How Women Can Chart Their Own STEM Career

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Lori Thomas

Lori Thomas

By Lori Thomas, Senior Vice President, Strategic Engagement & Transformation, MetTel

Some years ago, our neighbors shared that their daughter, who was attending college at the time, had chosen to major in engineering. As a woman working in technology, I was excited to hear that a young woman I had watched grow up was proactively pursuing a STEM field for her career.

In recent years, there have been concerns about providing enough talent to fulfill the STEM pipeline, with millions of STEM jobs in the U.S. left untaken each year. Part of this can be attributed to the lack of diversity, and thanks to the widespread push for women in STEM, there have been some promising results. For example, Pew Research Center reports that women now make up nearly half of the STEM workforce (48%). However, upon closer inspection, the findings show there is more work to be done. While women are gaining more roles in life sciences and physical sciences, they remain underrepresented in engineering (15%) and computer science (25%) occupations, which have remained relatively flat since 2016.

Several years later, when I asked my neighbors about their daughter’s progress, I was told she had left her position in engineering, choosing instead to work in social media management. While I don’t know the specifics of why she chose a different career path, this is an all-too common occurrence. Many women like my neighbor start on STEM path, only to drop out and follow other pursuits. Research reveals the reasons why women aren’t more widely found in STEM jobs are varied, from a lack of women role models, to social pressures and bias, to an unsupportive work culture to other career preferences.

Interestingly, studies also show that a misconception about careers may also play a part. According to a Microsoft study that surveyed 6,000 women and girls, 72 percent of respondents said “having a job that directly helps the world” is important and 91 percent describe themselves as creative — but just 37 percent said they thought STEM jobs could be creative or help the world. This perception issue may also be one of the easiest to fix. Microsoft reports that after being shown brief descriptions of the real-world accomplishments of engineers, mathematicians and computer scientists, the respondents’ perceptions of the career characteristics changed dramatically – with some receiving a 33% positive increase.

This is an issue that I understand on a deep, personal level as a woman who has spent more than 20 years working in tech. I initially pursued a career in sales, as I wanted to work in a collaborative environment, but was always drawn to my passion for technology. As I advanced in my career, I learned how to chart my own path. Aware of the perceptions that STEM careers can often be isolating, I made sure that my position would still offer me the ability to interact and work closely with others. Today, in my role leading MetTel’s Strategic Engagement & Transformation efforts, I consider myself a senior IT consultant and executive who works closely with Fortune 500 companies. While I may not write code, every day I use face-to-face interactions with clients to help them understand and strategize how to deal with IT and digital transformation challenges.

Through my two decades of experience, I have found it most rewarding to collaborate and strategize with business leaders to help them identify and meet their technology needs with the best mix of solutions and ecosystem partners. COVID was particularly challenging for our customers because they were faced with multiple, significant negative business impacts at once which no one could have planned for. They needed to accommodate the need for hundreds or thousands of employees to work remotely while maintaining their productivity as well as overall business continuity and ensuring security for employee and corporate data. This was no easy task and it was incredibly satisfying to work side by side with my colleagues and partners to ensure our customer base stayed ahead of the curve.

We brought together the best-of-breed voice, data and collaboration tools, securely, to ensure our clients’ employees could effectively work with their customer base. We moved quickly to provide the extra network capacity needed to ensure the best quality of experience possible and to provide the right technological building blocks to support consumer bandwidth-driven applications. I also consulted executives from IT, Finance and Operations to help them understand how they could most effectively and securely move their data to the cloud and transform their legacy -- often manual and paper-based -- environments for a new flexible and digitized world. Now that we’re through the height of the pandemic, the next phase for me is to evaluate their long-term plans and ensure the right solutions and/or modifications are made to enable my customers to scale to meet the needs of the fast-recovering market in this new hybrid-working environment.

If the perfect STEM career for you doesn’t exist, consider building your own. Here are a few tips I recommend to women or girls who may be considering a future in STEM:

  • Explore the range of STEM careers. When many women hear about STEM, they immediately think of computer programmers or scientists. STEM is a broad term, and jobs in these fields similarly provide a variety of roles for many different personality types – not just introverts or for the highly technical. For example, you may consider a role as a consultant, salesperson or an advisor, which deal with technical areas, while being very socially engaging.
  • Know your strengths. For me, the ability to collaborate with others was non-negotiable in my career. I’m happiest when I’m brainstorming with others, instead of working by myself. Understanding this, I intentionally looked to take on responsibilities where I could do this. Instead of leaving a field where I didn’t fit the mold, playing into my strengths has helped differentiate me from others, and enabled me to find a perfectly suited role.
  • Connect to women in those fields. One of the best ways of understanding whether you’ll enjoy a particular career is by speaking to someone who is already doing the work. They can outline the pros and cons of their work, and may be able to suggest an area you hadn’t thought of. Moreover, we know from the Microsoft survey that just gaining a better understanding of what women in STEM can accomplish is likely to build greater excitement for that work.

I understand first-hand the incredible personal and professional rewards that come with pursuing a career in STEM. Given the continued expected shortage of STEM talent, there is ample opportunity for a mutually beneficial outcome – one that includes STEM companies recruiting talented women to shape these industries and bring diverse perspectives, and women finding careers that they are passionate about and that support their unique needs and talents.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.