The MPW Insiders Network is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for, “Why is a background in STEM important for shaping female leaders?” is written by Tracey Massey, president of Mars Chocolate North America.
Not only am I asked all of the time about what it’s like to work for a chocolate company, but I’m often asked about how I worked my way to the top of the same company for the past 25 years.
One of the greatest factors that helped shape me into the leader I am today is my STEM degree. Having grown up with brothers and always active in sports, my initial draw to STEM came from my own desire to be treated like “one of the boys” and go toe-to-toe with equal credibility. While that competitiveness was an early motivator, I quickly understood that there is an infinite list of jobs that make the list of STEM occupations, including roles in chemistry, astronomy, engineering, technology, health care, and everything in between.
After receiving my Bachelor of Science in chemical engineering, I joined Mars Drinks as an industrial engineer at a production plant in the U.K. Working in science and engineering early on in my career helped me understand the intricate technological and production aspects of the business, enhanced my critical thinking skills, and provided a well-rounded foundation in coaching and leadership for when I moved into more strategic and management-focused roles.
Supporting women in STEM is an essential aspect of helping companies grow and innovate. Even though women represent just a fraction of the STEM workforce, women with engineering backgrounds represent some of the highest spots on Fortune’s Most Powerful Women list. IBM’s (IBM) CEO Ginni Rometty majored in computer science and electrical engineering, GM’s (GM) CEO Mary Barra got her B.S. in electrical engineering, and PepsiCo’s (PEP) CEO Indra Nooyi got her B.S. in physics, chemistry, and math. These glass-ceiling-shattering female leaders prove that training in seriously hard sciences leads to serious business innovation and success.
Here’s why having a strong background in STEM is important for developing and shaping female business leaders in today’s landscape:
- Drive innovation
Careers in STEM offer women many opportunities to engage in some of the most exciting and important realms of technological and scientific innovation. Increasing career opportunities for women in STEM is important in promoting greater equality for women across the board, as well as helping businesses develop new products, services, and ways of working to become more competitive.
- Approach problems strategically
A STEM background is a great foundation for problem solving and leadership. Being an engineer involves an immense amount of collaboration and teamwork to come up with creative and strategic solutions to problems. It’s all about the discovery process. Even if you don’t know all of the answers to a problem, STEM helps you understand how to ask the right questions.
- Bring new perspectives
Women in STEM bring different perspectives that can lead to groundbreaking innovations. For instance, the first airbags were designed by an all-male team. However, the team ran into a major problem—airbags were not saving the lives of women and children. Once women became part of those engineering teams, airbags began to protect all genders and children, as they took all body sizes into consideration. Similar situations occurred when the first heart valves and voice recognition programs were being developed.
Companies that want to sustain leadership in manufacturing and technology will continue to need to hire and retain female leaders who can not only bring technical expertise to their roles, but can be role models and inspire the next generation of women leaders. It’s an important step to continue closing the gender gap in STEM careers.
There is a huge opportunity for companies to do more to promote science-related careers within their organization, including offering more flexible work schedules for women who may want to start a family while pursuing a career in STEM, or developing mentorship programs to connect the women in STEM at the company. As someone who is extremely passionate about promoting STEM to women, I look forward to a future where more women pursue careers in math, science, and engineering, and have a robust group of female STEM leaders to look up to.