How can I say it’s a great time to be a woman in a STEM profession when according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics – only 10% of engineers are women, or when only 22% of those in technology are women?
Or you will ask – did you see the article in the NY Times about Elissa Shevinsky describing Technology’s Man Problem?
Or how about Julie Horvath who left her position at Github because of sexism and intimidation?
Here is why I think it’s a great time to be a woman in a STEM profession – because there is so much discussion going on these days related to the difficulties that exist in the workplace. And at the same time there is discussion around intentionally changing the STEM cultures so that women can succeed.
My take on the issues described by Ms. Shevinsky and Ms. Horvath is that these circumstances are terrible and should NEVER happen in a workplace. I applaud both women for standing up and speaking out. I did not have the courage to speak out early in my career.
In the summer of 1980 I worked as an engineering intern for a steel company in Pennsylvania. I spent my time working in both the brass foundry and the iron foundry. The office area in the iron foundry was a big open room where the engineers and administrative staff all sat at those old but reliable grey steelcase desks. It was common to have a clear Lucite sheet to protect the top of the desk. In the iron foundry office, every single one of these desks had dozens of pictures of naked women under the Lucite. I remember being embarrassed and uncomfortable with the images as some were disturbing. But I never said anything. Instead I would grab a D or E size drawing to cover the images and went about my work as if the images did not exist.
Why didn’t I speak up and ask that they be removed? Well I was the good girl who challenged the norms by becoming an engineer but NOT by speaking up. I was taught never to question authority, but that I should work hard and deal with what I are given.
Not only have I changed since 1980 but workplaces have changed dramatically.. My own experiences since then is that this type of behavior would never be tolerated and that gender bias exists in more subtle ways. But as detailed in the previously mentioned NY Times article, there are some workplaces where it is still okay to be sexist or to objectify women. What I am hoping is that other women dealing with sexism in the workplace look up to the examples of Ms Shevinsky and Ms Horvath. If you are in a difficult workplace, speak up and/or walk away. If necessary contact a a lawyer who specialized in employment law. No one should have to work in a place where bad behavior is tolerated.
I also know that many companies want to retain their women in STEM. The managers and HR personnel in these companies know that sexist behavior is not only wrong, it is illegal in the workplace.
The issue of women persisting in the STEM professions is complex and multi-level. There are many reasons to persist including the financial aspects. But you cannot love your job as a women in STEM if you are experiencing difficult workplaces. Speak up and be the spark to change the workplace.
Here are two great examples of STEM women that are changing the world with their work.
Maria Klawe is the president of Harvey Mudd College. She was recently named one of the World’s top leaders by Forbes – number 17 out of 50. In a recent article in Slate Dr. Klawe discussed her own career in technology. Additionally Dr. Klawe discusses how an intentional effort including changes in classroom teaching techniques have increased the percent of women graduates in computer science from 10% to 40% in less than 10 years.
Debbie Sterling, an engineer, has created “Goldiblox” as toys for girls that teach building skills. The new commercial is brilliant as it demonstrates the toys and shows girls how engineering can be a career for them.
Want to love your job more?
- Speak up if you are dealing with inappropriate behaviors in the workplace
- Read and learn about other women who are helping women to achieve in the STEM profession
- Be a woman who helps other women in the STEM professions
As Madeline Albright has said “there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”
It’s a great time to be a woman in the STEM professions!