Business & Career Culture Featured Opinion

Women in STEM: Challenges and Mitigations

Although it’s 2018, Women in STEM still face numerous challenges within the workplace. Since I have been in the industry for nearly 10 years, there have been some improvements, but we still have a long way to go. Below are a few challenges that I have personally faced, as well as, a few tips on how to overcome those challenges.

Challenges

  1. If you don’t succeed, you’ve failed women everywhere
    1. Being a woman in STEM has it’s pros and cons. It is definitely a high visibility role because usually I am the only woman, and about 99% of the time, the only African American woman, so most people know who I am. I believe I have received several amazing opportunities because of it. At the same time, it can also be a lot of pressure. If I do not perform at a high level, the next women after me will not be set up for success. There will be “the girl before you…” mentality, that I have faced before and the unconscious bias from colleagues will be enhanced.
  2. People assume you are the administrative assistant
    1. There have been many times when vendors and contractors would come in for a meeting, we would do a round table of introductions and I am isolated by the question “So Calicia, what do you do?”. I could have sworn I just introduced myself the exact same way as my colleagues. They always assume I am not part of the engineering team because I’m the only woman, when in fact, I do the exact same job as my male colleagues. I have also had a previous boss that always asked me to schedule meetings, plan teambuilding activities, as well as, other administrative duties. I realized he never asked any of my male colleagues to perform those tasks.
  3. Not a member of the “Good ol Boys Club”
    1. As a woman in STEM, sometimes I feel as though I have to work harder to build a rapport amongst my male colleagues. I remember when the guys were preparing for their annual Fantasy Football league, everyone was asked to participate except for me. They assumed I didn’t like football when actually it is my favorite sport. I also feel as though, they act differently when I’m around. They do not feel as though they can be themselves or have the same conversations they normally would if I was not around, which sometimes makes me feel uncomfortable.
  4. Lack of females in high positions to serve as mentors
    1. Throughout my career, I have found it very difficult to find female mentors in high positions within STEM. Although I aspire to reach the managerial, executive and c-suite level, sometimes it is hard to visualize myself being there since I rarely see anyone who looks like me in those positions.
  5. Lack of honest valuable feedback
    1. For many years, I did not receive valuable performance feedback that would allow me to make the necessary adjustments to improve. Instead, the feedback would be very generic such as “you’re doing a great job”, “keep doing what you are doing”, “continue to learn the business”. This type of feedback did not require any immediate action and does not set me up for success.

Mitigations

  1. Develop thick skin
    • There will be times throughout your career where your voice will not be heard, you will be discriminated against, or hear ignorant comments, but you must learn to be strong and build tough skin.
  2. Stay professional and create “education moments”
    • Hold true to your standards and do not steep down to anyone’s level. Stay professional at all times. When you experience discrimination or isolation, use it as a chance to educate someone and not take things so personally. Ask the individual why they think a certain way or why they treated you the way they did. Some people have no clue what they are doing and the pain they are causing. Speaking up and informing them will assist with making sure they do not make the same mistake twice.
  3. Stand your ground; its ok to say no
    • Don’t allow anyone to push you around. When you’re the new girl on the team, it’s ok to build rapport and be a team player but have your limits. It’s ok to say no to tasks you feel are inappropriate and unnecessary. Sometimes you have to say no to send a message.
  4. Always be prepared
    • Go above and beyond what is required. Fight to break down the barriers and perception of women in STEM. Prepare in advance for meetings, always cross your t’s and dot your I’s. Show them you’re boss!
  5. Find your voice
    • Learn to speak up in meetings, share ideas and let your colleagues know when they are not being inclusive. Let your voice be heard!
  6. Develop a strong support system
    • You will need a strong support system of family, friends, mentors, trustworthy colleagues, etc. to lean on throughout your career. Don’t keep things inside. Confide in others to discuss situations you face in the workplace and ways to make things better.

All in all, being a woman in STEM has allowed me to have an extremely rewarding career and I would not change it for the world! My advice to women would be to take time to get to know your colleagues on a personal level and allow them to get to know you. Understand that you will be treated differently because you are different! So use it to your advantage to bring a different perspective and be an agent of change. After all, “Women have an unique power of being able to look at the world’s problems and discover solutions that transform lives and make the world a better place” – Dr. Ayanna Howard

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