Women and Confidence in The STEM fields
“Maybe you should choose something easier,” said my high school history teacher when I excitedly told him I had declared industrial engineering as my college major. “Women should not be engineers,” said my college physics professor as I sat hand raised, the only woman in my advanced physics course. (Should I mention I was there on an academic scholarship?)
That was over 15 years ago, but I’m disheartened to see that in 15 years not all that much has improved. While I think attitudes toward women in technology are changing, slowly… in general a woman choosing to pursue a degree in many of the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) tends to come out with a pretty thick skin. (If she comes out at all.)
But surprisingly, that thick skin does not always translate into confidence. Many competent women in STEM fields say they struggle with feeling like impostors in their careers, otherwise known as the “impostor syndrome.” I will be the first to admit that although I routinely scored above my male classmates, I still have often caught myself deferring to the alpha-male in the room, assuming that because he speaks louder or seems more self-assured, that he must be more competent. Why is that?
Nature, nurture and well… fear of being a b*%#$
So first the science. I hesitate to even go here, as the topic has been a bit of a taboo subject for years, mostly among women. (Most likely out of an understandable fear that scientific evidence of biological differences could be used against us. Ahem… because for centuries, it has been used against us.) But subtle observable differences in male and female brains do exist. [1, 2] While the literature on this is often contradictory, these differences can influence the way we respond to risk, challenges and emotional stimuli, as well as how we weigh options and make decisions. [3, 4, 5]
Then there’s culture and environment. We don’t need to look far for clues on how pop culture and upbringing play a role in a woman’s decision whether or not to enter a STEM field. As a child we walked wide-eyed through the starkly divided toy aisles (science games, electronics and building blocks for boys… baking, makeup and fashion plates for girls). And as adults, we’re bombarded constantly with highly sexualized images of women and one-dimensional female characters in the media.
Sadly, the general sexist attitudes and paradigms about women and technology still abound. Sigh. Phrases like “I wonder who she slept with,” and “she’s just another LW” (Loud Woman), are still pretty common idioms whispered about women who’ve risen through the ranks. In an interview with a high ranking female officer at the Annapolis Naval Academy conducted by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, authors of “The Confidence Code,” they learned that the unofficial moniker for the female sex at the academy is “D.U.B.” Want to know what it stands for? Dumb Ugly… you can figure out the rest. It’s so commonplace, that even women there admittedly refer to themselves, along with the female gender as a whole, as DUBs. We are not helping ourselves.
This leads me to the third culprit for our struggle with confidence; the fear of being disliked. We’ve all encountered this– a woman in our lives who is labeled a “bitch” because of certain qualities like her opinions, assertiveness, volume, or authority. And as women, most of us feel an innate and nurtured need to be liked; to play by the rules; sugar and spice and everything nice. And for women who worry that exhibiting traits outside of the realm of “everything nice” will cause them to be disliked, they are often right. Yale psychologist, Victoria Brescoll, recently conducted a number of studies to investigate whether women in leadership positions didn’t speak up as much as their male counterparts out of fear of backlash. In one of her studies of chief executives, she found that male executives who spoke up more frequently than their peers received 10% higher competence ratings in their workplace. But female executives who spoke up with more frequency than their peers, were actually punished with 14% lower ratings of competence (from both men and women in their workplace). 
Having said all of this, it’s not tough to imagine how the world we live in might have an impact on how we ultimately view ourselves in relation to our male counterparts. And for the ultimate catch-22, if women themselves don’t think they’re as smart, capable or competent, why should anyone else?
So what difference does it make? The implications of gender homogeneity in the science and tech workforce actually affect everyone… women, men and children. In the STEM fields, whether consciously or not, I would argue that there is a natural correlation between what gender a person represents and what problems they are working to solve, or for whom they are researching, designing or programming. Case in point, as I type these words I sit hunched in an airplane seat that is designed to support the posture of an average size man. But let’s talk about some more serious examples. Research on cardiac misdiagnoses reported in the New England Journal of Medicine found that women heart patients under the age of 55 were seven times more likely to be misdiagnosed by E.R. physicians than men of the same age. Heart disease is the number one cause of death in women, and symptoms can present much differently in women than those typically shown in men. [7, 8] Furthermore, research has shown that females tend to exhibit disproportionately more side effects than men from many medications.  While there is certainly more than one theory for the cause of this disparity, shouldn’t one of them be that until recently, most lab rats and other animals used for research were male? The NIH feared this was translating into drugs that are less effective in women or carry more serious side effects. So in October 2014, they issued a mandate that scientists will have to show gender balance in their test subjects in order to receive federal money. 
Research and design fields need more women in order to broaden the perspective from which various problems are looked. Science and technology needs more women to widen the range of inventions and breakthroughs to include the interests, issues, physiology and needs of the other half of the population. But we don’t just need more talented and skilled women in these fields; we need these women in leadership positions, directing the field. And speaking up!
