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 Marivi Stuchinsky, chief technology officer at Farmers Insurance.
It’s true that the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields have historically been more populated with men compared to women—but that’s changing. Schools and businesses are increasingly encouraging women to enter these fields. And those who do find professional and personal rewards that can be difficult to achieve in other industries.
I speak from experience: I’m living proof of the value of a STEM education for women. My undergrad degree is in fine arts-advertising, but even in the ‘80s, it was clear that technology was a great space to get into. So, while working full time at my day job, I turned to my parents for help with childcare and took night classes for an engineering degree. It gave me the tools to support my three boys when I was a young, single mom. And it’s what’s allowed me to succeed in fields as diverse as entertainment, health care, and insurance.
Tasked now with leading teams and driving innovation as the chief technology officer at Farmers Insurance, my position draws on all of the skills and experience I’ve acquired by working in technology for nearly 30 years.
I’m now active in various initiatives to encourage more women to go into science, math, engineering, and technology. Here’s what I tell them:
Having a STEM degree can create a more level playing field for women
There’s nothing like having a degree in engineering or nuclear physics to silence the “imposter syndrome.” The suspicion is that maybe women get their positions in these fields due to luck—that they’re imposters. Whether it comes from other people or from their own insecurities, they often face doubts about whether they truly have a seat at the table. But believe me, it’s pretty hard to fake your way to a STEM degree. You have to earn every single grade.
A STEM degree can be valuable in virtually any industry
No matter what area you go into, a STEM education trains you to problem solve with rigor and logic. In engineering, you’re constantly asked to analyze business issues and come up with solutions that enhance revenue and increase customer satisfaction.
In my case, learning how to approach problems strategically allowed me to work for decades at the cutting edge of innovation at Paramount, MGM (MGM), and Sony (SNE). You might not think of the engineering that goes into a production, like computer-generated imagery, when you’re sitting in the theatre watching the latest blockbuster movie, but having that degree can place you right at the heart of the most creative fields.
A STEM degree plus an assertive leadership style can be a powerful combination
If your leadership style is assertive rather than aggressive, it can serve to your benefit in the STEM fields. I’ve found this quality to be especially useful when leading teams of engineers—we tend to be highly opinionated and strong-willed people. Because of the confidence and credibility you earn with a STEM degree, you can minimize confrontations and succeed as a more collaborative leader. So much of success comes down to delivery, and the ability to sell your ideas in a persuasive manner can give you real strength in the STEM space.
It’s a supportive community
I’ve found that most men in engineering are actually very welcoming of women, whether as students, interns, colleagues, or managers. I’ve had male mentors offer advice, guidance, and support, even at a time when there weren’t many women in my field. And especially today, women getting a STEM degree can create their own support communities. Even after 30 years, I still draw support from networking with other women in the STEM field as well as other advocacy groups, like Executive Women in IT. Women can seek out help, find a mentor, look for internships, and claim ownership of the opportunities that open up for them with a STEM degree.
The STEM fields are at the forefront of innovation today, making them powerful business enablers. Across the board—regardless of the industry or field of study—women can position themselves for career growth and success by pursuing a science, technology, engineering, or math degree. And they can then claim ownership of the unrivaled opportunities that open up for those with a STEM degree.