Celebrating a pioneer and role model for women in STEM

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Sawaka Kawashima Romaine ’01 speaks to local kids in Tokyo at a STEM workshop.

Upon starting her three-year tenure, Romaine says, she had a clear vision for what she wanted to achieve. In addition to diversifying the board and creating an online presence for the local public—tasks she has already accomplished—Romaine wanted to find a way to inspire young women. “Knowing that there is such a big gender gap in STEM, I wondered if there was something I could do about it,” she recalls. 

While brainstorming and digging into historically important MIT dates, she realized that 2023 marked 150 years since the graduation of Ellen Swallow Richards, the first woman to attend and earn a degree from the Institute. (See “Ellencyclopedia,” MIT News, September/October 2007.)

Romaine decided to honor Richards’s accomplishment with a leadership event in Japan for women in STEM. She then shared the idea with MIT’s alumni network in Asia, contacting other club leaders with the help of the Alumni Association to gauge interest. Soon a collaborative effort was underway in the region.

Monthly calls among the organizers ultimately led to nine successful events hosted by the MIT clubs of Beijing, Hong Kong, Japan, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Singapore, Taiwan, and Thailand between March and October of 2023. 

The series kicked off with a virtual presentation by the Association of MIT Alumnae (AMITA) featuring a historical perspective on Richards, who—along with being an advocate for women’s education and professional opportunities—was a trailblazer in building the foundations for sanitary engineering, food science, home economics, and ecology. Although the events ranged in format, they aligned in celebrating women leading the way in STEM and society—from talks about entrepreneurs in Thailand to pioneers of innovative education in Shanghai. 

A filled-to-capacity workshop 

With Romaine at the helm, the MIT Club of Japan held two events. The main event featured a keynote and panel discussion titled “Breaking the Barriers in STEM and in Leadership.” The club also held a STEM workshop for the local community with the help of the MIT-Japan Program. “We chose to hold the event for female students grades five to seven, since this is an age when young girls might still have the opportunity to be impacted about the career they might choose,” Romaine explains. The event was very popular, quickly filling to capacity.

“We really wanted to inspire these young girls in Japan and give them ideas about what is possible for them and communicate that there are no gender differences in abilities in STEM, because some people have that misunderstanding,” she says, noting that Japan still has a way to go to reach economic gender parity. (The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index 2023 ranked Japan at 125 out of 146 countries.) 

Regional events with far-reaching impact 

The immediate past president of the Club of Hong Kong, David Wu ’90, says he feels the impact of gender barriers and stereotypes, though not in the same way women do.  

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