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IT Leadership // Team Building & Staffing
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Sheila Stewart
Sheila Stewart
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Four Keys to Thriving in STEM and IT as a Woman

It isn't fair that women have to put in extra effort to succeed in male-dominated STEM fields, but MarkLogic's Sheila Stewart shares four great tips.

The U.S. needs to produce more than one million STEM professionals in the next decade over what it is currently producing if the nation is going to retain its historical preeminence in science and technology, the Obama Administration has said. Recruiting and retaining women in STEM related fields will play a vital role. In fact, recent data indicates women now earn half of all science and engineering bachelor’s degrees.

Credit: ShutterStock/ESBProfessional
Credit: ShutterStock/ESBProfessional

Yet, getting a degree is only part of the puzzle. Building and maintaining a career in an often male-dominated workplace requires a relentless can-do attitude. I know. I’ve often been the only woman at the table or in the room. Throughout my journey, I have found four key pillars invaluable to my career progression.

1. Be Resilient. One of the first times I ever recognized my own resilience and commitment to what I wanted to do occurred in high school. I was enrolled in a highly competitive STEM-focused school. One day, I got the highest score on a pre-calculus test. My teacher said, “It’s not fair. You’re a girl. Girls are not supposed to be good at math.” Rather than duck my head under my desk, I vowed that I would get the highest grade every single time.

I went on to be one of three women in my graduating class at the California Institute of Technology to receive a BS in physics. My father played a big part in encouraging me. He told me that I had to focus on math, science, or engineering because he knew where I excelled and he pushed me to succeed.

I have found that, whether in the classroom or the workplace, people sometimes make negative comments about women’s abilities, or disregard our views. At that point, we have two choices: let those comments in to negatively affect us, or let those comments in and use them to inspire us. The latter is much more effective for us, our co-workers and our companies. It’s not fair that you have to keep trying so hard to prove yourself, but you just have to do it.

Also, I receive and engage in many more positive than negative encounters. In those positive ones, whether someone is male or female is often a non-issue. Focusing more on those encounters, versus the few negative ones, feeds my resiliency.

2. Cultivate Community. Boys and girls perform largely the same in math and science in K-12, data from the National Girls Collaborative Project indicates. A lot of women then show up in college interested in STEM only to later change their majors. What happens? I think as women see fewer and fewer female colleagues and classrooms get to be more and more male, women start to feel like they don’t belong. The same thing happens in the workplace. I’ve often been the only woman on a team or even in an office. That’s why building community with other women in other offices, even other companies, is so valuable. Workers, in fact people in general, do better if they have a community that’s supportive. That community can include both women and men, family, friends and co-workers.

3. Give Back. I’m lucky to be in the position that I am. I had role models and supporters at a young age. Today’s girls need the same. Stereotypes set in when we are young, and that’s where change needs to happen. Increasing the number of women working in science and technology is critical, and so is supporting those women currently in the field. Men have long had rather informal ways of developing mentoring relationships. Women need to do that too, and because there are so few of us, often I am asked to be a mentor, sit on tech panels or to speak. I know I’m sometimes a “token” woman and the event organizers aren’t really committed to real change. But every time I speak, I know some woman, or girl, is probably listening and thinking, “Hey, I could do that, too.”

[Read about 12 Inspiring Women in Data Science, Big Data.]

Being vocal about my abilities and my experiences is a way to break down stereotypes and to give back. Companies also can make a difference. One such example is MarkLogic’s plan to run a multi-week pilot program to give students exposure on how different technologies can help them enter computer science careers. Girls must, and will, be a big part of that. Other companies are engaging in similar efforts.

4. Pursue Diversity in all Ways. It’s not only women who are underrepresented in STEM and IT, so are Hispanics, African Americans, and American Indians. Minority women, for instance, comprise fewer than 10% of employed scientist and engineers, according to recent data from the National Science Foundation. Diversity in the workplace makes the workplace a more friendly and happy place, and that increases productivity. I know it does for me. Encouraging diversity also results in different ideas, which is key to driving innovation. Given the many challenges and opportunities facing our economies and our world, we need input from everyone.


Sheila Stewart is a Senior Sales Engineer for MarkLogic, Inc, focusing on Defense and Intelligence Community customers. She has a BS in Physics from the California Institute of Technology and an MS in Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences from the University of ... View Full Bio
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User Rank: Apprentice
12/30/2016 | 6:48:09 PM
Re: Variations within genders.
Andrew, I have read that the INTEREST in STEM by girls and boys is the same through at least 8th grade so perhaps that is what is meant more than the actual performance in school.   I think we all agree with Sheila Stewart that it's important to encourage that interest and I believe, as you say, that encouragement may take different forms.

User Rank: Apprentice
12/16/2016 | 10:35:30 AM
We are all different
There is more variety between individual women or men than between women and men as groups. Some of us are good at math and science, and some of us not so much. Most advice you gave is also good for men.

YMMV, but I encourage women to join our field. As an older white male, I often get irked by some of the younger guys, but call them out! I understand that some women (and men, as I loathe confrontation) are hesitant to speak out as they think all of the guys are cavemen.

You can try something like "So you cool with me calling your wife/mother/daughter that?" or "You know you aren't going to get too many dates with that approach". Or even a "HEY, language!". People with healthy egos respect those who stand up for themselves.

And believe it or not, you are soon known for the quality of your work. If your organization does not value you, it may not be because you are a woman, but that they abuse whoever they can. Don't burn your bridges no matter how ticked off you are, just find another gig and then resign. You never know when you might later seek a position in that company. Don't bad-mouth the old gig in public, as too often people misinterpret you as a disgruntled employee.

I can't recall whether the author mentioned it, but network, network, network. This is an area where (I'll be sexist here) women tend to do better than men. One reason I am in my current position is that I've known the hiring manager and a some of my co-workers for over a decade.
User Rank: Moderator
12/15/2016 | 9:48:04 AM
Variations within genders.
"Boys and girls perform largely the same in math and science in K-12". 

I have some problems with that particular statement.  Although I have little doubts that boys and girls could have similar capabilities in STEM at the end of K-12 education, it has not been my experience that boys and girls perform the same throughout K-12 education.  Girls, being able to mature faster during the elementary school age, tend to outperform boys in all matters of subject.  Upon middle or junior high school, boys usually manage to catch up in capabilities and perform similarly as girls, and then during high or senior high school, via either nurture, culture or the supposedly inherent ability among boys, move ahead on STEM subjects. 

The thing I am trying to stress here is that girls and women ought to be given the opportunities to succeed, but ignoring the existing differentiated conditions upon the sexes posed by either society or culture is not the way to go.  Simply expecting a woman or a man do the same job the same way that used to be in opposite sex domain is not reasonable nor practical.  
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