Last month, I was honored to attend an extraordinary event: the United State of Women Summit convened by the White House. Since the word “summit” means a pinnacle, this couldn’t have been more appropriate for how I viewed this day and the amazing attendees I was able to share it with.
The United State of Women Summit brought together leaders in all different professional fields – from politics to entertainment, from science to finance. The common thread among all of the participants, however, was easy to find: everyone there wanted to continue to foster and enhance the opportunities for girls and women in whatever endeavors they may choose to pursue.
Over the course of my life, this is one of the issues that I’ve become most passionate about. As a woman in the physical and computer science fields, I am continuously reminded about the disparity of gender and color whenever I attend conferences or look at a list of honors or prizes. While very accomplished and talented women surround me in my more immediate circle of work (the Chandra X-ray Center is led by Dr. Belinda Wilkes, for example), I realize this is too often the exception in STEM fields and not the rule.
The Summit offered me an opportunity to interact with and listen to women who have overcome a litany of obstacles to achieve their spectacular goals (or goals in progress). It provided a forum for incredibly accomplished and confident men who believe in equality and fight for it vigorously alongside their female counterparts.
As I waited in line to go through security for the event, I rather fortuitously had the opportunity to speak with one of the people who helped plan the event. A program coordinator for the Peace Corps, she had hopped on a long flight home from Madagascar in order to make it to the Summit on time.
She was the first of many smart, interesting and dedicated women I would get to meet that day. We spoke at length on the opportunity to share resources and knowledge for such important programs as Let Girls Learn, the First Lady’s initiative supporting education and empowerment for girls worldwide, and particularly through community-led solutions. It’s one of those ambitious programs that our own programs for NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory could fit quite neatly into, and we’ve happily managed to connect again since the event.
Convened to rally high impact groups of dedicated professionals around the issues of gender equality, the summit focused on six areas including economic empowerment, violence, health, entrepreneurship, education and leadership. I was attending as a ‘nominated changemaker’ for promoting women and girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). Through free Chandra-led programs such as our coding series, our Maker programs, and other inclusive events and projects, our goal is to develop high quality programs in space science and computer science to help provide access to these underrepresented career fields for young girls and women.
So it was a true honor and privilege to be in the same room as these attendees. Representatives from the White House Council on Women and Girls, Black Girls CODE, Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, Marvel Entertainment, Spotify, the U.S. Department of State, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Tory Burch Foundation, Lockheed Martin, were there and just a few of the many organizations and groups that took the stage. President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and Vice President Biden all delivered passionate, powerful remarks about the issues facing women and girls, the work necessary to bring about meaningful change, and the more holistic or broad ways to consider such issues as affecting all of society.
Each speaker, from Connie Britton to Kerry Washington, from Warren Buffet to Gloria Steinem, and from Megan Smith to Nancy Pelosi, helped bring about new insight and awareness that can only better enable the network the women and men who are using their voices to improve their communities and bring change both for today and tomorrow. I spent the day speaking with women in politics, in commercial industries, in non-profits, in education and in leadership groups. All had something important to contribute to the discussion on the state of women and to help make a difference for our mothers, sisters, aunts, and daughters, but also, for all of us.
The United State of Women Summit was just one day. However, it is a day that will stay with me for quite some time. It was a chance to recognize the challenges we face, while celebrating how far we have come. It has rejuvenated my personal resolve to tackle issues facing inequity and disparity in all of its forms wherever I can in my personal and professional life. To borrow the phrase used in some of the event’s videos, “We got this.”
Kimberly Arcand is Visualization Lead for the Chandra X-ray Observatory. She is a co-author of popular science books including “Light: The Visible Spectrum and Beyond“ and “Your Ticket to the Universe: A Guide to Exploring the Cosmos.”