• Evi Arthur

5 Strategies for Success for Women in STEM

Expert Jenn Donahue goes over why women make up such a small fraction of STEM workers and how to change that.


Women currently make up 27% of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, despite being half of the workforce, according to the Census Bureau. Although these numbers have been steadily climbing—from women making up 8% of STEM workers in 1970—women are still severely underrepresented in science and technology fields.


Jenn Donahue is a Navy veteran, engineer and motivational speaker with 25 years of experience. Donahue holds a bachelor’s degree in ocean engineering from Texas A&M as well as a master’s and a doctoral degrees in civil engineering from The University of California, Berkeley. Donahue spends a lot of her time speaking on how women can advocate for themselves in STEM fields.


Donahue says that part of the reason why there are still so few women in STEM fields is that many take time off to start families but have trouble returning to work. “A lot of them feel like they’ve been left behind and they don’t have what it takes anymore to continue in the industry,” Donahue said.


Some STEM environments can also be boys' clubs where women may not feel very comfortable or feel like they fit in. Donahue says this can also cause women to leave the field—they may want to find a place where they feel more comfortable and accepted.


So, although women start at about a third of the industry, Donahue says that as women progress more and more in the field, there are fewer and fewer of them—Donahue estimates the field breaks up more into 80% men and 20% women or even 90% men and 10% women as an engineer ages and progresses through his/her field.


However, Donahue has five key pieces of advice to help women to succeed in STEM fields.


1. Get a mentor


Donahue says that a mentor does not necessarily need to be a woman. Although it can be important to have a female mentor who may have experienced similar struggles, Donahue says it can be just as important to have a male mentor. “It is usually males that are in positions of leadership and power. So, if you have a male mentor that is in one of those positions, they're able to pull you up,” Donahue said. “That's actually what happened to me. I had a fantastic male mentor, and he basically brought me up and introduced me to all these different people, and that's how I've been as successful as I have been, is because of him.”


2. Don’t be afraid to ask for assistance


Donahue says that many times, it can be hard for people in STEM fields, especially women, to ask for help. Asking questions or needing help may make some feel weak or inexperienced. But Donahue says it is actually the opposite. “It shows that you're interested, that you're willing to learn. We have to get over this idea that we're not supposed to ask for help,” Donahue says. “I've seen a lot of other females fail because they just didn't want to speak up—they didn't want to ask questions. They just didn't do as well. But the females that went out and said, ‘I just don't understand this’ and found somebody to help them did fantastically.”


3. Be assertive, stand tall and be brave


“This takes a lot of courage, and you might have to step out of your comfort zone a little bit for this. A lot of these [fields] are very male-dominated areas, and if you want to be a wallflower and sit in the corner, I don't think you're going to do as well as you could. So, it's going to sound crazy: Stand up straight. It's amazing—if you stand up straight and you put your shoulders back, all of a sudden you actually feel more courageous. There have been studies that have been done on this. Stand up tall. You have to be a little assertive and have your voice heard.”


4. Stop comparing yourself to others


Donahue says it can be easy to compare yourself to the other people in the room—comparing your experience, knowledge and skills to others around you.


“Understand that you're in that room for a reason. You have to understand your worth. So, I always just think back to why I love what I do. I am passionate about being a seismic engineer—I love what I do. So, I basically hold on to that when I'm in those uncomfortable situations where I want to say maybe I'm not good enough or I don't have the expertise. Think about your worth and why you're there.


5. Join a network of other women


At first, Donahue says that she was hesitant about joining a group of women engineers—she wasn’t sure what to expect. But, when she did, she found that she could hear advice from other women in similar positions as her. “Everybody was just strengthening each other. It's something that I wish that I would have done earlier in my career—I think it would have been really beneficial.”


As a bonus, Donahue also brought up self-promotion. She mentioned that she, like many women, can have trouble bragging about herself, but then she had something interesting pointed out to her: If you don’t promote yourself, who will? “We have to promote ourselves because that's what a lot of what our counterparts are doing. We have to make sure that we are standing up for ourselves and we're promoting ourselves because, in the end, if we're not doing it no one else might.”


Since women still only make up about 27% of those working in STEM fields, there may be some different strategies that those in hiring positions may want to consider to diversify the workers in certain facilities and hire more women. Donahue’s advice: start looking beyond the resume. Some women may have gaps in their resumes from taking time off to start a family or from other obstacles they were facing. “If you try to compare that person to somebody who's been in the industry for quite a long time, you're obviously going to pick the person who's been in the industry [longer] and maybe not the person who took a couple years off to raise a family,” Donahue says. “I think you have to get to know who the person is. Look at things like their drive, their fire and what do they bring to the table?


“A lot of times, whenever you have women and people of color, they have different ways of solving problems because they've had other obstacles to overcome. You have to take some of these other factors into account when you're starting to hire.”


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