The number of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields is growing, but females in these industries still make up only a fraction of STEM workers when compared to men. We asked 12 women what it’s like being the minority in these fields, and this is what they had to say.
“I am often the only person of my sex and/or generation in meetings, and I have been interrupted or talked over more times than I could count. In previous companies, ideas that I mentioned in meetings were ignored until an older, (usually) male manager presented them, then they were accepted and celebrated as their idea. As the only female in the room, I am often asked to be the note-taker or the one to organize lunch - none of my male colleagues, even those hired after me, are asked to do these things. I guess the theme I'm getting at is there seems to be more immediate respect given to male colleagues while women have to work harder and longer to earn the same level of respect and attention from both colleagues and customers.
The best advice I can give is that relationships are key. Navigating office politics isn't fun, but by spending a bit of your day building rapport with your team members as well as key stake holders in different teams and in the decision-making processes, you will have an easier time ensuring your ideas are heard and your projects face fewer obstacles. Another great piece of advice is to surround yourself with other strong women in STEM. Consider joining a chapter of SWE (Society of Women Engineers) or utilizing your school's alumni network to find women in STEM in your area.”
- Tori Trout, Product Manager at Bio-Chem Fluidics
“I think the biggest challenge I face is convincing middle and high school aged girls that they can have a STEM career. By the time girls reach this age group, many have decided that they cannot be an engineer, computer scientist or mathematician. If you want a STEM career, go for it. You are strong enough, you are smart enough, and there are people waiting for the contributions that only you can make.”
- Laurel Dodgion, Academic Enhancement Coordinator at Southern Utah University Walter Maxwell Gibson College of Science and Engineering
“One of the barriers that I faced during college was being one of the few girls in an engineering class or on a team. This is not uncommon for most engineering classes. I learned to do my research before speaking my mind to ensure that I could back up the reasoning for my decisions with facts. I also learned to work within diverse groups of people to achieve a task or goal.
I stepped into a role with two years of experience, where my predecessor had 30 years of experience. The first thing that I needed to learn to do in order to communicate effectively was to actively listen and earn the respect of the people that I worked with on a daily basis. My advice to another woman who wants to go into STEM is to be confident in her abilities. I would also advise to never underestimate the power of networking and getting to know different people.”
- Ashley Poe Thompson, Process Engineer at BASF
“While I see significant advancements from when I started my career, it is still by and large a male-dominated industry. This is true at all levels, but more so when you look at the executive level and decision makers. As a woman, you often have to first prove your value and expertise in a way that is not required of your male counterpart. You have to impress and win your audience over within the first few minutes of the meeting, and drive them to look beyond your appearance.
Later in my career, it was not uncommon for people to assume I represent one of the more 'female' professions – often assumed to be in admin, HR, marketing, etc. – and not be perceived as a viable expert in areas that require deep technological expertise. Working in a very global company, I still find there are certain markets where, as a female, I cannot lead the conversation as it would be perceived as offensive. Luckily, as time goes by, there are fewer and fewer such incidents, and in fact, in some instances, the novelty of a woman speaking about technology can be an advantage.”
- Orli Gan, Head of Threat Prevention Products at Check Point
“Unfortunately, research continues to show that gender stereotypes persist about STEM. I believe the biggest challenge is to change women’s perception about their own abilities in math and science, in order to inspire them to enter the field.
While in university, I realized that the percentage of enrollment of women in software engineering was around 20%. Later on, the embedded stereotype was that women should be analysts and men should be coders. I was part of a group of women that was really good at coding, and people looked at us with astonishment. Sometimes I needed to work harder to demonstrate my skills and overcome prejudices. I would advise [women who want to go into STEM] to not underestimate their potential. As the author and activist Alice Walker, said, ‘The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.’”
- Silvana Gaia, Technical Consultant at Belatrix Software
“The main issue seems to be the low percentage of women working within this industry and how that relates to confidence in applying for jobs. There is a definite lack of confidence that women lack in particular, and that is the problem. You are better than you think you are! You are more valued and more crucial to a company or project than you would imagine. Once you realize you are good enough then you will have no obstacles in your way.”
