Women remain an underrepresented group across all STEM fields and despite attempts to improve the gap that exists in gender numbers and salary, women still remain a minority in STEM fields. The AAUW 2015 Solving the Equation report states:
“Women made up just 26 percent of computing professionals in 2013, a substantially smaller portion than 30 years ago and about the same percentage as in 1960. In engineering, women are even less well represented, making up just 12 percent of working engineers in 2013.”
A common complaint that I hear amongst other women working in a STEM environment is that they often feel very isolated in their position and do not know how to show their ‘true potential’ in a competitive environment. I wanted to investigate how we could inspire other women thinking of entering into a STEM field. What would be useful to know? I asked three of the most influential women in my network for their experiences of being a woman working in STEM.
Regardless of the environment, understanding your self-worth and a full list of talents is critical for your career success. This is not simply about your technical skills or abilities, it’s about understanding the full range of soft skills that you bring to the table: negotiation, problem-solving, communication etc.
Let’s start with an introduction of myself and the ladies that I have asked to contribute their knowledge for this article:
|Myself/Emily Luijbregts is a Project Manager and Scrum Master who loves to share knowledge with the wider Project Management Community. She has over 10 years experience in managing multinational projects across various european countries and global cultures.|
|Erica Gray is the Global Sustainability Manager for Mammoet, living and working in the Netherlands. She has nearly 20 years’ experience in various STEM roles and has most recently been devoting her time towards designing and implementing Mammoet’s sustainability strategy.|
|Josie Messa is a Developer working at Multiplay/Unity Technologies and based in the United Kingdom. She has a strong background working in IT and has most recently been shortlisted as one of the “Rising Stars of the Year- 2019” at the MCV Women in Games Awards.|
|Abi Bettle-Shaffer works for IBM as a Content Team and Delivery Lead for various technologies. She’s been working for IBM for over 5 years and has built a solid track record of delivering excellence within her teams.|
One area that is often difficult for many women to articulate on is the best way to market themselves in their industry/job and what’s the most effective form/media of doing so. How do you market yourself in your specific industry/job?
|Erica: I market myself as a multi-tasker offering a mix of different skills. I highlight my mediation training and emphasise on my influencing skills. My patience and persistence have definitely increased since I became a mother and I think that makes me a better manager and able to consider things in a more strategic manner. Planning skills are definitely one of my “stand out strengths”. |
Josie: As a Developer, we are often under pressure to ship new features or get fixes out as quickly as possible and this can lead to issues where the codebase becomes harder and harder to maintain and over time the technical debt becomes unmanageable. I instead, tend to prioritise the long term goals first and then figure out how to work towards those goals for the short term. I find innovating in areas around automation and stability is where my mind naturally wants to work, so I play to my strengths and have built up experience of raising the quality in these areas in the teams that I’ve worked in. I make sure that I’m the voice in the room reminding teams to not sacrifice these values as we’ll just get burnt in the long term.
Abi: I am not afraid to ask blunt/silly/odd questions. It doesn’t come naturally to me, but I do it because there is bound to be someone else around the table who may be thinking the same thing. I also do my research on people that I’m meeting to be able to chat about their interest in something and this helps them trust and remember me.
Emily: When looking at your personal skillset and the potential opportunities that exist, one key thing for me is ensuring that you are used to feeling out of your depth and pushing yourself to try new things and push the personal boundaries of what you can really achieve. When I’m coaching other female Project Managers we work on their entire “skill portfolio” to understand what their skillset actually is and what we need to develop in the future to help them achieve their career goals.
Whilst researching this article, I found a lot of examples of where women have been kept back from a potential development opportunity purely because of their gender. Have you ever experienced a situation where being a woman has had a negative impact on your development in your industry?
|Erica: Yes, many! Mostly around approach. In many organisations the guys only know how to deal with people who operate like they do. So, if you don’t exhibit aggression or the same domineering behaviour as they do, they deem you as “non-management material”. It can also be very intimidating for some guys to work with a woman at a senior management level. This can be pretty difficult when trying to build productive working relationships. Of course, not everyone is like this, I’ve had the pleasure of working with some amazing, empowering male managers but they have been few and far between! |
Josie: A handful, some more implicit and subtle than others. Most common has been a colleague not taking my views seriously, talking over me, or being patronising (“silly woman” etc.). I try to see this as their problem and not mine, but I’d be dishonest to say it doesn’t get to me sometimes. I try to not take it personally, and look at different ways of communicating my ideas in a way that appeals to the values of who I’m speaking to. Having allies really help, so try to surround yourself with good people, and find a network where you can get support if you need it (I’m part of an industry slack with a women’s channel which has really helped sanity check a few situations!).
Abi: I work in software which is still quite a male-dominated area. The hangover from previous women in the industry not wanting to get technical has created an obstacle for those of us who do want to progress in a technical route.
Emily: I think it’s important to realise and accept that there are some ingrained biases that still exist in STEM but how you handle these biases will be the measure between failure and success. You can accept that these biases exist and look at it as something that needs to be overcome and not let it diminish the talent and skills that you bring to your organisation. I often encourage other female STEM leaders to promote their skills actively and by doing this, this ensures that they cannot be dismissed in any important discussion.
If you could look back 5/10 years and give your younger you, one piece of advice. What would it be?
|Erica: Don’t expect to get where you are aiming in a straight line! As a woman you have to be more creative and flexible, doors don’t open automatically, sometimes you end up going the long way round. But remember that every door you open helps other women get through more easily after you. You can have it all, just not necessarily everything at once. And actually there is no rush, so be patient and be kind to yourself. Take the time, drink the wine, enjoy the scenery and learn from your mistakes. Don’t just crash ahead like it’s all a race against time. Enjoy meeting all the fabulous people along the way. And don’t let the negative people get you down! |
Josie: I’ve always been bad at articulating my ambitions to the people that can support me, beyond just saying “I want to be good at my job”, so I’d tell myself to start practicing this early in my career and not being embarrassed to have specific goals or aspirations, even if you change your mind later.
Abi: You may feel like an imposter now, but so does everyone else so embrace it!
How to succeed in a STEM environment is a very personal story but what remains a common theme is understanding and utilising your personal skillset to be able to market yourself in the most positive manner. One thing that we are all able to do is support each other on our journeys to success; network with other likeminded individuals (as Josie mentions in her slack channel) and build meaningful relationships across the STEM field by joining events, sharing knowledge and contributing to the STEM industry. Look at what’s going on in your area (via word of mouth/Twitter/ meetup.com/ LinkedIn groups, etc.) and see what you might be interested in and go along and attend. Being active in your industry will open many doors and potential opportunities to not only develop and hone your craft but also give you potential job opportunities.
The future is bright, the future is female!