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5 ingredients for success in STEM as a woman

Nicole joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a faculty of Biotechnology. As her year progressed, she found that the female members of the faculty banded together rather subconsciously to form a ‘girl’s corner’. This corner led to having regular lunches where graduate women had interesting conversations about their research, experiences, and cruel impostor syndrome.

A lot of the women found solace in hearing stories from faculty members about the positive experiences they had in their academic careers. They learned how to approach problems in novel ways and were motivated and reassured of their capabilities.

These corners and the sharing of these stories are essential in STEM because as it turns out: it isn’t very easy being a woman in these traditionally male-dominated fields.

Despite the hurdles, though, a lot of women have been torchbearers who have made it in the STEM fields. There is a lot to learn from these women and the ways in which they went about achieving success. We are sharing 5 of these traits that successful STEM women had.

The stories and statistics that follow are borne from the research carried out by Laura Sherbin at the Center for Talent Innovation. We thank her for the same and applaud her for her work in inclusion and diversity.

Here are the 5 traits that all successful women in STEM possess:

1. The confidence of ‘I deserve to be here’

The first and biggest demon that holds back women from actively participating in the STEM fields is the imposter syndrome- the feeling of being a fraud or underserving to be where they are.

The confidence is not without cause. Cultural conditioning might sow subconscious ideas about what women are and are not capable of doing. Others might also pick up on these ideas and verbalize them as deprecating or insulting statements. Over time, these notions lead to a confidence downfall.

Thus, to begin with, women in STEM can work to reclaim this lost confidence. By focusing more on their abilities and achievements and less on what others ‘seem’ to be or have, women can take the first crucial step that is paramount to their success in STEM.

39% of successful women in STEM attest to this confidence whereas fewer than 2 in 10 women who haven’t been successful report to being confident.

2. Mentorship and/ or sponsorship

Susan Penfield is the executive vice president and chief innovation officer at Booz Allen Hamilton. One day, she recruited a protégé to the company. This protégé was an expert in health-related systems and data. This was also an area that Penfield needed to learn more about. With time, both women benefited from each other’s invested effort.

Penfield helped her protégé to scale an agenda within a large organization, positioned her for an executive role, and guided her to learn and grow on the job. In return, Penfield benefited by the knowledge she gained about healthcare systems. This helped her to command a bigger role in the company.

Together, the two women became a dynamo team that continued to advance through the ranks in senior-leadership.

Moral of the story? Getting a mentor and being a mentor is beneficial.

3. Speaking up, sharing, and claiming

Successful STEM women are likely to speak up and use their voice. If they felt their contributions were being ignored, 40% of them stood up to the situation.

Dr. Velma Deleveaux is a director at Booz Allen Hamilton. She’s found an effective, tactful way of confronting situations where her ideas/ opinions are in danger of being discredited. If someone repeats her idea after she’s presented it as if it was their own, she steps up and says I’m so glad you agree with the idea I introduced earlier. Let me share some additional thoughts.”

This way, she respectfully draws the line about who this idea belongs to and takes the conversation forward by adding more ideas and thoughts.

4. Networking like a boss

Half of the successful women in STEM report that their connection to leaders was built, thanks to their peers.

These peers not only helped them with connection-building but also provided moral and professional support in other ways. They ensured that these women received credit for their ideas and backed them up in meetings and circles. Why would they do so?

These women went first and helped their peers to connect with senior leaders. They supported them and their ideas in gatherings and sometimes went so far as to risk their reputation to help them correct a mistake.

Networking might not feel natural to a lot of women- especially if confidence issues and introversion prevail. However, investing in peer networks by demonstrating trust first, leads others to trust us as well. A time comes when the relationship no longers feels transactional; it feels empowering with mutual trust and investment on both sides.

5. Finding a greater purpose

While her interest and technical expertise were the initial fuel of her work, Amy Villasenor felt that fuel change. Amy is a Senior Engineer at Qualcomm and is often described as passionate and driven. The reason? The fuel change.

Amy went from simply loving her work to finding deep purpose in it. She is motivated and inspired by the myriad ways technology can change people’s lives. Now, she weaves her purpose into her projects and leadership style. Automatically and almost as a given, passion arrived.

Just like Amy, other successful women in STEM have found and then shared their greater purpose. They do so during conferences, panels, boards, and networking events. They also keep their finger on the industry trends and pulses, make their accomplishments and credentials known, and volunteer for leadership positions.  They make an active effort to stay connected to external contacts and experts.

Notwithstanding all the improvements made, it is still challenging being a woman in STEM- both due to external and internal ones. The challenge, however, is what makes the reward worthwhile.

Did all successful women ‘have what it takes’ in the beginning? Probably not. However, with persistence and passion, they surmounted the odds. They turned the tides in their favor and emerged as trailblazers.

We know you can be one, too.

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