Skip to main content

A cartoon woman uses a computer. Women in IT is spelled out above her, with the IT making a representation of the Old Well

March is Women’s History Month and ITS is celebrating by highlighting Carolina women in technology. All month long, ITS News will share profiles and Q&As to share the breadth and diversity of the Tar Heel women-in-IT experience. For the full list of profiles and to read some ways to get involved, visit Celebrating Women’s History Month with Carolina women in IT.

What does your role as a leader mean to you?

I think the leadership role can help me help more women in academic fields.

Has your gender been a factor in your career trajectory, path or choices? How so?

When I was school-age, I was in a gifted and talented program. We had 50 students in my class, but only five girls. I grew up with all these boys, and I didn’t see a difference between males and females, as I felt like girls could do similar things as boys. However, I did hear teachers and parents say, “Girls are not as smart as boys.” I didn’t care too much, as I was good at math. Gender is generally not a problem to me, but I do see some bias against females in STEM fields.

Mathematics is a male-dominated field, so if gender was the consideration, I would never have chosen my job. Recently a student asked me, “Hey professor, why did you choose mathematician as your career? Did you just choose to be that?” I said no, because in my childhood, I was good at math so why not? And on the other hand, I’m not a very handy person. I cannot do labs, I cannot do chemistry experiments. I’m good at math and I think that may be my only choice.

Have you had a mentor in your career or someone else who made a difference for you? Have you mentored others?

I’m very fortunate that I had a very successful female Ph.D. adviser. She’s intelligent, she’s hardworking, she set a good example for me. And because of her, I’m confident I can be a good female mathematician. Now that I’m relatively senior myself, I try to be a leader so I can influence more female students or younger junior faculty.

I first joined UTD (University of Texas at Dallas) as my first tenure track position, I also had a female mentor who was very helpful to me. She gave me advice on how to survive in the academic world. She also helped me to run students-oriented activities. After I became tenured, I tried to mimic what they did for me with the young next generation.

For mentoring, it’s not just about research collaborations. I also feel like I need to tell them how to interact with colleagues, including some male colleagues who may be more aggressive. Females may tend to be shy, we don’t speak up and we are afraid if we speak up there will be some bad consequences. I talked to some junior female faculty who said sometimes you need to fight for yourself, but meanwhile you need to protect yourself.

About Yifei Lou

Yifei Lou
Yifei Lou

Yifei Lou holds a joint position in the Department of Mathematics in the College of Arts & Sciences and the School of Data Science and Society. She served as a faculty member in the mathematical sciences department at the University of Texas at Dallas from 2014 to 2023, first as an assistant professor and then as an associate professor. She received her Ph.D. in applied math from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 2010. After graduation, she was a postdoctoral fellow at the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, followed by another postdoctoral training at the Department of Mathematics, University of California, Irvine from 2012 to 2014. Lou received the National Science Foundation CAREER Award in 2019. Her research lies in the intersection of computational mathematics and data sciences.

What excites you about the future of your field?

I get the opportunity to redesign, reshape the future of careers for our next generation. That is what I’m excited about. Ten years ago, our field of mathematics was just academic and we became a teacher or professor. Now mathematics actually plays a very important role in data science and in other disciplines. I’m happy to see more and more mathematicians come out of the ivory tower to do some real problems and help solve real applications. Right now, I’m teaching calculus, but students don’t have a concrete application in mind. They ask “Why am I doing this?” I say that you’ll see later in other disciplines. I hope that calculus can be integrated into data applications so that students know how to do this and why we are doing this. I think the most exciting part is that I got the opportunity to choose what the students should learn.

What career advice do you have for other women in IT?

Make peace with yourself, don’t put too much pressure. You cannot expect that you’ll be good at academia, be good at children’s education and be good at other things. It’s impossible, we only have a certain amount of time. I think every woman in academia or in the IT field — they’re amazing. We can do multitasking. I think sometimes it might be about being confident in yourself. I think girls have this bias that they don’t believe in themselves. I think we should tell the female researchers to be confident.

What would make it possible for more women to work and succeed in IT?

I think we need to hire more women so that there will be more understanding and there will be more role models for students and the younger generation.

We spend more time on the family and we already squeeze our time to do the jobs. Maybe give a more flexible working schedule to female workers and create a supportive environment. I know 10 years ago, there wasn’t any breastfeeding room in the building. I remember I had to lock myself in the bathroom for pumping. Oh man, I hope it’s changing.

What resources do you recommend for women who are looking to start or advance their IT careers?

In my experience, the best starting point is a very excellent female adviser. I would suggest they find a senior role model who can understand, but they don’t necessarily have to be female. But finding a senior role model who you are comfortable talking with and whom you can ask for advice.

Anything else you’d like to share?

I’m hoping to start a local chapter of Women in the Science of Data and Mathematics (WiSDM). I had been involved in events at Brown and at UCLA. We had about 40 women, ranging from students, postdoc, junior, senior, all kinds of levels and we gather together for a week. We worked extensively on a research problem, and then we spread out and do remote collaboration. And during that week, not only do we talk about research, we also share our experience regarding the academic life and the personal. I plan to host a WiSDM week in the summer of 2025 here at UNC. Stay tuned!


Comments are closed.