For years, companies, universities and nonprofits have researched the reasons why women are less likely to enter STEM fields — and why, once they enter, they face challenges that frequently push them out. In prior research, we at the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) found that women leave STEM fields in droves: 52% of highly qualified women working for science, technology, or engineering companies leave their jobs. We, and others, have found that the cultures surrounding women in STEM have been shown, time and again, to be particularly challenging.
Yet many other women have managed to build highly successful careers with degrees in STEM disciplines. How did they do it? A new research study I led at CTI uncovers, through a nationally representative survey of 3,212 individuals with STEM credentials, and through dozens of additional interviews and focus group conversations, the differentiators of success for women in STEM.
We define success in a straightforward way: satisfaction with your job, respect for your expertise, and a senior-level position. We find that about 1/5 of women currently employed in STEM meet that bar. To understand how they do it, we examined what differentiates successful women from other women in STEM, and identified six key things.
It’s impossible to prove through data analysis whether these strategies got these women ahead, or whether achieving a more successful position allowed them to flourish in these ways. But after ten years of studying and consulting with women in tech companies, and from interviews and focus groups, I can confidently conclude that these six strategies help women in STEM achieve success, regardless of how supportive — or hostile — their company cultures may be.
Telegraph confidence. In their book The Confidence Code, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman make a research-backed case that many professional women suffer from a lack of confidence. In STEM, women’s confidence has long been under assault from implications and overt insults that women are less likely to succeed, and even suggestions that “innate” differences between men and women make women less suited for STEM careers. More recent research suggests that messages in recruiting for women in STEM often reinforces the notion that men are naturally better in those fields. No wonder that fewer than 2 in 10 women in STEM who have not achieved success report being extremely confident in their abilities. Among women who have achieved success in STEM, 39% report such confidence. Still a minority — but a far larger one.
Claim credit for your ideas. In STEM fields, the ideas that spark innovation are currency, markers of exceptional colleagues. Yet 82% of women in STEM say their contributions are ignored. We hear, in interviews and focus groups, that women are consistently spoken over and even robbed of their ideas. Feeling unheard can be particularly distressing — and disengaging. A common response is to let the incident pass without comment: nearly 3 in 10 women who have experienced this say the last time it happened to them, they said nothing.
But we find that successful women in STEM are more likely to speak up when they’re overlooked. In response to the most recent time their contributions were ignored, 40% of them confronted the situation, compared to only 26% of other women in STEM. These confrontations can be quick and tactful. For example, Dr. Velma Deleveaux, a director at Booz Allen Hamilton, leads a Science and Engineering business. If someone repeats her idea after she’s already shared it as if it were their own, she reengages and says, “I’m so glad you agree with the idea I introduced earlier. Let me share some additional thoughts.” This way, Deleveaux reclaims credit for the idea, demonstrates her ability to advance it, and continues to move the conversation forward.
Invest in peer networks. Networking can sometimes seem uncomfortable or transactional, especially to those of us who aren’t naturally extroverted. The fact is, building relationships with others increases trust, leading to buy-in and results. In our research, we find that successful women invest deeply in peer networks. They’re more likely than other STEM women to help peers connect to senior leaders, to risk their own reputations to advocate for the ideas and skills of their peers, and to help them recover their reputations after making a mistake. These are some big risks they take on behalf of their colleagues — demonstrating a deep level of trust that their own reputations won’t be damaged as a result.
The deep investment pays off. In return, women we surveyed who have achieved success in STEM are more likely to have peers who back their ideas in meetings than other women in STEM, and are more likely to have peers who ensure they receive credit for their ideas. Not only do successful women in STEM build lateral networks that ensure they get credit and backing for their ideas in meetings, their networks also deliver access to the corridors of power. Half of successful women in STEM say peers connected them to senior leaders (compared with 36% of other women).
Build up protégés. A majority of successful women in STEM report sponsoring someone at their companies (only 37% of other women in STEM do the same). As sponsors, they are giving meaningful advocacy to others within the organization. They’re more likely to advocate for their protégé’s next promotion, identify weak spots in their protégé’s performance and help fix them, and defend their protégé when they stumble. But this sponsorship isn’t merely altruistic. Instead, as we discovered in interviews, many successful STEM women have discovered that sponsoring others helps them build their own reputations as leaders who groom great talent — and can also help them keep their own skills current and sharp.
For example, Susan Penfield, executive vice president and chief innovation officer at Booz Allen Hamilton, recruited to the company a protégé who had expertise in health-related data and systems — which happened to be an area Penfield needed to learn more about. Not only did Penfield help position her for an executive role in the company, she provided guidance and room for her protégé to learn on the job, helping her with scaling an agenda in a large organization. Meanwhile, she broadened Penfield’s knowledge about healthcare systems, strengthening her ability to take on an even bigger role. Today, both women continue to advance, and have built strong relationships and reputations with the company’s senior-most leadership.
Be authentic. Many think it’s necessary to bend over backwards to fit in at work, but a woman who’s achieved success in STEM is more likely to bring her authentic self to work, even if she must tweak a bit for the workplace. A striking 78% of successful STEM women said they are their authentic selves at work, compared to 58% of other women in STEM. For example, Rosa Ramos-Kwok, managing director of Bank of America’s Consumer and Shared Services Operations Technology, shared with us that her leadership style is to listen to the concerns of people she’s supervising before working with them to help formulate her vision for an organization. Prior to joining Bank of America, she was placed in charge of an all-male team, and a colleague suggested she act tougher. Ramos-Kwok resisted that advice. Instead, she emphasized communication and team work, working with her new direct reports to work together to solve problems rather than compete for her approval. Sticking with her authentic, collaborative leadership style paid off: Ramos-Kwok won over the team and developed a reputation as an exceptional leader, leading to further management opportunities.
Hone your brand. Successful women in STEM tend to go beyond their job title or description. It is important to not shy away from owning how important their contributions are because that nurtures and is essential to their personal brands and reputations. Amy Villasenor, Senior Engineer at Qualcomm, says that over time, she realized that what drew her to her work was not just her technical expertise, but the purpose it served. She’s driven by the way technology can shape people’s lives throughout the world, and has gotten comfortable talking about that. Once she embraced that sense of purpose and started framing her vision for projects that way, her leadership brand evolved. “I’m often described as passionate and driven, and I think that is because I’m not afraid to let my passion come through in everything I do. It’s allowed me to focus on the reach and impact of the work,” she says.
Successful women in STEM take a number of steps to nurture their personal brands, often more so than other women in STEM. They speak on panels, sit on boards, and make their credentials or accomplishments known. They meet with external contacts or stay in touch with recruiters and headhunters in order to stay relevant in their industry. They volunteer for leadership positions within an Employee Resource Group (ERG) or affinity group, and attend conferences and networking events. They are also open about parts of their personal lives that connect them to others at the company.
Women in STEM have one of the toughest — and, potentially, most rewarding — jobs in the world. But how to reap the rewards is far from clear, especially in a male-dominated environment. The onus to improving gender diversity in STEM shouldn’t solely be placed on women’s shoulders, but systemic change can be slow. For women who want to become power players today, even if they find themselves in tough company cultures, embracing and embodying these success factors can help.