The Virtuous Circle
The statistics of women working in STEM careers today are disappointing, but of the numbers who do, the percentage who rise into leadership roles in their field is abysmal, particularly in technology.  We have too many overqualified and highly competent women in these fields who are stuck at the lower levels.
This brings me to the following point: confidence, as it turns out, is as significant a driver of success as competence. The deficit in female confidence is increasingly well documented.  In general, women in technology underestimate their abilities, don’t ask for promotions as often, and don’t expect the same rewards and recognition as their male co-workers, brothers, husbands, and fathers. It boils down to this — for all the reasons I stated above and more, many of us think we are not as competent. And by thinking that, we inadvertently teach and perpetuate the same pattern of thinking and behavior to our daughters… As well as to our sons.
But if I happen across another article talking about “5 ways to display confidence in the workplace” which includes breathing right and wearing clothes that fit, I may just pull out my hair. Really? Is that all it takes? The world needs more women in STEM who are leading in their fields. That does not mean dressing right, changing your posture or hearing words of reassurance. (Although of course those things are important too.) It means action. The opposite of inaction. Having the courage to speak up when we haven’t already prepared an answer. Having the persistence and will to continue fighting for your perspective, despite the repercussions. Turning our analyzing, ruminating thoughts into action; which becomes research; which becomes designs, cures, and companies.
A challenge to be the b#$*%
Now as I work as the Head of Operations for FEM inc., I recall an evening a few years back when I was scheduled to present in front of a room of colleagues and superiors in my field. I was sitting in the audience with a mentor of mine (a man in his 60’s who was also scheduled to speak), and he noticed I was fidgeting anxiously. I told him I was admittedly quite nervous. He looked at me with wise old eyes, the kind of look when you know something profound is about to be imparted, and he said the words, “well don’t be.” I laughed and took it as a joke (and secretly hid my supreme disappointment since I had mentally prepared myself for something wise and life-changing). But years later, I have remembered those three words on a few occasions, as I have grown to learn that so much of self-confidence comes from within our own control.
I’m not advocating that we project fake confidence to overcompensate for lack of competence. But if you are competent, let your actions show it. For too long intelligent, talented and competent women have hesitated to step forward or speak up because of a lack of confidence; and that inaction has cost us all.
Yes there are a multitude of factors contributing to why we may feel less confident than our male cohorts at being leaders in our careers. But the ability to change our minds must lie first within us. Women in STEM, I challenge you to stop underestimating the value of your opinions, decisions and expertise. Force yourself to do the things that test your confidence and comfort zone. Raise your voice in meetings with your peers and superiors. Take on the projects you find intimidating. Apply for the jobs that seem out of your reach. And stop attributing your achievements to luck. Women and enlightened men alike need you to speak up, lean in, and be the b#$*% you were destined to be.
- Katty Kay, Claire Shipman. The Confidence Code
- Louann Brizendine, MD, The Female Brain
- Lynn SK, Hoge EA, Fischer LE, Barrett LF, Simon NM. “Gender differences in oxytocin-associated disruption of decision bias during emotion perception.” Psychiatry Res. 2014 Sep 30;219(1):198-203. doi: 10.1016/j.psychres.2014.04.031. Epub 2014 Apr 26;
- Birgit Derntl, Nina Pintzinger, Ilse Kryspin-Exner, and Veronika Schöpf. “The impact of sex hormone concentrations on decision-making in females and males” Front. Neurosci., 05 November 2014 | doi: 10.3389/fnins.2014.00352;
- Paola Sapienzaa, Luigi Zingalesb, Dario Maestripieri. “Gender differences in financial risk aversion and career choices are affected by testosterone” < http://www.pnas.org/content/106/36/15268 >
- Victoria L. Brescoll. “Who Takes the Floor and Why”< http://asq.sagepub.com/content/56/4/622 >
- Anne Moore, “Dr. Annabelle Volgman has changed how women are treated for heart disease.” Crains Chicago Business. Nov 14, 2014 < http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20141115/ISSUE03/311159989/dr-annabelle-volgman-has-changed-how-women-are-treated-for-heart-disease >
- JoBeth McDaniel, “Heart Disease: Lifesaving News for Women.” AARP The Magazine. May/June 2014. < http://www.aarp.org/health/conditions-treatments/info-2014/heart-disease-lifesaving-news-for-women.html >
- Dan Keating, Jason Millman. “Bad medicine: The awful drug reactions Americans report.” The Washington Post. June 4, 2014. < http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2014/06/07/bad-medicine-the-awful-drug-reactions-americans-report/ >
- John Johnson, “Use More Female Lab Rats, Feds Tell Scientists.” Newser. May 14, 2014. < http://www.newser.com/story/186893/feds-to-scientists-use-more-female-lab-rats.html >
- Liana Christin Landivar. “Disaparities in STEM Employment by Sex, Race and Hispa