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 Colleen Smith, vice president and general manager of OpenEdge at Progress.
A background in STEM can have an enormous impact in shaping the careers of female leaders, enabling us to differentiate ourselves in heavily male-dominated industries and showcase our skill sets. This presents a unique opportunity for women to excel in their careers—not only in STEM-related fields, but in whichever industry they ultimately pursue.
Nurturing women’s interest in technical fields needs to begin at an early age. In terms of after-school activities, parents need to look beyond stereotypical activities for girls. Girls who have more exposure to science and technology, for example, are given a more well-rounded experience, and it helps to immediately dismiss the society-generated notion that some activities are better suited for one gender over the other.
While we’d like to consider ourselves a very progressive society in which a girl can grow up to be whatever she wants, as recently as 2012, an American Society for Quality study found that girls interested in pursuing a STEM career are four times more likely than boys to believe that their teachers aren’t preparing them well enough.
But girls involved in STEM from a young age, to a degree, are exposed to so much more opportunity. Math and science are no longer perceived as purely male pursuits, and a whole new world of possibilities are opening up, instilling confidence and removing the misconception that many young girls have about what a woman can or should do. Furthermore, when girls see a diverse representation in successful math, science, and technology careers, this can instill a confidence in them that they have yet to fully realize.
Today, women make up half of the total college-educated workforce in the U.S., but only 29% of science and engineering jobs. But I’m willing to bet that those women have confidence in their knowledge and abilities because they know they can excel in today’s digital world and they know they have the analytical and technical skills necessary to compete.
While I’ve observed this confidence among my colleagues throughout my career, there have also been studies that further support my hypothesis. For instance, girls who have participated in Girl Scout STEM programs report an increase in confidence in science classes by up to 82% and math by up to 61%. Confidence is the ultimate differentiator between women who fully pursue a career in STEM and those who remove themselves from the STEM pipeline. We need to find a way to help young women build their confidence. I feel that is what has made a difference for me in my career and I see it in the young women I mentor today.
Women in all industries can pave the way to leadership roles leveraging STEM knowledge, and ultimately, confidence. Young women with backgrounds in STEM feel empowered to take on more leadership roles because they are not bogged down by gender stereotypes. They know they are just as capable, qualified, and deserving as their male colleagues to move into a leadership position because of their background, and they have the skills and knowhow to back it up.