As Angela Freeman completes her tenure as Past President and prepares to leave the Women & Hi Tech board of directors, she looks back over the trail she has blazed over the past 7 years beginning as Networking Director with a mix of confidence and hope. “When I set out as the first African American president of this organization, I had lots of goals related to diversity. I wanted to increase the diversity of judges, applicants, and award recipients for our amazing scholarships. I wanted to attract a more diverse STEM population to become our members. And I wanted to see our board become more diverse.”
At the time she assumed the three-year commitment of becoming Women & Hi Tech’s President, Freeman was seriously considering leaving the board. “You don’t have influence and make change in an organization because you love things the way they are. You do it because you see what can be and the higher heights there are to reach,” she said of her decision to stay on the board and assume leadership. “Me going into Women & Hi Tech leadership was really a function of the mentorship, championship, encouragement, and coaching I received from organization leaders who convinced me that the organization could benefit from my leadership, particularly at that time.”
So, Angela took on the challenge, as she really believed that the board was at a point where they were willing to make some changes. Using her legal expertise, Angela spearheaded overdue revisions to the organization’s bylaws, policies, and infrastructure related to evaluating and assessing board service. Angela also chaired the historical Women & Hi Tech 20th Anniversary Celebration Event in 2019. Importantly, as Women & Hi Tech’s first diverse President, Freeman achieved all of her goals, drastically increasing the organization’s diversity in race, creed, gender identity, and STEM profession from scholarship applicants and new members all the way to the leadership represented in the board room.
Now, what she wants is to see those goals become foundational until they are obsolete. “What I hope to see is the normalization of diversity, equity, and inclusion. For it to be built in, not an exception to the rule or a blip on the radar. Intentionally trying to increase diversity within and external to the organization must be an expectation of every Women & Hi Tech president and leader moving forward.”
At the same time, however, Freeman thinks this requires a candid evaluation of Women & Hi Tech’s core mission. “We can’t become something that isn’t a women’s organization.” As one example, Freeman points to the circumstances of Women & Hi Tech’s founding. Because women were not given equal seats at the table in their STEM careers, the organization’s co-founders and charter members created their own community.
“That’s why I believe leadership positions of this esteemed organization should be mostly reserved for women. Because opportunities for women in board leadership often don’t exist elsewhere,” she said. “I am super excited that we have Ben Phillips acting as our Treasurer, and am supportive of getting more men involved in committees and other volunteer roles. However, I don’t think we need to recruit more men to the board to be considered ‘inclusive.’” Freeman says we can instead recognize, train, develop, and empower men who serve as allies and help women succeed in STEM, because most successful female STEM leaders attribute some portion of that success to men. “We can celebrate the allyship, sponsorship, and support of men—but they already get plenty of recognition for being outstanding STEM professionals, and women typically do not.”
In this same vein, Freeman hopes future Women & Hi Tech presidents and leadership will feel secure in keeping the organization’s mission focused squarely on STEM issues related to women. “Our leadership should feel empowered to enforce this boundary and keep the organization focused on the narrow scope of advancing women in STEM,” she said. As Women & Hi Tech President, Angela learned to navigate this delicate crossroads where the organization exists. “We are inclusive to all women in STEM, not just some. But we shouldn’t be concerned about being so inclusive or broadening our mission scope to the point that we are leveling the playing field for people who don’t need it.”
Angela also shared a realization that resulted from her presidency. “It has been challenging and maybe even a bit disappointing at times to see how much we have been making efforts to communicate our mission of inclusion, yet not necessarily be met with an overwhelming response or participation of ladies in our diverse communities.” Freeman described years of intentionally contacting and making radio and television appearances, giving newspaper and magazine interviews, and reaching out to diverse STEM professional organizations to communicate the resources available through Women & Hi Tech. She even recounted working with translators to make Women & Hi Tech STEM scholarship, grant, award, and/or board opportunities publicly known to non-English speakers. “Certainly, non-diverse organizations need to make room for qualified diverse leaders and members. But, diverse leaders and professionals must also step up and take on the opportunities and resources that are available.”
When asked what barriers she thinks might still exist to increased participation by diverse women, Freeman comes up short of a suitable answer. “Before I became our president I told myself, diverse women weren’t getting involved because they didn’t see themselves represented in our population and leadership,” she said. “But now I personally know that isn’t the case. That can’t be the excuse anymore. Everything we are striving and fighting for will take your personal time,” she responds. “You don’t drive change, open doors, or blaze trails by putting in a little work or effort. At the end of the day, a nonprofit is a business too. If they are investing resources to attract a specific type of talent, but not getting a return on investment (ROI), those resources will dry up or get reallocated elsewhere.”
“I strongly encourage diverse women in STEM across Indiana to get more involved in the opportunities Women & Hi Tech offers,” she said. “There has to be more engagement by women who expect to move into STEM leadership, and the Women & Hi Tech board is a great opportunity to develop and/or exhibit leadership skills that you may not be able to demonstrate professionally. Board service means you will invest sweat equity. But your performance has the power to positively impact and influence our community while opening doors for people coming behind you. It’s an opportunity to pay it forward.”
Angela says that opening doors for more diverse women to lead Women & Hi Tech is her deepest hope for the legacy of her presidency. “At this point, especially with this board, I think we have the critical mass, a collective will, and visibility, along with brand recognition and momentum, to have a great 2021 and years beyond,” she said. “We are hitting our diversity, equity, and inclusion stride with real tangible metrics, parameters, and people that hold similar values. That’s what it will take to get traction so diverse female STEM professionals see Women & Hi Tech as a valid opportunity to develop as a professional leader, find community and professional support, and get civically engaged.”
Angela says that Women & Hi Tech is an organization where diverse women can make a special contribution to advance the organization in tangible and long-lasting ways. “It’s different for each person and their talents,” she allowed. “But who else can do what you think you can do? No one.”
“I certainly hope and expect in the near future that another diverse woman will be in the president’s seat. We already have plenty of great candidates. And, if Women & Hi Tech expects to grow to meet the needs of the ever-changing STEM population in Indiana, diversity, equity, and inclusion of all women in STEM must remain prioritized values of the organization and its leadership. If we expect to see a 40th anniversary, the key is equity and inclusion,” she concluded. “And I plan to be there to celebrate.”