Solving the diversity problem in the STEM industry doesn’t have to mean destroying stereotypes. It could mean changing the stereotype message, according to Anjali Norwood.
Too emotional, too family-oriented, too sensitive — stereotypes about women riddle any workplace, but are especially present in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) fields, where the gender balance is tipped heavily in men’s favour.
These days, the battle by women in STEM fields to gain respect and equal standing among their co-workers is affecting some of the largest, most successful technology companies in the world.
From Uber’s now infamous enablement of a raucous environment fraught with sexism, to the systemic pay discrimination at Google evident via US Department of Labor review, workplace gender imbalance stories are becoming the norm.
While this is generally an unfortunate trend, it is partially due to a positive turning of the tides – women are feeling empowered to speak out and, for the first time, are being listened to.
Unfortunately, this trend doesn’t mean the problems are over – far from it. There are widespread assumptions about female mood and behaviour that often bleed over into assumptions about women in the workforce, particularly for those in positions of power.
While there finally may be repercussions for gender discrimination in Silicon Valley, stereotypes are hardwired into the human mind, particularly when they are negative.
Instead of battling these stigmas, we should instead choose to redefine them and be empowered by them, and place value on the positives these traits can bestow upon the workplace. Each of them has a flip side that, when truly analysed for what it is, is an opportunity for women in the workplace.
From ‘office mom’ to talent developer
People often assume that women will take on the ‘default matron’ role in the workplace. At its ugliest, employees and bosses will expect women to carry the burden of mundane tasks – cleaning out the fridge, setting up a meeting space or ordering food when an outside company comes in. At the heart of all these activities is a stereotype of nurturing.
While assigning these activities to women is absolutely sexist in nature, there is a positive flip side to co-workers assuming that their female counterparts will take on this role.
Having a mentor in the STEM field is essential, especially for other women, who often seek out these role models but end up never having one.
Especially for disciplines such as coding, where creativity and different types of thinking can breed excellent outcomes, encouraging an office to take up a formal mentorship programme and placing qualified women in these leadership capacities can help foster a workforce that keeps team members happy and, ultimately, at their respective companies longer.
From lacking confidence to letting our work stand on its own
Women are often seen as uncomfortable promoting themselves — perhaps for good reason, since go-getter women are often met with backlash, according to studies.
Research also finds that women consistently underevaluate themselves compared to their male peers who have had equal training, while the opposite is true for men. At its worst, this self-monitoring effect can make it seem like women in general lack confidence.
When fear of advocacy on one’s own behalf occurs in the technology space, it can make it seem like women lack the technical talent required of every person if a business is going to thrive — especially at start-ups. However, instead of seeing only this side of the coin, let’s examine the upside.
The only way to evaluate someone’s worth at work that doesn’t distract an employer with their bragging – which is itself negative – is to look at the quality of their work. Women in technology with a high level of expertise in their domain can put their best foot forward and gain recognition in the field, knowing it’s entirely based on their expertise instead of their bravado.
From ‘too sensitive’ to emotionally intelligent
One negative stereotype that continues to follow women in the workplace is that they are often assumed to be too emotional for leadership.
Studies do suggest that women experience a stronger sense of guilt and other negative emotions, but they are also more likely to detect and process others’ emotions. Sounds like all the traits of a great leader to me.
CEOs are essentially in charge of both finances and human resources. In order to successfully lead their organisations, they must be tuned into their employees and how they function. In fact, EQ, or the emotional equivalent of IQ, has become a hot topic in leadership and hiring.
Ultimately, this leads to good performance, which often leads to better returns for a company. This high level of emotional intelligence allows leaders to care for their teams, encourage growth and inspire others to contribute to a company in the long term.
Changing paradigms to succeed
There is not a one-size-fits-all aspect to which types of personalities get embraced in the STEM field. This is a sector that is transforming the world, and the only way to ensure that Silicon Valley remains on the cutting edge of innovation is to have disparate – but equal – voices at the table.
Diversity in STEM is the only way to ensure our ideas remain vibrant. To get there, we must let women take on leadership roles, using the tools at their disposal to break through stereotypes and encourage ourselves and others to be at their best.
Anjali Norwood leads the Arcadia Data engine team. Prior to this, Norwood worked at IBM and Aster Data (Teradata). Her expertise is in database query optimisation and performance over distributed systems.