When it comes to the field of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), only about 28% of the workforce is made up of women. Things like stereotypes and biases play a role, and for careers like computer science and engineering, the gender gap is especially high. However, over the past 40 years, the number of girls interested in STEM has increased as young girls and women are encouraged more to pursue STEM and told from a young age that STEM isn’t just for boys. Recently, BlogHer Inclusive Future hosted a digital event on bridging the gender gap in STEM careers, where expert panelists including Dr. Moira Gilchrist, vice president of strategic and scientific communications at Philip Morris International; and Dr. Sarah Saska, CEO of Feminuity, discussed ways to close the gender gap and empower girls and women in STEM.
We talked with Dr. Gilchrist, Dr. Saska, and Jenny Connelly, executive vice president of product and technology at Penske Media Corporation, on how to further advance women in STEM, how the industry has shifted since the pandemic, and how women in these fields can support each other.
Dr. Gilchrist, how has the pandemic helped you become a better leader and a better team member?
“Working remotely has meant that we don’t bump into colleagues in the office and have the informal catch-ups that we used to, and I found this was what I missed most in early 2020. For me, the solution was to set up an informal, short team meeting every day at the close of business. It has been a wonderful thing for all of us. We catch up on the day’s successes, iron out any problems, and just generally have a moment of relaxation. We have become much closer as a team, we’re better informed—and much more efficient too.
“As a leader, my first and foremost priority during the pandemic has been empathy, so I can demonstrate to my team and more broadly that I am there for them when things are unclear, personally challenging, and sometimes frightening. In such uncertainty, I want my team to know that my support is a constant.”
How do you think the pandemic has changed attitudes toward science as a career?
“Never has there been a time when science has been more important. The pandemic has demonstrated the need for science and evidence in helping control COVID-19 through the vaccine and other measures. I have never been prouder to be a scientist and I would hope that the accelerated advances that have been made in both science and technology over the past two years have inspired more young people to go down the STEM route, whether they want to become, doctors, scientists, pharmacists, or even science communicators.”
Just like in other career fields, stereotypes exist about women in STEM, including women being more emotional, women are more nurturing, and women typically either choose a career or a family. How do we overcome these types of stereotypes?
“Firstly I think it’s important that we see these characteristics as qualities of anybody, whatever gender, sexual preference, or race, etc. they may be—they are human qualities. We all have different life experiences and look at things through different lenses; that’s what makes us unique in our working and leadership styles.
“I’m glad to say that business is beginning to recognize the benefits of having unique perspectives and experiences in the workplace—it’s what makes a business innovative and keeps it future-proofed. We need to be celebrating all our differences both at work and at home. And therefore, I would encourage any woman in STEM to celebrate and cultivate these differences. Not only will you be happier, but you will be more successful in your career and flourish.
“As leaders, it is our responsibility to help dispel stereotyping where we see it, even in ourselves! Recognizing that we also need to question our own actions and thoughts is key because bias can be both conscious and unconscious. We all have a responsibility to do this and as leaders, we need to set the example.”
Jenny, any thoughts on this topic?
“Honestly, we overcome these stereotypes by showing up and doing great work, so let the work speak for itself. If a female software engineer writes great code, that shows everyone around that she is a powerful, valuable member that you want on your team. She may be emotional—and still, write great code! She may have a family—and still, write great code! She may bake brownies for the whole team—and still write great code! Rather than coaching women to not show emotion or nurture others in the workplace, I say be your true self, do a great job, and be proud. It will speak for itself.”
Can you offer any tips into how women—especially women in male-dominated industries—should tackle their impostor syndrome?
“First, I suggest that every woman, but especially women in male-dominated industries, make a close connection with another woman in their company. You will have a wing-woman who can give you a pep talk, support you if you’re feeling like an impostor, and remind you that YOU ARE IN THE ROOM BECAUSE YOU EARNED IT. You may consider rehearsing out loud in a mirror or with your wing-woman a presentation that you need to make, or comments that you know you’d like to make in an upcoming meeting. This way, you can feel more confident and prepared, and overcome the impostor syndrome in the moment.
“Let’s be honest: mansplaining exists! As the only woman in the room, you may get spoken over by a man—this stinks but it may happen. If you can rehearse in advance what you would like to say in that situation (for example ‘thanks Scott, I appreciate that input and I’d like to finish what I was saying as well’) then I encourage you to feel confident enough to stand up for yourself and help teach the men around you how to be better teammates. I especially feel that senior women (like myself) have the responsibility to gently call this behavior out, in order to show both men and women that this is not how strong teams communicate.”
STEM careers for young women who aren’t yet old enough to enter the workforce can seem intimidating. How do we make STEM more approachable and appealing to future generations?
“Many universities are working hard on this very topic. For example, the University of Washington pioneered re-writing their STEM curriculum—from the names of the classes in the course catalog to the actual curriculum—based on research, to invite women in more. Another example is that at Penske Media Corporation, a few years ago we re-wrote our software engineer job descriptions to remove words like “ninja,” “guru,” and “rock star,” which data show appeal to men and not women, as well as adding lines like “You don’t need to check every box. If you are passionate about this opportunity, we would love to hear from you,” because studies have shown that women will only apply if they think meet all requirements (unlike men, who will apply if they meet some but not all). In addition, for every interview cycle, we have at least one woman interview new candidates, so that any young woman who applies for a job will see someone like her on the other side of the table and know that they are welcome here.”
Dr. Saska, as we know, female representation in STEM is important, but women seeing other women in leadership roles is crucial for career growth and development. Can you talk about the importance of women’s leadership in STEM?
“Seeing ourselves reflected in the upper echelons of an organization is critical. One of the biggest challenges to this visibility is the revolving door problem. We’ve all heard about the company that scrambles to repair its image or make a change and decides to hire a woman solely to check off a box. When women are employed under this guise, they are likely to leave, and often in the first six months. When a company culture reeks of misogyny and fails to support women, they’ll leave if they’re financially able to.
“Many companies are working to diversify their workforces. Still, they make the mistake of focusing too narrowly on their recruiting processes—diversifying their pipeline and de-biasing their screening process, as examples—and they forget to focus on what happens when they get the new hire through the door. If companies don’t invest their time and energy into building a culture where everyone can feel included, where everyone can bring their whole selves to work each day, they’ll be no further ahead. If all of their new and incredible talents don’t feel included and supported at the company, they’re likely to leave. And if they go, they tell their friends and colleagues.
The Inclusive Future content on BlogHer is sponsored by Philip Morris International (PMI). BlogHer has independent editorial responsibility for the content. The views expressed by the authors and contributors may not represent the views of PMI except for those quotes directly attributed to PMI executives.