Celeste Fralick: Defying the Gender Gap in the STEM Field

Celeste Fralick

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It is stated that women in computing occupations peaked in 1991 at 36%, and have sharply declined since then. Besides, I’ve heard so many assumptions stating that women, in general, are not interested in STEM roles. I fairly disagree, because women are gradually blazing the trail in the STEM field. To shatter this assumption, let me introduce you to Celeste Fralick, who is defying the gender gap in the STEM field.

Celeste Fralick’s journey began with statistics in manufacturing. Under the guidance of excellent mentors, Celeste’s career morphed into AI as a Chief Data Scientist. These mentors have played an important role in shaping her career, as they encouraged Celeste to take calculated risks—though she was skeptical and risk-averse. These risks turned out to be incredibly rewarding and great growth opportunities for her. While working full-time and raising two boys, Celeste completed her Master’s and Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering.

It took a very long time, but I brought my learnings back to my job.  It also kept me on top of technology,” says Celeste Fralick, Chief Data Scientist and Senior Principal Engineer at McAfee.

McAfee is a device-to-cloud company that protects the world from cyberattacks. It deploys more sensors in the field than the competitors, which allows McAfee to apply state-of-art AI detection capabilities alongside humans-in-the-loop. At McAfee, Celeste is responsible for providing advanced analytic capabilities and reproducible AI processes for the company.

Because Celeste worked remotely for many years prior to the pandemic, the changes COVID brought were not difficult for her. The most overlooked factor in this crisis was the toll it took on mental health. There is a fine line between work-life balance which was slightly blurry before but now has turned extremely opaque. Celeste guides her team and assures that it is ok to walk away from the “office” and tend to home stressors more so now than ever before. She advises that as a leader, one must recognize and embrace this challenge.  In the end, you get a happier and more productive employee.

The interview with Celeste Fralick was highly reflective and inspiring. She puts out her thoughts profoundly that is bound to inspire others. Here are the snippets,

How has the role of women leadership changed over the years?

After 40 years in technology, I am happy to see that women have commanded the respect they deserve for their knowledge and expertise, rather than whom we socialize with or what we wear. While I don’t see as many women in the C-Suite as I would like, we are (thankfully) on an upward trajectory—just not as fast as I would like.

Today, women’s challenges have been discussed more than ever, what is your take on it?

It has been refreshing to have the recognition that we women needed to share home and child-rearing responsibilities with our partners.  Whether that is because of changing societal norms, updated company policies, or our own demands, it has allowed our partners to understand our challenges.  This has also supported the upward trajectory.

What measures do you undertake to promote women’s empowerment?

We have an incredible global organization, WISE (Women In SEcurity), that highlights our achievements, coaches and mentors each other, and even teaches financial acumen. Each new WISE president brings exciting changes and lessons. I lead a gender-neutral Analytic Center of Excellence (ACE) but ensure that technical presentations and group leads are equally shared between genders. Lastly, as a Stage 4 breast cancer thriver with lifelong chemo, I encourage women to get mammograms, understand their genetics and family history, and be aware of their medical privacy and security.

What does the word ‘feminism’ mean to you?

I honestly think the term “feminism” reflects a 1980’s mentality without taking into consideration the strides women have made.  I’d like to ban it from our vocabulary as I believe it has negative connotations of shoulder-padded women who will stop at nothing to get ahead!  In the 2020s (or maybe it’s because I’ve matured!), I see much more of a “sister” mentality—women helping women.  It is SO refreshing and I am always surprised when women just out of college tell me I am an inspiration.  It is they that inspire me!

What is your favorite thing about being a women leader?

I love being a woman leader because I bring thought diversity to the conversation, particularly since my background is so unique over so many years. I believe that diversity programs are missing the measurement of this “thought” diversity, which can enable innovation faster.

How has COVID-19 affected McAfee’s operations?

The bad guys never ever stop.  When the initial COVID stay-at-home orders hit, adversaries were already challenging the new attack surface: an increase in home networks connecting to business networks. We have to be knowledgeable and responsive to all global threats, and it is a very fast-moving industry compared to others.  The amount of data we handle routinely is in the terabyte range, so AI is critical to detect the latest threats, including zero-day (e.g., never seen before).

Will the several changes brought by 2020 affect the leadership style in the coming years?

I believe many businesses will maintain or increase flexibility for work-from-home options for those employees who would like to. Leadership will adapt to these changes, but Kouzes and Posner’s five leadership pillars from the book “The Leadership Challenge” remain the same: model the way, challenge the process, encourage the heart, inspire a shared vision, and enable others to act. The question for 2021 is, how can a leader excel at these remotely, particularly if the colleague has their video off?  And while the psychological stress that the world has been under with COVID is not insurmountable, the leader must increase their empathy and emotional intelligence.  Both of these are critical in these uncertain times, but look towards women who (typically) have more of both!

Celeste Fralick

Also Read: The 10 Influential Women in Tech, 2023

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