Ph.D. – that wasn’t a common thing to do in my circle. But at each new step, I sought out new opportunities and a Ph.D. was one of them.

Read more on IBM Quantum Research.

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