It’s a good time to be a woman who works in science, technology, engineering or mathematics.
In fact, career opportunities are on the rise for women in STEM, according to a recent survey of women who work in paid science-related positions. The study, “Staying Power: Women in Science on What It Take to Succeed,” conducted by the independent research firm RTI International in collaboration with L’Oréal USA and the Heising-Simons Foundation, suggests that women in STEM are thriving.
Yet there are also some glaring areas where improvements are needed for women in STEM. According the study, the vast majority of respondents — 91 percent — admitted that gender discrimination remains a career obstacle and a shocking 100 percent of respondents agreed that self-doubt and a lack of confidence stand in their way. Furthermore, some 88 percent of respondents shared that gender bias serves as an obstacle to women’s career trajectories, specifically in the postdoctoral stage.
“If our society is truly committed to increasing the representation of women in STEM fields, the findings from this study indicate that the most promising interventions are more independent funding opportunities for women scientists at the postdoctoral training stage and the implementation of family-friendly policies and supports,” said Christine Lindquist, Ph.D., program director at RTI International and the study’s principal investigator.
“We firmly believe that the world needs science, and science needs women, because women in science have the power to change the world,” added Frédéric Rozé, executive vice president of L’Oréal Americas.
The study shed light on factors that greatly contribute to women staying in STEM careers. This includes obtaining independent grant funding, having peer support, being able to draw on support from family and friends, mentorship and having access to professional connections.
Experts recently spoke to Know Your Value about the best ways to help close the gender gap for women in STEM.
Know that you belong
Girls and women are systematically steered away from STEM throughout their educations. “Teachers and parents provide explicit and implicit messages starting in early childhood that boys and men are ‘better’ at math, and the gaps in the professions reinforce the opportunities, culture and lack of role models that perpetuate male dominance,” said Laura Segal, senior vice president, communications and external affairs for the American Association of University Women, a non-profit organization that works to advance equity for women and girls through research, advocacy and education.
“We need to make sure that girls and women develop skills and confidence to succeed in math and science,” Segal said. This could include raising awareness that girls are as capable as boys when given encouragement and educational opportunities and promoting more public awareness to parents about how they can encourage daughters as much as sons in math and science. Furthermore, we can work to emphasize strong and visible role models of women and women of color in math and science fields, Segal said.
“We must directly educate girls, teachers and parents that math skills are not innate—and are learned and change over time—promoting a growth mindset,” Segal said. “Empower girls to embrace challenges.”
Speak up to receive credit for your ideas
In a separate report called “Wonder Women in STEM,” published by the Center for Talent Innovation, 82 percent of women studied admitted that they had their contributions ignored in the workplace or didn’t get credit for their ideas.
“We found that successful women in STEM are far more likely to confront the situation to receive credit for their ideas,” said Julia Taylor Kennedy, executive vice president of CTI and co-author of the report. This could include making a joke that brings attention to your contribution, pulling someone aside after a meeting to kindly ask him or her to acknowledge that it was your idea or reclaiming your idea by explaining your gratitude that your concept was well received and building on that idea.
Maintain your confidence over time
As the L’Oréal study pointed out, all respondents—a surprising 100 percent—said that confidence stands in their way in their STEM careers. In Kennedy’s findings, that was also a big issue, and the women who are thriving in STEM said they actively find ways to develop and maintain their confidence in the workplace. This could involve calling a mentor who helps to remind you of all you’ve accomplished, or teaching a course to give back and acknowledge how far you’ve come in your career.
Invest in strong peer networks
Successful women in STEM know how to develop strong peer networks and really invest in them. They are more likely to connect colleagues to senior peers and advocate for colleagues, and in turn, they receive the same type of treatment, Kennedy explained. “It’s really give and take, and these women know to connect with people in all positions,” she added.
“Many people who pursue careers in STEM tend to be quirky, and that’s a great thing,” Kennedy said. “Interestingly, the women who succeed in STEM are far more likely to say I’m authentic at work than others.” These women have found that it’s better to be themselves and to develop ways to use their authenticity to their advantage at work.