It’s common knowledge that engaging–and retaining–girls and women in STEM classes, STEM degrees, and STEM careers is an ongoing challenge.
The pandemic has prompted many workers to change their career paths, and many STEM sectors like cybersecurity struggle with talent shortages. Women only account for 28 percent of the STEM workforce today.
Here, six female tech leaders share their advice for today’s girls and women as they carve out STEM studies and career paths of their own:
Swati Shekhar, Head of Engineering, Ground Labs
“First and foremost, join STEM if and only if you truly enjoy it. Regardless of gender, everyone deserves the opportunity to pursue a career that motivates them and is personally fulfilling. If your passion is STEM, I advise gaining practical experience — do projects, tinker, build, prototype, test new technologies, spend time working both in a group and by yourself. Don’t wait for a degree or a job to describe a path for you; be ready to ‘engineer’ your own career path. And finally, identify your role models. A role model may be someone you know, but it can also be an individual you read about, or saw from afar who truly inspires you. Learn from them, but always apply what you learn analytically and critically to your unique situation.”
Bindu Sundaresan, Director, AT&T Cybersecurity
“When I started in cybersecurity over two decades ago, I was often the only woman and woman of color in the room. Now, more diversity is represented in the industry, which makes me optimistic about the future for women not just in cybersecurity, but STEM overall.
My advice for women considering a career in STEM would be to not worry about breaking the norm. If you have an idea or observation, speak up, as diversity of thoughts are often the key to solving complex problems in the industry. Early on in the journey, find strong mentors that you can lean on for career opportunities, professional advice and expanding your skill set. With a bold mindset and strong allies, you’ll be set up for success in STEM.”
Jadee Hanson, CIO and CISO, Code42
“My advice to women who want to enter into STEM professions is to do something that scares you every day and to continue to educate yourself on the nuances of the field you would like to enter.
One thing that I see happen repeatedly is that women are outnumbered by men in the cybersecurity field and with the odds stacked against them, they either lose confidence, or they leave the field. We need to stop excluding this valuable group and encourage them. This is where I would like to encourage them to do the scary thing and soldier on with their work, question why a solution may not work and advocate for themselves. No matter how hard it seems at the moment, these instances of standing up for oneself is what builds a strong woman in cybersecurity. We just need to provide them with the tools they need to succeed in being team leaders.”
Teresa Shea, VP Cyber Offense and Defense Experts, CODEX, Raytheon Intelligence and Space
“Believe in yourself and your desire to make a difference in the world. It’s simple and I wholeheartedly believe that confidence and passion can convince people that you deserve a seat at the table – because you do! I’ve been in the cybersecurity industry for over three decades, I’ve made mistakes, and I’m sure I’ve been doubted just like everyone else, but I worked hard and never gave up on what I believed in.
When I was in high school, I knew math wasn’t a common thing for women to be keen on – at least that’s what I perceived. As I graduated from high school, the Society of Women Engineering gave me a scholarship, and I became one of few women in my electrical engineering major, but I worked hard to know my stuff and felt confident in my abilities. Then, when I worked with the National Security Agency, I felt empowered because I was among individuals that valued my skills and work ethic.
As the school year begins again, my advice to other women is to surround yourself with individuals that are passionate about similar interests— if they care about solving problems, there’s less time to judge you based on your gender— and finally, remember that STEM is not monolithic. If you don’t love math, you can still be a great scientist. If you hate science, you may excel at programming. Find your niche and stick with it.”
Anisha Patel, Senior Program Manager, Raytheon Technologies
“Men and women both need to put an effort into welcoming more diversity into the STEM field, but I can only speak from my own experiences and a woman in cybersecurity. I was fortunate to have a family that pushed me towards a career in the technology sector, but not every girl or woman has that same influence in their education. If a woman has the passion and interest in technology, I encourage them to find mentors that support them. Mentors can be male or female— and although we don’t need a mentor to succeed, having someone in our corner to encourage and advocate for us is great fuel to continue pursuing STEM.
For any woman looking to enter STEM, I also encourage her to go where she is valued. As a student, go to networking events and look at who the recruiters and top leaders are. Do they look like you or at least champion the success of women in their organization? That will be very telling to the experience a woman may have breaking into the industry. It’s also important to always question gender stereotypes, because oftentimes, those are what get in the way of a woman feeling like she would belong.”
Catherine Southard, VP of Engineering, D2iQ
“I’ve made major pivots throughout my career and worked across vastly different STEM organizations. My biggest takeaway is to focus on surrounding yourself with supportive colleagues and extending that support to the women around you. This has always been important to me but was heightened as I became a new mom and a new executive during the pandemic. Benefits such as flexible hours and generous maternity leave along with colleagues who understand the adjustment period of my roles are all important aspects of a supportive culture.”