There's a moment from earlier in my career that sticks with me. I was talking at work about the nanny making the kids' lunches, and a male colleague joked that before long my daughters would think the nanny was their mother.
And just like that, my satisfying career trajectory in the technology industry suddenly felt different. Because, in the eyes of some of my male colleagues I was different. The fact that some of them had kids, too, didn't matter (no one's ever said anything like that to them or my husband). I was no longer an experienced executive. Instead, I was a "working mom."
We all know the statistics. In spite of all efforts, men continue to dominate STEM. True, women are not as rare a sight as they once were. In fact, in some places they represent nearly half the workforce, which is no small achievement. But it's important to distinguish between "working in tech" and being a technologist. When it comes to the latter, very little has actually changed, and the representation of women remains stagnant at about 20 per cent.
There is much to do if we're going to make a STEM career appealing to women, and it is even more work to retain them once they're here. The good news is there's no shortage of big initiatives, everything from awareness campaigns, conferences, changes to high school curriculum and more, all worthwhile and all important.
Amid all the big things, however, let's not overlook the many small but important things that, if done right, can go a long way to making STEM an attractive option for women.
Find a good manager, be a good manager
Statistically, any woman entering STEM is going to have a male boss. To the extent that you can, pick a good one. I've been lucky in that regard. When I started working for my current manager I told him, "I like to get my kids to school in the morning. It's an important bit of time I have to connect with them, so can I start work every day at 9:30?" And he's gone out of his way to accommodate that. In return, I've put in the hours, done the trips, stayed late to get it done when it needed to be done.
Offering workplace flexibility and looking out for a team member's individual needs is more than just a perk.
In this case, he was offering flexibility to a team member. He was also, perhaps unknowingly, making it more feasible for me as a professional with children to manage my time. What is the lesson here? Offering workplace flexibility and looking out for a team member's individual needs is more than just a perk. It's vital to attracting and keeping women who seek to balance family time — and often being the primary caregiver — with their career aspirations.
Repeat after me: STEM is more than gaming
A lot of the programmers I work with say it was their love of video games that sparked their interest in software. They were interested in what was behind the screen, and started building their own games as a result. Good for them, perhaps, but let's face it — the gaming industry can be doing a lot more when it comes to creating a welcoming environment for women (and underrepresented minorities, for that matter). I believe women opt out of programming, due to the negative press surrounding gamer culture and "brogrammers."
It's a shame, because gaming and software development is such a small piece of STEM. There are the booming fields of data science, AI, robotics, security, and all the technical sales and consulting that underpin those industries. We must get girls exposed to these options earlier, and do a better job of selling and highlighting long-term careers to them.
That's the big vision. There are many little things we can do in the meantime. Let's start with eliminating the words "rockstar" and "ninja" in job descriptions, and experiment with other activities in place of beer and ping pong.
Find a culture that talks and walks
Anyone can draft up a few points about the importance of gender diversity. After all, talking is easy. It's a very different thing to actually do something to implement change.
Look for companies that sponsor programs designed to help women enter or foster advancement in the industry. Another encouraging sign are employers that host workplace social events tailored by and for women that get away from the "beer and games" culture that so often dominates technology.
In addition to these programs, being a good mentor can go a long way. It's important for a woman to be able to look ahead and see successful examples of who she can be one day.
Anyone can draft up a few points about the importance of gender diversity. After all, talking is easy.
How can managers become mentors who support and empower female employees? First, empower them to be "unapologetically female in the workplace." Women can own a room, have strong voices and share great ideas; however, you often find really successful women hiding their childcare obligations. That should be removed from the workplace.
And don't make children in the workplace an issue. When I had my second child, I worked at a small company. I was afforded the space to have a nursery built in my office and took her to work with me. This also demonstrates the importance of picking your boss for the stage of your career and life.
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Change may take time, but attracting women to STEM is more than a nice-to-have — it's critical to the long-term viability of the industry. My challenge to everyone in the field is this: no matter how small you start, let's agree to do something.
If we do, change may come faster than we think.
Camas Winsor is Chief Operating Officer at Rangle.io, a digital transformation consultancy.
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