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Subtle Changes You Can Make to be a Better Ally to Women in STEM

By Paige Kassalen

More often than I would expect, I am asked if there are still workforce challenges facing women in STEM. To this question, I always respond “yes.”

Of course, we have made a massive amount of progress over the years, and more and more women are studying STEM topics and pursuing STEM careers. The challenge, though, is that even though a good part of society has reduced their unconscious biases, there are still some biases that slip through the cracks.

Women’s History Month is a great time for men and women to reflect on how they go the extra mile to be inclusive to all people in the workforce. If you want to make sure you are being a strong ally to women in STEM, try the tips below:

Encourage women to take risks

Women are given blanket advice that they should be taking more risks, but then when it comes to specific scenarios, women sometimes receive feedback that they should just be happy with opportunities they’ve already been given.

Every career decision I have made was purposeful and I could explain the rationale behind it. Even so, I still had some colleagues and family members ask if I was sure I wanted to make a certain change.

From these experiences, I know that it is much harder to take risks when your support system is questioning your decisions. This is why it is important to listen when a woman is explaining her decision-making process, and to make sure you are providing the support she needs to advance her career.

Consider the gendered pronouns you use

What do you think when you hear these two phrases?

Phrase 1: We need to figure out who the decision maker is and make sure we provide him with the right information to close the deal.

Phrase 2: Our team is looking to hire an engineer. He should have three years of experience in…

Neither phrase is inclusive to women, but still, it is shocking how natural these phrases sound. I have been in many discussions where people assume that individuals in technology or leadership roles use male pronouns. On the other hand, I have been in conversations where someone purposefully uses “he, she, or they” to describe someone they don’t know.

When someone is inclusive with their pronouns, women notice. This small change will make you a better ally to women in STEM.

Rethink the traits that define a leader

When I graduated college, I read dozens of books on tips for being a woman in the workforce. The books were flooded with advice on how I should change my natural tendencies to help me advance in my career.

We’ve heard these tips before:

  • Just say “thank you” and don’t undercut yourself
  • Sit at the table
  • Don’t soften an email with “I just wanted to…”

I don’t disagree that these tips are useful, but it does not get at the root cause of the problem. As allies, we need to rethink the traits that we associate with leadership and value those traits equally.

Everyone is different and will express their leadership abilities in different ways. Someone who is good at listening, calm and very purposeful with their speech is a leader, just like someone who is loud and confident.

Listen when women speak

To be a strong ally to women in STEM, you need to make sure they know that their voices are being heard. Diverse teams perform better, but only when everyone’s opinion is valued and heard during discussions.

I’ve offered up ideas in meetings before, and had people respond as if I had asked a question instead of making a statement. I have also been in conversations where I say that I understand something, but someone insists on explaining it to me anyway.

Of course, not everyone does this, but when it happens it can be very deflating for women. So to be a better ally, make sure to be the person who listens when a woman speaks, and help her push her ideas forward when you see others shutting them down.

I am lucky that I have an incredible group of allies, and I work to make sure I’m being a strong ally to my fellow women in STEM as well! Take the time this month to reflect on how you can make a conscious effort to be a strong ally for women in STEM, and remember to encourage women to take risks, consider the gendered pronouns you use, rethink the traits that define a leader, and listen when women speak.

Paige Kassalen

Paige Kassalen loves to put her creativity to use by solving problems in emerging technical fields, and has been an IEEE member since 2012. After graduating with a degree in electrical engineering from Virginia Tech in 2015, Kassalen began her career with Covestro LLC. in 2015, and soon became the only American engineer working with Solar Impulse 2, the first solar-powered airplane to circumnavigate the globe. This role landed Kassalen a spot on the 2017 Forbes 30 Under 30 list along with feature articles in Glamour, Fast Company and the Huffington Post. After Solar Impulse, Kassalen has helped Covestro and JPMorgan Chase develop and implement strategies to embrace a range of emerging technology trends from autonomous vehicles to machine learning. In 2020, Kassalen received a Master of Information Systems Management degree from Carnegie Mellon University and now uses her problem-solving skills at an artificial intelligence startup, CrowdAI, where she leads the implementation of computer vision solutions for existing commercial customers.

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