Why Some Countries Have More Women in STEM

Across the world women are more likely than men to be uneducated or undereducated. However, even in countries of relative parity, men outnumber women in STEM careers, confirming our need to look beyond education to solve this issue.  I discussed the importance of all of us leaders to get involved and to act as role models in a previous post, but I would like to delve deeper into why this is even necessary.

As reported by UNESCO, not all countries have trouble getting women into STEM careers. There are many factors which could contribute to this, such as availability of jobs and educational programming, but there is one factor which I found to stick out repeatedly: Perception – The perception that STEM roles are not for women.

STEM careers, it is thought, are just not something women typically do. And so we don’t. Not because we actively think, “women shouldn’t do this,” but because it sits in our subconscious from childhood onward and is continuously reinforced by the male dominated STEM culture in our schools and our companies.

In the September 2014 Wired Magazine, author, Vikram Chandra, wrote, “In India, women feel at home in engineering. One 2013 study of Indian engineering students asked whether they ever felt left out in an academic setting. About 8 percent of female engineers reported such feelings.”

Similarly, in their study on Malaysia, Women in Computer Science: NO SHORTAGE HERE!, Mazliza Othman and Rodziah Latih concluded, “There is no gender bias with regard to how CS/IT is perceived by young Malaysians. Even though male students often started their bachelor degree program with more computer skills, it does not result in male students outperforming female students. Neither are females underrepresented among the high achievers. Female students are also more certain they will pursue a career in computer/IT industry compared to male students.”

The perception of STEM fields as masculine tends not to be shared by countries where the participation rates are higher for women. This results in more women pursuing the field, and thus contributes to the presence of more female mentors and role models. There are more female teachers and faculty at schools, more female PhDs, and so on. It’s a snowball effect – without the perceptual barriers – more women join, more women lead, and thus the idea that STEM roles are only for men becomes even more absurd.

However, in the US, and many other countries around the world, our perceptions are preventing this effect from taking course. This is why it is critical that we act as role models, as examples for the field. This is why we should push back against media that represents scientists solely as males or those rare female scientists as oddities to whom hardly anyone could relate. We have to provide a community of support to those already in these roles that will help them to be successful and give affirmation to those looking to pursue it. Finally, we have to stop defining career paths by distinctive skills and characteristics, because in today’s ever changing world – no role is black and white, and the programmers and mathematicians and scientists of the future will need to be as diversely skilled as the teachers and marketers and nurses.

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Guest Post: Leveraging Change Into Career Success

One thing is for certain, everyone experiences change. Change, whether anticipated or not, can be difficult.  It elicits feelings of excitement, fear, stress and/or happiness.   In today’s world, change disrupts the flow of what has been, evolving current situations or making them irrelevant.  Those who have thought themselves invincible now must confront vulnerability.  Whether broken and bruised or strengthened and motivated, they can continue on their path, look for another way, or quit.

Many IBM executives can attest to the frequently changing nature of the consulting world and how those opportunities (whether favorable or not) were leveraged to accelerate their career path.

In his 14 year consulting career, Srini Attili, a Partner in the US Federal Healthcare Team, experienced a lot of changes as he navigated his career path from a Junior Programmer to an IT specialist to an IT architect to a Client Partner and Capture role.   Many of Srini’s career changing moments actually resulted from people believing in him.  His credentials and reputation caused people to seek him out for new opportunities, which gave him a chance to prove he could be successful in new territories. In a microwave generation, many find it difficult to be patient and take the time to understand business needs and goals, often shying away from the unfamiliar, but it was the unfamiliar that allowed Srini to grow in the depth and breadth of his knowledge base.

“Instant gratification is good for all, but sometimes you have to be patient, step back and look at it from the perspective of the people who are accountable for the overall delivery and see what impacts them.”

– Srini Attili

Application Innovation Services Leader, Andrew Fairbanks, is no stranger to change either.  In the late 90s, Andrew was thriving in his career and enjoying working on a series of short strategic engagements with a variety of higher education clients.  After winning a $500 million proposal to design, build, and operate an online university, Andrew was approached to be a part of the delivery team.  Making the transition from short term engagements to working on a large complex delivery for a sustained period of time would grow to be something that Andrew enjoyed.  Moving past the initial impulse of fear and being open to the risks that come with new engagements would open up a number of opportunities for Andrew that enabled him to move through the ranks from a Program Manager to a Program Executive to a Senior Program Executive.

“When your leadership comes to you and ask you to do something, be willing to take the gamble.  They are usually doing it for a reason, because they think it’s in the best interest of your career and it’s what the business really needs of you.”

– Andrew Fairbanks

Many career changing moments find us in a place where we experience new people, subjects, or clients.  Speaking with Lori Feller, IBM Interactive Experience and Mobile / Social Business Leader, it was clear that the theme of collaboration repeated throughout her career experiences.  A support system is needed to help endure changes, whether planned or unexpected, and being able to identify those resources is critical to managing transitions in one’s career.

“I really couldn’t do it without the support of my mentors, my peers, and the people that I work with everyday.”

-Lori Feller

There will be many defining moments in someone’s career that can either propel or hinder their success.  One of the most common ways to deal with change is to adjust your thinking.  Approach change as a process – reframe how you think about change and be flexible.  Every successful person has encountered unplanned changes at some point in their career.  Their success comes from how they dealt with it.

Whenever you encounter change in the workplace:

  1. Recognize that change does happen
  2. Be aware of your surroundings and subtle clues that change is coming
  3. Recognize the stages
  4. Communicate with others
  5. Do a self assessment
  6. Be flexible
  7. Continue to do your work
  8. Be positive in actions and attitude
  9. Maintain your network
  10. See the big picture

“If we don’t change, we don’t grow. If we don’t grow, we aren’t really living.”

Gail Sheehy, Author

 This post was written by: Jelece Morris, Consultant for IBM.