Career Woman

Women of STEM: What future women in STEM must know

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This guide outlines what the future women of STEM — today’s girls of STEM — will need to know to succeed in their fields.

The past decade has shown great momentum in diversifying STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields to create a more inclusive environment for people of all different backgrounds. Despite these efforts for progress, there is still much work to be done. While there is evidence that women are definitely making gains in the broader economy, numbers from the U.S. Department of Commerce indicate women hold 47 percent of all jobs in the U.S., the fact is women continue to remain underrepresented in STEM, filling just 24 percent of jobs in those fields.

The cause for this discrepancy starts before women enter the workforce; fewer women are seeking degrees and careers in STEM, and those that do pursue a STEM degree are less likely than their male counterparts to work in a STEM occupation. For those that do pursue careers, they often see disproportionate salaries to their male co-workers.

What does it take for women of STEM to succeed?

The reality to most women who engage in a career path within STEM is that they will find the cards stacked against them. What does it take to overcome these hurdles and achieve professional success? To find out, I spoke with some of the women of STEM who are driving change and making a difference in our world through their passions in science and technology – the women of STEM who have won the Vodafone Americas Foundation Wireless Innovation Project® Competition (WIP).

The Vodafone Americas Foundation supports mobile technology for social good through our annual competition, the Wireless Innovation Project, in which funding is given to promising startups and non-profits. Many of our past winners include female-led companies that are changing our world for the better and they have great insights into how they found success in industries historically dominated by their male peers. Their experiences proved clearly there are still stigmas and challenges for women as they pursue STEM careers. However, they also provide a great amount of advice on how to overcome these hurdles, achieve success, and harness the support of the greater community of women who are fighting the same battle.

Women of STEM will have to work harder to fight against stigmas

WIP winner and co-founder of SOKO, Gwendolyn Floyd explained, “Unfortunately, women still have to work harder and smarter to get equal recognition. Misogyny is so endemic and comes from all angles and people. I think one of the clearest indicators of it is women of STEM being treated as a liability versus an asset. For example, a friend was killing it in her career, getting a ton of press and visibility. Her male seniors, instead of seeing it as a boon to the business, saw it as a flight/poaching risk and were suspicious of her success.” Overcoming gendered stigmas run far deeper than being talented and having a strong work ethic as women of STEM. There will consistently be hurdles as gender barriers based in assumption are confronted.

Find mentors and advocates

In my discussions with previous WIP winners, all expressed similar experiences of confronting gendered assumptions. When questioned on their experiences overcoming these challenges, every one of the women of STEM revealed the key role mentorship had played in their success.

Nithya Ramanathan, CEO and co-founder of Nexleaf Analytics explained, “It’s important to have a group of people who champion you and your success, and who will tell you hard truth when you’re failing. Forging those fantastic relationships motivates me and challenges me in a productive way.”

These relationships also may not always be the ones you anticipate as women of STEM either. Gwendolyn Floyd (SOKO) further explained, “the thing that has helped me overcome the most is solidarity with other female and minority entrepreneurs as well as realizing there are a lot of enlightened white dudes in power across the business landscape that are ready and willing to be incredible allies.”

To the women of STEM reading this article

There are women beside you that will mentor and champion your achievements along the way. With the spotlight now focused on this issue, there has never been a better time to join the discussion and improve conditions for future generations.

Shivani Siroya, CEO and Founder of Tala shares this advice, “Being a woman in any workplace requires a certain amount of bravery – a willingness to chart our own way forward, trust our own guts, be our own people. Maybe there aren’t that many of us yet, but that can be an advantage. The biases can work our favor, motivate us to be better. So, my advice is: go out there and try! Do your homework, and prove you can do it with data, testing and results. In the long run, the work will speak for itself.”

How to foster the future women of STEM

In a study commissioned by Microsoft, young women between the ages of 11 and 30 were interviewed in twelve countries. It clearly shows that girls are not given enough support in science subjects. According to the results of the study, every third girl complains that scientific topics and computer science are almost exclusively explained using examples from the boys’ perspective. There is a lack of role models in schools and in the media. There are still too many lessons, too many newspaper articles and TV shows on STEM subjects that do not feature a single woman.

If you ask five- to eight-year-olds to draw a researcher, they will draw almost as many women as men. The older the children get, the more uneven the picture becomes. Young people between the ages of 14 and 15 interested in STEM are only around 25 percent women, according to the latest STEM young talent barometer from the Academy of Engineering Sciences. In the minds of most young people, typical researchers are still male. This is a problem, because during puberty, people behave in a particularly gender-compliant manner. Belonging is an important goal. Who wants to be an outsider as a teen?

Today girls use computers just as naturally as boys, but there is still a great deal of gender segregation in the professional world. Perceptions of professional suitability are closely linked to stereotypical role models. As a result, young women and men limit their choice to a few professions. That needs to change. We also have to open so-called women’s professions to men. We need men in educational areas, in areas of day-care centers. We need educators, primary school teachers and men in the nursing and health sector just as we need women in STEM subjects. 

Conclusion

The cliché image of the anti-social nerd who works lonely in his laboratory persists. We have to make girls and boys aware that research is usually highly communicative teamwork. Institutional career and study counseling can help here. But it is not the only solution. In order for a paradigm shift to take place, a female story must also be told.

About June Sugiyama

June Sugiyama has been the Director of the Vodafone Americas Foundation for the last 17 years. Previously, she served in several roles at Vodafone’s predecessors, AirTouch and Pacific Telesis International. She most recently led the Foundation’s transition toward impact through technology related programs. She also developed the Vodafone Americas Foundation Wireless Innovation Project, a competition designed to seek the best wireless technology solutions to address critical social issues around the world. June served on the board of Northern California Grantmakers and participates in the Arts Loan Fund and the Emergency Loan Fund of the organization. She also serves on the advisory board of the Foundation Center in San Francisco, and served on the advisory committee of the Vodafone Group Foundation and United Nations Foundation Technology Partnership, the board of the National Japanese American Historical Society, the Business Arts Council in San Francisco and Nobiru-kai, a Japanese newcomers association. June received her teaching credential and liberal studies degree at San Francisco State University, masters and specialist credential at University of San Francisco, and has teaching experience with schools throughout the Bay Area, especially in the Japanese Bilingual Programs. See June’s recent posts and activity on her LinkedIn

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