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My Advice to the Next Generation of Tech Women

A few weeks ago, I attended the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. It was a fantastic opportunity to interact with women who have recently started their careers in computing. I had many conversations where, as both a technical professional and an executive coach, I was asked for advice on how to navigate a field where only about 25% of professionals are women. These are some of the things I mentioned:

Be very good at what you do. These aren’t actually my words – these were spoken by Charles F. Bolden, Jr. when he was the keynote speaker at the Women in Aerospace conference last year. He is a former NASA astronaut and the current Administrator at NASA, the first African American to head the agency on a permanent basis. He understands first-hand that when our contributions add value, it’s harder to be excluded. My cousin has a seven-year old daughter, Ellie, who recently started playing organized basketball. At the first practice, her new teammates (all boys) completely ignored her, passing the ball only among themselves. My cousin asked the coach to address this. But the coach just shrugged and ignored his comments. The kids then practiced free throws. Ellie was the only one on the court who hit all of her free throws; no one else was even close. When they finished with a scrimmage, her team now treated her as an integral part of the action. Skill alone doesn’t guarantee that you won’t be marginalized; but being an appreciated talent makes it much harder to do so.

Be your own advocate. Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, was a keynote speaker at this year’s Grace Hopper conference. He was widely criticized for advising attendees (mostly women) to “have faith that the system” will recognize them appropriately for their work. This is despite the fact that systemically, women are paid less than men. Don’t assume that others have insight to your contributions or will present you with new opportunities. Early on in my corporate career, I decided I wanted to try my hand at business development. I ran into the responsible VP in the hallway and took the opportunity to pitch myself. When I mentioned that I came from a technical background, he was clearly dubious. He said, “I’ve never met a technical person in my life who could talk to a non-technical audience.” I held out my hand and said, “It’s nice to meet you.” I don’t necessarily recommend this approach – it could have been perceived as brash and backfired. But it worked, and I soon was on his team. If I hadn’t spoken up, and knew I could back up my words, I may have never had the chance.

Be an inspiration. In graduate school, I did science demos at local schools so girls could see that there were in fact women in science. For my Ph.D., I modeled the behavior of shape memory alloys. They bend and bounce back like rubber – which is cool – and they are used in orthodontic braces and eyeglasses frames; so most kids have actually used them. After one demo, a 10-year-old girl came up to me and said, “Will there still be things to learn about shape memory alloys when I go to college?” I said, “I’m sure there will be – there is a lot still to understand about them.” And she said enthusiastically, “Oh good – because I want to study them too when I grow up!” I was blown away. I wanted to be a positive example, but I had no idea just how powerful that might be. I don’t know what path she chose, but whatever she chose to study, I love that she realized that STEM fields were exciting and fun and an option. I hope that the next generation of tech women realizes that just by being in STEM, and being visible and accessible, they are already inspiring the generation that comes after them.

0606a40309242b500adb319beacefc92_fk8lPost by Michelle Somerday, Ph.D. (Engineering) Your questions and comments are welcomed – please leave them below, or email me.  To be notified of new blog posts, subscribe to Favorite Reads This Week or follow me on Twitter.  Or look for them on the Neo-Strategic website.

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