What It Takes to Succeed as a Woman in a STEM Field

While both genders have proven to excel in the fields, women often face additional challenges

3 min read
Photo of a woman standing in front of a bar chart with illustrations below it.
Illustration: Sue Tallon

THE INSTITUTEScience, technology, engineering, and math careers can be extremely rewarding. Not only do they offer high salaries, but also there are many opportunities to do stimulating and meaningful work. Moreover, many of the fastest-growing job opportunities are in science and technical fields.

With that said, a significant gender gap persists. While women make up 47 percent of the U.S. workforce, only 24 percent are in STEM, according to the U.S. Economics and Statistics Administration.

Gender gaps in STEM fields are common in most countries, but there are a few exceptions. Mexico and South Africa have the highest ratio of women with computer science degrees, for example.

Although both genders excel in STEM fields, women often face discrimination and additional challenges such as an environment that doesn’t provide work-life balance when starting a family.

Rising above the challenges can be tough, but it’s not impossible. Many talented women have succeeded despite the disadvantages.

Here are several ways girls and women can overcome the odds.

BUILDING CONFIDENCE

Many girls in elementary and middle school are interested in STEM subjects. They often possess the creativity, as well as the communication and problem-solving skills, required to excel in computer science, electrical engineering, or a similar field. Unfortunately, a large number of the girls lose interest by age 15.

Research shows there are several reasons for that. One of the major factors is confidence, according to a study on gender disparity in STEM conducted by Microsoft. Girls are socialized to be “perfect” from a young age, making many terrified of failure. But failure is necessary to learn difficult math and science concepts. In many cases, girls’ fear of failure can lead them to feel insecure about their abilities. That is why it is key for teachers to continually share STEM resources with all students in the classroom in addition to encouraging girls to explore the subjects.

Harmful gender stereotypes perpetuate the myth that boys are inherently more talented in STEM subjects—which can continue into adulthood and the workplace. The stereotypes lead coworkers, bosses, and upper management to take women’s technical expertise and ideas less seriously.

It’s crucial for women to build up their confidence and stand up for themselves. They must understand the value they bring to the company and be unafraid to take calculated risks in order to stand out and move up.

A healthy dose of self-criticism can help one grow personally and professionally, but many women are too hard on themselves. Recognizing your potential is key to building confidence to help you succeed.

BREAKING THE MOLD

Consciously or unconsciously, girls are often discouraged from STEM—something Peggy Johnson, Microsoft executive vice president of business development, experienced firsthand, according to an article on Microsoft’s website. While going to school for electrical engineering, Johnson struggled through a required mechanical engineering course. Her professor told her: “I just don’t think this is the right degree for you.”

Johnson almost followed his advice, but she stuck with the program thanks to encouragement from her mother.

Women in STEM often get discouraging feedback. It takes perseverance to keep moving forward.

FINDING A SUPPORT SYSTEM

Having people you can lean on can help when times get tough. Staying confident and persevering is more difficult when you don’t have someone to confide in or to ask for advice.

Your support system could be made up of peers or other women in the tech industry. No matter who it is you trust, your confidantes are essential to your success.

NETWORK

Getting a job in any industry can be difficult. With the potential for discriminatory hiring, it can be even tougher for women.

To get past the walls that stand between you and hiring managers, networking is key. People you meet can help open doors to new opportunities.

It has never been easier to connect with people in your field. A mix of in-person and online networking, with the help of websites such as LinkedIn and Meetup, can help you get to know people in your field and build your reputation.

The IEEE Women in Engineering International Leadership Conference is a great opportunity to meet others who can help you get a foot in the door.

BE A ROLE MODEL

One obstacle in teaching the next generation of women to fall in love with STEM subjects is to introduce them to role models. So think of succeeding in your career as a way to open doors for young women and be a role model they can look up to.

Romero is an electrical engineering student at the University of Valencia, in Spain. A STEM researcher who focuses on how technology can be leveraged to improve social equity within engineering, she plans to mentor preuniversity girls in Mexico after she graduates, hoping to interest them in STEM careers.

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