Courtesy of Deloitte
By Sandy Shirai
January 24, 2017

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 Sandy Shirai, vice chairman at Deloitte LLP.

As any business leader can attest, the world has become increasingly complex. To navigate in that world, they need all of the help they can get—and one powerful tool is a grounding in STEM. Technology and science are not only central to today’s business landscape, but they’re often the keys to progress. I come from a computer science background and have found my training to be invaluable in my role as leader of Deloitte’s U.S. Technology, Media & Telecommunications industry practice. A STEM education has not only armed me with an approach to problem solving, but has helped me stand out as a female executive.

STEM can get you to the root
When it comes right down to it, a lot of leadership is about problem solving and critical thinking—being able to view a challenge as arising from a set of variables and then building a solution that addresses the most important of those variables. That is very much a scientific approach, which is why a STEM background can be so helpful. A STEM education provides training in critical thinking and using fact-based scientific methods to solve problems. It helps you sift through and analyze available information, create hypotheses, and then design ways to test them.

So whether your business question is: “Why are inventory levels so high?” or “Why aren’t our customers buying our product through traditional retail channels?” or “Why are we selling so well in Sweden but not in France?”—a STEM-inspired approach can help you get to the bottom of it. It arms you with evidence, and it sure beats using guesswork.

See also: Proof That Having a Background in STEM Can Be a Game-Changer for Women

In tomorrow’s world, basic STEM literacy will be table stakes
STEM, and technology in particular, is increasingly integral to everything in our world today. Think about all of the data every business gathers on its customers: Mining that data can yield the kind of insights that create new innovations and drive competitive advantage. Or think about how businesses are being disrupted today—chances are technology has played a role. There are computers in everything—smartphones, smart cities, smart shoes, smart refrigerators—the list goes on. Even marketing campaigns use technology and are grounded in a scientific approach.

Every leader—male or female—in the coming decade will need a baseline level of STEM literacy because so many of the decisions they will be faced with will involve technology in some fashion. Take your pick—social media, robotics, data analytics, or cybersecurity—all of these are creeping into day-to-day business decision making, and if you’re not literate in STEM, you may find yourself disadvantaged.

STEM opens doors
As STEM becomes increasingly important in society and business, many jobs are going unfilled. There simply aren’t enough STEM graduates in the U.S. to meet the demand. If we as a nation can’t fill those jobs, companies will need to look elsewhere.


Women in particular are less likely to have STEM degrees or go into STEM careers. Take information technology (IT), for example. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of women in IT roles has actually declined slightly: In 2014, women made up 24.1% of the IT workforce, but in 2015, it had dipped to 23.7%. And while 2016 figures are not yet in, Deloitte predicts the percentage of women in IT will remain below 25%. Nevertheless, many companies in STEM-focused industries are striving to become more diverse in terms of both their workforce and their leadership ranks, making this a huge opportunity for women with STEM degrees.

Of course, if you don’t have a formal degree in STEM, this certainly doesn’t mean the door to leadership opportunities is closed. There are other ways for female executives—or any executive for that matter—to hone their STEM chops and achieve STEM literacy—reading broadly, finding a STEM mentor, taking an online class, or generally keeping up with technology developments, just to name a few. The point is, STEM will continue to grow in importance, and gaining a high level of comfort with it can only serve as an accelerator to your career.


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