From an early age, it is important to normalise science and technology as career options for girls. STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers are fascinating to young minds – after all, which child does not get excited about toys, experimenting with chemistry sets, or playing the latest video games. When I was a child, these hobbies were almost exclusively marketed to boys, which imprinted on a lot of little girls that tech was not for them. Since then, we have come a long way, with many books, dolls, and even building sets targeted at girls. For this reason, it is important to keep developing engaging and educational STEM toys and games for all children, to ensure that young girls feel represented and included.
Women as leaders in STEM
The importance of visible, female STEM leaders cannot be understated. After all, you cannot be what you cannot see. Throughout my education, there were very few female technology leaders to look up to, which made it difficult to see me myself as a future leader. That said, my father was an engineer and he encouraged me to pursue a technical career path.
Having visible role models is especially important during the later school years, as young women are setting their career path at this time. This is one of the reasons I am always keen to participate in career days and mentorship programmes at secondary schools and colleges.
By encouraging women to step into leadership roles, we can celebrate the achievements of others, and motivate a pipeline of female talent. For this reason, it’s important to continue sponsorship programmes throughout women’s careers, especially as they move into leadership roles.
Given the limited number of leadership positions, it is important to have advocates to proactively recommend women for those positions as well as intentionally consider diverse candidates for leadership positions and to fill seats around the boardroom table. Diverse leadership teams regularly outperform homogenous ones and women can often be more creative, or open to non-traditional career paths, to reach leadership positions.
It is no surprise that female contributions to technology throughout history have sometimes been overlooked. Women in STEM must become more visible, to inspire future generations of female technology leaders. Providing adequate support in the early years of a woman’s career is also key, as this is always a difficult period to navigate, irrespective of gender or profession. Women in STEM have additional hurdles due to lack of representation, pay inequality, and unconscious bias in the workplace.
Organisations that are invested in developing and retaining young, female leaders should invest in development programmes, leadership training, and sponsorship programmes. My personal preference is sponsorship over mentorship, because sponsorship tends to have a tangible impact on the trajectory of the recipient’s career. Men can, and should be, sponsors. As they disproportionately lead STEM organisations, they are in a position to positively influence young women’s careers.
Additionally, women should be supported as they build their families. Examples could include improving the length and financial support for maternity leave, flexible work arrangements, support with childcare costs and so forth. The technology sector is full of opportunities, so it is important that young women are supported and encouraged to build their own future without having to choose between a career and their family.
A brighter future for women in STEM
Our collective goal should be to elevate female talent and nurture their skills to fuel technological and economic growth. As such, it is critical that everyone has an equal opportunity to pursue a career in STEM and succeed within their chosen profession. By improving the diversity of knowledge and talent, the sector will be in a much better position to address many of the ongoing complex socioeconomic challenges. Those female leaders that are established should be encouraged to give back by offering opportunities to support the next generation of talent. This would hopefully ensure the continued success of women in STEM in the future.
Carmen Fontana, IEEE Member and VP of Operations at Augment Therapy