Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are very competitive fields. They’re even more competitive for women, as we represent a small minority within STEM careers. Even though each of us has often been the only woman in the room, it’s important to remember that we are not alone.
In my time as an engineer and a military officer, I have experienced many challenges along my path to success. Women advancing their careers in STEM will benefit from these five actions:
- find mentors
- ask questions
- cultivate confidence
- balance home and work life
By implementing these practices, women in STEM can more effectively navigate the difficulties that appear on their individual paths to success and assist each other in becoming successful along the way.
1. Partner with leaders to be a leader through mentorship
When I was younger, I didn’t have a mentor, and I didn’t understand the value of one. I thought that I didn’t need anyone’s help to become successful, and it had me running wild. It wasn’t until I started working with my first mentor that I realized it didn’t have to be so hard.
In a highly competitive field, having good mentorship and leadership is a game changer and is especially essential for women in STEM.
No one can fulfill all aspects of your life and career, and certainly no one will be able to give you all the answers. So, rather than having just one mentor, I recommend having a whole board of mentors.
It can be very helpful for women to have a female mentor, especially if the mentor is further along in her STEM career. She has likely been through many of the challenges you might be experiencing and can potentially help you prepare for the pitfalls you haven’t found yet or avoid them altogether.
But just because you’re a woman doesn’t mean you should only choose female mentorship. It is common for males to hold positions of leadership and power and having a male mentor can be incredibly helpful for this reason. Their ability to pull you up through the ranks and make connections that you otherwise could not have made yourself proves to be very beneficial. That was my experience with my male mentors, and I would not have been as successful without their help.
My biggest advice about mentorship is to find a mentor immediately, and don’t stop at just one. You can create a whole board of directors. Mentors with different backgrounds and specialties can give you diverse insight and help you improve in specific areas where they are more knowledgeable.
2. It’s okay to not know everything; ask questions
A lot of women in STEM enter their fields trying to hold their own and don’t want to appear weak or inexperienced. It can be difficult and vulnerable to ask for help, but asking questions is not a sign of weakness, but rather an indicator that you are interested and willing to learn.
I’ve seen a lot of women in STEM fail because they were unwilling to ask for assistance. They limited their ability to learn and couldn’t do as well as their peers. It’s very important for women to end this culture by asking more questions, being more engaged and finding ways to keep growing. Just remember that everything you don’t know is an opportunity to grow, and there’s a good chance there is someone who can help you learn if you are willing to ask for help.
3. Cultivate confidence by standing tall
As a female engineer and military officer, I’ve not only been the only woman in the room in many situations, but I’ve also had to lead entire teams of men oftentimes amidst a crisis.
On deployment, I was frequently awakened in the middle of the night to take control of a crisis situation. At two o’clock in the morning, I would rush into a crisis at its peak, and, with disheveled hair and gym clothes on, it was up to me to assess the situation and take command of my team.
From these experiences, I learned that one of the most important things you can do as a woman is stand tall, literally. Standing tall builds confidence, and, if you own this posture, it will be the only thing people will see.
It’s important for women in STEM to be confident, especially when they are making decisions. For some of us, being assertive may not come naturally, but it can be developed.
Take time to listen, gather information and when necessary be decisive and stand behind your choices. If you stand tall and believe in yourself, then others will, too.
Another important aspect of being confident is learning to advocate for yourself. It can be hard at first to speak about your accomplishments, but it is important for you to be your own cheerleader from time to time. Stand up and advocate for yourself, because if you don’t, you may find that no one else will.
4. Find the organization that supports your work and life balance
Many women in STEM end up leaving their careers to start a family and feel unable to on-ramp back into their positions after taking time off. Though not every woman decides to have a family, it is still important for every woman to find balance between her work and her home life, which is to say, “Make sure you have a life outside of work.”
Whenever possible, look for jobs that offer flexibility and provide enough time to find enjoyment through a life outside of work. If you have a family or are considering starting one, finding a job that respects that and can provide accommodating arrangements can be life-changing.
Though it can be difficult, practicing this balance and making time for yourself and your family is essential to your health and wellbeing, and your successes in your career.
5. Find your advocates through networking
Rather than being overly competitive with one another and tearing each other down, like the mean girls we can sometimes be, we need to instead connect and lift each other up. As a woman in STEM, it’s important to join and create networks with other women in your field.
Some STEM environments can feel like a boy’s club, and that isolation can be very difficult. When women in STEM connect and create networks, we can find places where we feel comfortable and are accepted.
When I went to the first meeting of a group of women engineers, I was actually rather hesitant because I didn’t know what to expect. What I found, though, was a great place to receive advice from other women in similar positions and situations. It was incredible to see everyone strengthening each other and providing helpful resources to achieve success.
Leading a STEM career can be challenging enough without feeling like we are constantly in competition with other women. It’s important that we learn how to advocate not only for ourselves, but for each other so that we can rise in our line of work together.