Surviving and thriving in a male-dominated STEM workplace
Breaking stereotypes Working in a male-dominated STEM environment can be tough — but leadership and industry mentorship that champion women can help effect real change.
Griselda Togobo, Owner and Managing Director of professional women's network, Forward Ladies, began her career as an electrical engineer. Unfortunately, she didn't stay in the industry. “There aren't a lot of women in the sector,” she says. “It's not a female-friendly or inclusive environment, either. Sadly, I started thinking that I couldn't achieve all I wanted to in my role and have a family life.”
Togobo realises that this is probably not what aspiring female STEM students want to hear. “When I studied electrical engineering at university, only 10 per cent of the class was female,” she remembers. “But that wasn't a problem because we worked well together in our mixed gender teams and individual performance was based solely on results. I did not feel disadvantaged because I was a young girl studying engineering.
“At work, however, the playing field is unfavourable to women with cultural biases and institutional barriers actively hindering the advancement of women."
In STEM sectors, women are still earning around £7,000 less than their male counterparts — and that is something that you feel in your pocket.”
Her advice to female would-be engineers, though, is, “get tough and take it on” — or nothing will change. “When you are a young woman in the industry you have to be tough to deal with the challenges of working in all male teams, and that can be difficult,” she admits. “Now I could deal with it but back then, in my twenties, I felt I couldn't. I simply didn’t have the tools or experience needed to challenge bias. So, you have to be confident and be prepared to fight if you are determined to make it to the top.”
That is why we are working with women through our leadership programmes - to give them the tools and confidence to challenge unconscious bias.
Female mentors crucial for future talent
Good leadership is vital. In fact, it has a crucial role to play in shaping an inclusive culture in STEM workplaces, says Togobo, with, for example, strong maternity/parental leave policies, flexible working practices etc. “If leaders champion women and promote people on merit, then this thinking will make its way down into management and recruitment practices. This means an organisation will try a little bit harder to find talented women for their graduate and apprenticeship programmes or to promote female members of their if they know they will be held accountable by their leaders.”
Because, ultimately, the STEM sector, like all other sectors, needs to find the best talent, from new entrants right the way to the boardroom; it's counter productive if it marginalises people because of their gender, especially as research also highlights the fact that diverse teams outperform homogeneous teams.
"We can't find any female engineers to talk about it. That has to change.”
Yet this problem starts at an early age, which is why Togobo visits schools so that students — both male and female — can talk about career choices with a female role model. “Otherwise, we're saying to young women: 'Study STEM subjects so you can be an engineer! Oh, and by the way, we can't find any female engineers to talk to you about it.' That has to change.”
Togobo is also a big advocate of industry mentorship. “Mentoring is crucial,” she says. “I've benefitted from different mentors at different stages of my career. It's important to have a sounding board to challenge your thinking.” Relatable mentors can be especially inspirational for young women as proof that career progression is possible.
Females in STEM value male support
Hearing female voices talk about this subject is all very well, says Togobo. But enlightened male advocates are needed too. “That's because there are male leaders out there who want their sons and daughters to do well and have equal opportunities. These are the men we need to champion the cause.”
These days, her advice to any woman wanting to pursue a career in STEM is: 'Don't rule yourself out.' “Think about what you want to achieve and go for it,” she says. “Yes it's a male-dominated industry but don't let that put you off, because it only takes one special person to make a change to the culture.”
So how are we working to resolve this issue?
I’m personally committed to supporting women working in STEM due to my personal experience of working in a male dominated sector. Here are just three of the initiatives we have to support employers and women working in STEM:
Over the years we have been showcasing diverse credible female role models through the Forward Ladies National Awards Sponsored by HSBC. This year we have two STEM categories to showcase rising stars and inspirational role models within the STEM sector.
"Do you know any inspirational female role models in STEM? Nominate them!"
We are also delighted to have launched a six month STEM Inspired Leadership Programme in partnership with Yorkshire Water to support emerging leaders in STEM. These are the future leaders that can change the lack of female representation at the top. They are the inspiration for the next generation - invest in them!
We have launched a piece of research to hear from women and employers to explore both sides of the issues contributing to the under-representation of women in STEM. How effective are the various STEM initiatives in attracting and retaining women in STEM? What is working and what’s not working? We want to showcase best practice and highlight the most effective diversity programmes. Get in touch and get involved.