A few weeks ago, the sisters of the Alpha Omega Epsilon engineering sorority at the University of Virginia invited me to speak after reading a previous blog post I had written, Advice For The Next Generation Of Tech Women. I shared with them a combination of both anecdotal and evidence-based considerations as they looked forward to beginning their professional careers and to becoming leaders in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields.
Be Yourself. This past summer, a woman named Isis Wenger was used in a recruiting campaign for OneLogin, a company that provides secure access to cloud-based applications. Isis is a platform engineer – but in initial social media responses to the ad, many people didn’t believe she is an engineer at OneLogin. As she says in her own blog post, “This industry’s culture fosters an unconscious lack of sensitivity towards those who do not fit a certain mold.” She turned this backlash into an opportunity and invited others to “help us redefine ‘what an engineer should look like.’ ” Using the hashtag #iLookLikeAnEngineer, Isis and thousands of female engineers (as well as other minority groups in engineering) posted their pictures to Twitter. When women in STEM choose to be themselves, it changes the view of STEM fields to be more diverse and more inclusive.
Be Confident. Merriam-Webster defines “confidence” as, “a feeling or belief that you can do something well or succeed at something.” I add that Be Yourself is a necessary first step to having confidence. As this author says, “If you don’t have solid knowledge of your abilities and of who you are, then you will most likely be depending on others to tell you who you are.” An article in Psychology Today highlights the importance of confidence. It refers to multiple studies that show that differences between men and women on mental spatial rotation tests are notably large. But a group of researchers suspected this difference was due to perceptions of ability, not ability itself. They found that women performed significantly worse on these tests after being told men do better on the task, and performed significantly better after being told that women do better on the task. When confidence was taken into account, the gender difference in test scores almost completely vanished. In other words, what we believe is true matters; so start with what you know to be true about you.
Be A Leader. Be Yourself and Be Confident are natural precursors to being a leader. It is widely recognized today that the core of leadership development is an understanding of and grounding in ourselves. An article published by the respected international business school INSEAD noted, “When leaders become overly focused on being seen in a certain way in order to advance their careers, they become excessively concerned with meeting others’ expectations, unable to step outside their comfort zone, and disconnected from their core values.” And the Harvard Business Review article Discovering Your Authentic Leadership offers, “You can learn from others’ experiences, but there is no way you can be successful when you are trying to be like them. People trust you when you are genuine and authentic, not a replica of someone else.” And the only way people will follow you is if they trust you. If you want to be a leader, know and believe in yourself.
Be Supportive. In Harvey Mudd’s class of 2014, 56% of students receiving engineering degrees were women, the first time at any U.S. university or college that women received the majority of engineering degrees. This compares to a national average of about 19% of engineering majors that are women. In an interview with Harvey Mudd faculty, they attributed this high percentage to a number of factors, including having a higher number than average of female faculty (30%) serving as supportive role models and active mentoring programs for women engineers. Supportive networks are not just a nice-to-have – their impact can actually be seen and measured. And in being supportive, you help create an environment where others feel comfortable and confident in being themselves.
Michelle Somerday is an Executive Coach and Leadership Development Consultant and the Founder of Neo- Strategic, LLC. She writes, presents, and gives trainings on all things related to leadership and is particularly interested in The Mindful Leader and Women Leaders in STEM Fields. She has a Ph.D. in Materials Science and Engineering from the University of Virginia (’98). She can be reached at her company website or by email.
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