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Bright Spots for Women in STEM

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May 22, 2015We hear a lot about the dismal outlook for women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, otherwise known as “STEM” fields. Study after study shows that girls are discouraged from entering STEM fields beginning in early childhood and continuing throughout college. At college graduation the gap between men and women in STEM widens into a chasm, and Catalyst research shows tech-intensive industries are losing top female talent. For women seeking to enter STEM fields in academia, the picture is particularly bleak: both male and female faculty show gender bias that puts entry-level female applicants for research positions at a disadvantage. 

But there is good news for tenacious women in STEM: one study shows that the silica ceiling is starting to crack. Well-qualified female applicants for tenure-track jobs in STEM are now more than twice as likely as men to be selected for hire at equal pay rates—and companies can help increase women’s representation by using the tips in Catalyst’s new tool to advance women in tech-intensive industries. 

It’s still challenging for women to become what is considered “well-qualified” when elite male faculty train fewer women than men. And most advanced STEM degree holders are not destined for the tenure track

Gender-specific gaps that start small, whether in achievement, pay rates, or hiring, tend to grow exponentially and can have profound effects over an entire career. Below are three well-known gender disparities I’ve encountered—and what I did about them. 

  1. You must negotiate. Negotiating does not come naturally for everyone, but it’s simply a set of skills like any other. Granted, it’s one I and many other women didn’t learn growing up. I finally did learn to quell my negotiating butterflies by practicing a technique called “the least credible offer.” Go to a used car dealership—it’s okay, used car dealers can take it!—make a very low offer on a car, and let the salesperson you’re negotiating with work you upward from there. Pay close attention to how they do it, and practice using their techniques like you would any other skill you’re trying to master: make time to do it and keep track of your successes and failures.

  2. Critique your resume. I started off after graduate school knowing the tips outlined in this article, and as an individual scientist, rather than a member of a research team, it was easy to list and claim credit for my successes: grants received? Check! First author publications? Check! Conferences attended? Yes! However, defining my “leadership roles” presented much more of a challenge, as I think it does for many women. When successes are earned as a team, it’s often unclear who gets to claim credit. I was embarrassed to find that my resume had morphed into a wordy tome that strained the margins and tasteful font of what should be a one-page document.

  3. Edit your performance review. Many employees have the opportunity to respond, edit, or even write their own performance reviews, or at least certain sections of them. Watch for the use of language with negative and gender-specific connotations—words like “bossy,” “abrasive,” and “aggressive”—and if they occur try to edit or rewrite the review using neutral terms. I have challenged language I found objectionable and had it changed (in my case it was the word “prancing”…awful, I know!). Performance reviews are an important part of your work history; they inform future decisions and maybe even future bosses about your pay and promotion schedule. Even if you do need to improve (and who doesn’t?), suggestions for doing so should focus on your performance rather than on perceived personality traits or tone of voice.

I hope you found these tips useful and can implement them in your own STEM career. Please comment below if you have experienced any of these firsthand, and let us know what action you took to address the problem!


The views expressed herein are solely those of the guest blogger and do not necessarily reflect those of Catalyst. Catalyst does not endorse any political candidates. The post and the comments are presented only for the purpose of informing the public.