AWIS provides a unique national platform where essential research meets advocacy, innovation and practice in supporting the advancement of women in STEM.
“Remember what your goals are, what your values are, what you are hoping to achieve,” Dr. Heather Metcalf offers career advice for mid-career women in STEM, “and to let those guide you to where you need to be. Each person is the one who is the best judge of what they can handle, and what it is they really want to feel satisfied in their careers.” Article written by Joan Michelson, host of the acclaimed podcast Green Connections Radio, career and book coach, and a dynamic public speaker.
386562 02: Astronaut Susan J. Helms, STS-102 mission specialist, is pictured March 10, 2001 on the mid deck with both Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) space suits designated for extravehicular activity (EVA). Helms is one of two astronauts assigned to space walk duties after the Space Shuttle Discovery and the International Space Station (ISS) link in Earth orbit. The photograph was recorded with a digital still camera. (Photo courtesy of NASA/Newsmakers). GETTY IMAGES.
Quick: Name four top women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).
This week, you might name Christina Koch and Jessica Meir, because they did the first all-female spacewalk in history. Bravo ladies and NASA for making it happen (new spacesuits required)!
The Nobel Prize committee was no help, since all their 2019 science prizes went to men, again.
A recent study by LivePerson found that only 8.3% of people could name even one famous women in tech – that means 91.7% could not name even one famous woman in tech. Worse, a quarter of the respondents named Siri and Alexa!
What can we do about this?
Because women repeatedly site cultural workplace issues and pathways to promotion as reasons they leave the field, I spoke with the Chief Research Officer of the Association of Women in Science (AWIS), Heather Metcalf, on my podcast about their new study on what they think it would take to advance more women into STEM leadership.
Heather Metcalf photo, AWIS
According to AWIS and Metcalf, there seemed to be two core, systemic problems:
· Genderized perceptions of what makes a good leader, which lead to biased evaluations and promotional practices;
“There’s a lot of research that shows women kind of face a double-edged sword when it comes to leadership,” Metcalf explained. “If you (as a woman) take on more masculine characteristics that are seen as admirable and successful in men in leadership roles, it decreases the amount of competence that you are seen as displaying. On the other hand, if you (as a woman) have a personality or leadership style that is higher on compassion, empathy, community-building, that makes it seem like you’re still not competent. So, no matter what, your competency takes a hit, and that plays into how women are evaluated…for leadership roles.”
· Lack of support structures for women that create opportunities for them to advance and gain the recognition women need to be considered for advancement.
“For men, the narrative is that they made it on their own,” Metcalf told me, adding “we downplay the role that mentorship played in their making their way into a leadership role.”
Three specific recommendations
What can we learn from women who have advanced to top leadership roles in STEM, such as Ginny Rometty, the CEO of IBM or Mary Barra, the CEO of General Motors, or Ursula Burns the former CEO of Xerox?
“These women have had networks and support structures and other kinds of community support that helped them get there in spite of an uphill battle,” Metcalf said. These support systems are both in their personal lives and in their professional circles, what Metcalf called “career level activations.”
AWIS’s report gives eight recommendations for how organizations can address this issue.
Here are three that especially caught my attention:
1. Broaden your network
Metcalf and AWIS suggest connecting to networks and organizations that would not normally connect with one another (I would add that this helps innovative thinking too). That is, reach people from different demographics, experiences, and backgrounds to help broader your perspective and expand the types of people and leadership styles you perceive as trustworthy and competent.
Metcalf also suggested that changing our networks over time. This makes sense to me, since our careers we evolve, we evolve as people and learn new skills and discover new interests, and as technologies and society shifts. I suggest multi-generational networks too.
2. Rethink your leadership evaluation and insert accountability
Metcalf described this as “making sure you have clearly articulated what it is you’re evaluating a person on and why,” and then training the reviewers not to deviate into questions about personality. This objective, consistent system also builds trust in the recruitment and promotion system, increasing the chances it will be perceived as fair.
3. Align professional development opportunities with what your employees need
Offer trainings, conference speaking and attending opportunities, and tuition or other funding mechanisms that align with their jobs, skills, interests, goals and the culture, to increase both usage and practical value. What will your employees be evaluated on? What makes a successful leader in your organization? Train them on those.
Metcalf’s career advice for mid-career women in STEM?
“Remember what your goals are, what your values are, what you are hoping to achieve,” she insisted, “and to let those guide you to where you need to be. Each person is the one who is the best judge of what they can handle, and what it is they really want to feel satisfied in their careers.”
Then she added, “It’s really about giving yourself the space and time to really reflect on what it is that you want and how it is that you can get there, and what you’re willing to do and/or sacrifice on the way to get there. And, that’s different for everyone.”
Listen to my full interview with Heather Metcalf on my podcast, Green Connections Radio here. You might want to be prepared to take notes.