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The Fear That Is Holding So Many Women Back

February 20, 2016, 7:00 PM UTC
Businesswoman resting head on desk
Photograph by Jason Butcher—Getty Images

MPW Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: How can more women leaders instill confidence in the workplace? is written by Blair Blackwell, manager of education and corporate programs at Chevron.

Despite making up 57% of the workforce, only a small fraction of women serve as executives—a lack of representation that is exacerbated in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, fields. This lack of female role models, mentors, colleagues, and leaders has a significant impact on girls’ interest in STEM, their persistence in sticking with and advancing in these careers, and their appetite for aspiring to leadership positions. Not to mention a dramatic impact on the economy as STEM fields and jobs proliferate.

As a young girl, I aspired to change the world. I studied hard and took advanced math and science courses, but without successful women in these fields around me to look up to, I didn’t understand the importance of related careers and pursued a different career path. Today, as I find myself in a male-dominated industry working to increase STEM access for girls and young women, I realize that my experiences are more common than not. So here’s how we can instill confidence in women throughout their education and careers and show them the way to advancement:

See also: 3 Ways to Boost Your Confidence at Work

Identify strong women role models and sponsors
If all of our bosses are male and our female colleagues occupy entry- or mid-level positions, it is difficult for women to visualize ourselves in positions of power. Even the most motivated woman may lose aspirational steam if an advanced or accelerated career track seems out of reach. Women in all stages of their careers—not just entry- or mid-level—need female role models to emulate and sponsors to help advocate for them and advance their careers. Through workplace-based affinity groups, like the Women’s Network at my company Chevron, or interactions with real women in STEM fields, we must ensure young women have strong role models to help them feel like they belong in any role they aspire to fill.

Give women permission to make mistakes
One reason for the attrition of young women in STEM is “B phobia.” Girls are more likely to drop subjects for which they earn a B, which disproportionately affects STEM subjects given their relatively lower grade levels. The same concept ladders up to the workplace. Unlike many men, women are often afraid of making mistakes or taking on assignments for which they feel underqualified. This risk aversion can undercut career success—necessitating we show women, in STEM careers in particular, that trial-and-error fosters, rather than hinders, learning and innovation. Some of the greatest ideas and most impactful companies were founded “by mistake.”

Make mentoring a constant priority
Mentorship and sponsorship works—we just need to ensure that it happens consistently and continuously. It is a lifelong journey—and just as valuable when we are fresh out of college as when we are vying for a C-suite position. In addition to identifying a mentor and sponsor for your own professional growth, acting as one for another woman is imperative in ensuring future female leaders. Offer to mentor a colleague at work, a woman in your professional network or through an organization like Million Women Mentors, or a female high school or college student. Regardless of your professional experience, you can serve as a resource for a young woman seeking a career in STEM by instilling confidence, pushing her to be her best self, and helping her navigate complex career situations and milestones.