STEM-related industries (and particularly the tech world) have been under fire recently for their lack of gender diversity and their general biases against women in their workplaces.
We’re making progress, even in the tech field. In fact, Facebook’s 2018 diversity report shows that the social network is employing five times more women now than they were in 2014. But while that number is encouraging and inspiring, other numbers aren’t. The report also shows that women make up less than a third of Facebook’s leadership, and according to federal reports, while women make up about half of the total workforce, less than 20 percent of software developers and only 16 percent of engineers are women.
Today, more women than men are enrolled in medical school, and in graduate programs across the board, women are outnumbering men by 135 to 100. And it doesn’t stop at education. Women are better investors than men, and studies have shown that businesses founded by women deliver higher revenue.
So why are women still made to feel like they’re “less than” in so many industries?
I believe it all starts in school where, from the very youngest classrooms, girls are expected to perform better in arts, and boys in science and math. Thanks to these expectations, girls receive less encouragement than boys to pursue STEM subjects, and fewer girls than boys say they are interested in science or engineering careers. Further, according to the NCES, while literacy scores for men and women on standardized tests are not measurably different, men’s numeracy scores are higher than women’s in each age group and educational attainment level.
It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: by telling girls they’re not as good at math and science, we make sure that’s the truth. In a 2004 study, Stanford sociologist Shelley Correll verified that when cultural beliefs about male superiority exist in any area, girls assess their abilities in that area lower, judge themselves by a higher standard, and express less of a desire to pursue a career in that area than boys do.
And my personal experiences support those findings. I was in school in the 1990s, and I remember being fascinated by the night sky and the stars. I dreamed of becoming an astrophysicist, but as teacher after teacher failed to take my dream seriously, I began to doubt myself.
School-aged kids, like I was, are unable to judge their performance and their potential for themselves — they’re just not equipped yet. So they rely on their teachers to shape their ideas of what’s attainable. When my teachers didn’t encourage my interest in astrophysics, I let it go.
Don’t feel too sorry for me, though. I still managed to build a career in tech, though I’m not an engineer. I am lucky to have had the support of my family and to work for a company that is progressive enough to be fighting the gender gap.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t encounter bias against women in my day-to-day interactions with folks in the IT industry. When I speak with prospective clients, they often assume that I can’t understand their business needs or that their systems’ functionality is too complicated for me to comprehend. (And aren’t they surprised when I politely and professionally show them how wrong they are?) At networking events and other professional gatherings, too, I often find that folks I speak to seem to take me a little less seriously than they take the men in the room. When that happens, I’m often tempted to throw in the towel — or at least give them a piece of my mind. But I know the best thing I can do for myself and my career is to remain professional, hang in there, and let my knowledge and skills speak for themselves.
It’s not always easy, but I’ve developed several ways to overcome these biases when they arise.
4 Ways to Overcome Gender Bias in the Workplace
1. Don’t View Gender Bias as a Disadvantage
When we feel we’re not being taken seriously enough, or not enough is expected of us, it can be easy to fall into the trap of self-pity. But rather than wallowing — or worse, decreasing our productivity to match the low expectations — we should leverage these as opportunities to go above and beyond, proving our worth beyond question.
2. Promote Yourself
Have you ever found yourself singing a colleague’s praises or rallying on behalf of a friend, then wondering why you struggle to do the same for yourself? You’re not alone. As women, we are much better at promoting others than ourselves. But we’ll be much better off if we learn to champion ourselves with the same zeal, asking for what we want and valuing ourselves based on our own professional skills. So practice promoting yourself. Learn to skillfully highlight your strong points and celebrate your achievements, and make notes of your contributions so that, come performance review time, you’re ready to let your manager know exactly what you’re worth.
3. Let Your Frustrations Fuel Your Fire
When I go to work every day, my goal is to be professional and do my best. And, again, I’m fortunate that I’m at a company that celebrates and supports that. But for many women, frustrations at the gender biases saturating the workplace make it difficult to sustain stellar productivity. Instead of letting it get to you, learn how to channel that negative energy into your work, motivating you to go the extra mile and show them who’s really boss. And on the flip side, don’t be afraid to say when enough is enough. Part of valuing ourselves is standing up for ourselves, and refusing to let others walk all over us just because they’re in a position of power.
4. Become an Activist
During a 2006 keynote, Madeleine Albright said, “There is a special place in hell for women who don't help other women.” So commit to supporting and empowering women every chance you get. It is our responsibility (and it should be our pleasure) to get involved, raise our voices, and advocate what we believe is right — for ourselves and for our fellow women.
Starting a career in the IT industry was quite challenging for me at first, but I am so glad I did! Though they don’t need to define us, our careers are a huge part of our lives, and the choices we make about where, how, and for whom we work may be even bigger than we realize. That’s why it’s so important to learn how to stand up for ourselves, promote ourselves, and fight biases every chance we get.