“Too few women results in too many “Onlys”—women who are the only or one of the only women in the room— despite having higher ambitions to be promoted and become a top executive, they are 1.5 times more likely to think about leaving their job than women who are not Onlys.“ -McKinsey, Women in the Workplace Report 2018
As a certified professional coach supporting women in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math), I have interviewed women in various stages of their careers. The statistics surrounding women in STEM industries are staggering, and show a lack of progress over the last two decades. (www.ncwit.org/scorecard, Hewlett et al., 2008, McKinsey & Company, 2018). But, with some focused strategies, I believe there’s room for growth and success.
Many women I spoke with were confident and satisfied in their work as engineers and scientists, and felt a sense of fulfillment and purpose. Looking at their stories, a clear pattern emerged: what these highly successful women in technical and engineering roles had in common was a network of support. The exact type of support varied, but generally, feeling connected to others and knowing that “someone has my back,” was a regularly shared in these interviews. This contrasted with those who felt the least sure about staying in their fields, where I heard stories of isolation and exclusion.
When we’re disconnected, it’s natural for the inner critic and imposter syndrome to convince us that we don’t belong in the field. With that in mind, here are some ways to tackle that critical voice through connecting with others:
Build Your Network
Often, we only think of networking as something to do when you’re actively job seeking. A truly effective network needs to be in place long before you need a new job. It can provide an opportunity to connect with others to see that you’re not alone in your frustrations, and to gain that sense of belonging, even when it may be missing from your office environment.
Connecting with other women in STEM fields can dispel the isolation that can come from being in a male-dominated office. One woman I spoke with works as the only female engineer on her team, in a company in a rural area. She said that regularly attending regional SWE (Society of Women Engineers) meetings, and having lunch with women from other teams on-site form a crucial part of her support system.
Your network can be informal, a group of friends that you connect with on a regular basis to share what’s on your mind and feel a level of support and validation. Even simply setting some ground rules that say you will steer clear of judgment or unsolicited advice, and truly listen to each other, can be very powerful.
Find a Mentor, Sponsor, or Coach
One amazing woman I interviewed was in a mid-level manager role with a clear plan, and the support to climb to C-level. She is someone who takes time to coach struggling team members and shows compassion for working mothers. I asked her how she was able to lead in such a manner, given that she had been pressured in the beginning to be less compassionate. She said that she had a sponsor at the executive level that believed in her, and “had my back.” She quickly proved that her methods worked by turning around a low performing team. Having an advocate allowed her to take a stand and create enough room to prove herself as a top manager.
Sometimes mentors and advocates can be challenging to find, especially since the number of women in leadership roles for the STEM fields is quite small. See if your company has a mentorship program or will sponsor a number of coaching sessions for your career development. Check out professional mentoring programs such as SWE and She+ Geeks Out/WEST.
Make Lunchtime Connections
Women often miss out on the after-work networking within corporations, especially if they have young children at home. Awalin Sopan (Software Engineer, FireEye, Inc.) uses informal “lunch and learn” gatherings to create connections with her team and share ideas in a casual setting. This is a great strategy to help ensure that all voices are heard, especially for people who might struggle to speak up in a formal meeting. It also helps to create a stronger team that sees each other as human beings instead of competitors or adversaries.
Lead by Example
At the Boston GLOW Career & Empowerment Conference in March 2019, Cory Munchbach (Senior Vice President, Strategy at BlueConic) shared an incredible insight:
“There are two ways to get ahead – by trying to appease those already in power, or by advocating for those with less power than you have. Over time, the benefits of the first method diminish and you’re left either isolated or ineffective while the second is longer-lasting and results in becoming a leader with a broad swath of support and thus stability and confidence. It’s also – and I think it’s important to say this – the right way to develop in an organization. Don’t pull the ladder up after you.”
Look around at your team. Who could you advocate for? Model the leadership that you desire by speaking up for those whose voices have not been heard and encouraging those around you. A leader does not have to have a particular title to make a big impact, only the desire to inspire others to grow. You can also imagine yourself in the role you are aiming for and act as if you are already there.
Where to ‘Grow’ from Here
The bottom line is that your pathway to success can and should feel authentic. You can leverage your strengths as a connector with high levels of emotional intelligence and empathy. We’re all “wired for connection,” as Brené Brown says, so use this to your advantage. By nurturing and expanding your healthy connections, you will find greater success and a more rewarding career that is sustainable as well.
What strategies have you found the most effective at building a sustainable and fulfilling career? Let me know: firstname.lastname@example.org
Devon Grilly, E’01, is the Founder and CEO of Devon Grilly, Coach on Fire. She is a Certified Professional Coach and a career transition specialist for women in STEM fields. She helps women blaze their own path in careers that are sustainable and fulfilling, so they can step into becoming the leaders they were born to be.