- Crissy Bogusz, Motion Graphics Designer at Vogue
“I honestly haven't encountered any challenges with being a woman in STEM, and haven't faced any barriers to having a fulfilling career. If anything, being a woman has benefited me, because schools, programs, scholarship organizations, etc. are all so focused on ensuring that woman enter STEM fields and become successful in them.
My advice to women who want to go into STEM is to go for it! Every STEM field encompasses such a broad spectrum of potential careers that there is a definitely a niche for you, it just sometimes takes a while and a lot of effort to seek it out.”
- Sylvie Stacy, Physician and Owner of Iatric Edge, LLC
“It is such a male-dominated field that is not always welcoming and supportive. Also, for young women in STEM, there are still negative perceptions associated with the field and a lack of representation and role models. To be a woman of color in spaces where there is a lack of diversity is a barrier but not one that you can't overcome if you focus on what environment works best for you, and if you find out who your supporters are in and out of work.
If you are interested in STEM, you have to be very disciplined and determined. It requires a lot of focus, studying, and practice. Being clear on what your mission is and how you will use the skills is key. Combining STEM with social justice is what keeps me motivated. I literally want to change the face of STEM.”
- Sasha Ariel Alston, author of “Sasha Savvy Loves to Code”
“In a traditionally male-dominated field and industry, a challenge for me is to be seen as an equal. A man is seen as confident, assertive, and outspoken, while a woman with those same qualities is deemed 'bossy.' It is important that we can walk into a room and garner the same respect as a male colleague.
Representation is important. Women are underrepresented in powerful positions (tenured professor, CEO, president, etc.) in STEM fields. To see women filling more high-level positions would provide someone to point to and say I want to be her. I want that job. I can see myself doing THAT. Industries need a diverse population to provide new, innovative, and exciting ideas and perspectives. Women are smart, inventive, creative, strong, resourceful, and powerful. Let's bring our experiences and ideas to the table to be heard.”
- Rachel Kaul, Senior Research Scientist at Sappi North America
“The biggest challenge of being a woman in STEM is having to justify equal pay for equal work, especially in the region where I live where a woman's compensation is considered by some to be supplemental family income. The next biggest challenge for me is learning how to manage my own personal response to being talked over by men (or women), and how to work my contributions into the conversation without being perceived as rude.
STEM careers are fun, rewarding, and productive. Find people who will support you and don't fall into the trap of complaining all the time.”
- Dr. Jacqualine Grant, Associate Professor of Biology at Southern Utah University
“The biggest challenge for me with being a woman in STEM is being comfortable being the only female. There were many times throughout my career where I was the only woman on a team. It can make you self-conscious at times and the non-work conversations that you would get involved in were not something that I always wanted to engage in. But at the end of the day you just have to be yourself. You don’t need to act like one of the guys to fit in and be accepted. The biggest barrier I have faced is not knowing if I was being paid enough or asking for what I am worth. I’m sure I still make less than the men who are peers to me and that’s tough.
Be comfortable being you, don’t try to be one of the boys. Also join a local group that caters to women in tech. LinkedIn is a great place to start.”
- Alison Lamano, Lead Business Analyst at DefinedLogic
“As a woman in a professional career, I have been extremely lucky to have professors and mentors, both men and women, who have been unbiased in their attitude towards me and have encouraged and advised me through challenging situations. The biggest barrier on my end has been to strike a work-life balance; the only way I have been able to achieve this is to compromise on my own social life, outside of work.
I would encourage other women to go into STEM. It's a wonderful and a very satisfying feeling to be able to contribute towards the progress of mankind with creative and innovative solutions. You know you will be at some point touching many other lives other than your own family. This general feeling of hope and content is very satisfying.”
- Dr. Papia Chakraborty, Senior Scientist and Head of Immuno-oncology at MedGenome