Beating the odds: how STEM women succeed

{:name}I recently read Kelly Simmons and Patty Rowland Burke’s Beating the Odds: Winning Strategies of Women in STEM. I have known Patty for decades, first meeting her when she worked at Regis McKenna back in the go-go days when PCs were first coming into businesses. They have written a business book for everyone, especially those men that have filled tech companies with their toxic “good ole boy” bro culture. It takes the unusual approach of talking to several dozen women who have succeeded in STEM careers and studied the common elements of why they have done well while others have failed. Spoiler alert: it mostly isn’t their fault, and the hard part will be fighting this culture to affect real change.

Many younger people, both women and men, don’t remember how bad things were in the 1980s and 1990s, when corporate events included pretty raunchy moments. (I will spare you the details, but you can probably imagine.) Unfortunately, we haven’t really progressed much from these days. I remember when I was in engineering school in the 1970s, having a woman in any of my classes was a rarity. Having more than one per class didn’t happen. Sadly, while there are more women in STEM now, it still isn’t anywhere near where it could be. And where it should be.

One tech CEO — presumably male — told a female engineering manager this: “every company needs someone who is the API between the business and the technical. That’s really hard to find, and not often valued in Silicon Valley.” That is a good point, and I have often found myself in this API role in many of my writing and consulting efforts.

“One woman jokingly described the anxiety she felt in the workplace as ‘like being Jamie Lee Curtis in a Halloween movie, you never know when the guy in the mask with the knife will show up.”

Granted, many women appear at first glance to be less technical and suffer from impostor syndrome. This is usually defined at paranoia that you are a fraud and don’t deserve to be in a position or credited any of your accomplishments. But this isn’t exclusive to women. When I took my first job as the Editor-in-chief at CMP to start Network Computing magazine, I suffered from impostor syndrome myself. I had never started a publication, never held the EIC position, and hadn’t hired many staffers or even knew how to produce a publication. Fortunately, I had a great set of mentors at CMP to help me learn these things and the magazine is still around today, albeit in an online format. I went on to run several other publications as a result of this training.

This reminds me of another Jamie Lee Curtis movie — True Lies — where she doesn’t have impostor syndrome but manages to save the day and win Arnold back (who plays her spying, lying husband). Anyway, back to the book.

It dives into a very important area that I haven’t seen much of in other business books. “We have learned what makes successful women tick, why some of them persevere to lead major technical organizations and teams, and why others drop out in frustration. A senior technical women should not be an astonishing exception.”

The book is also filled with plenty of suggestions to help technical women succeed. One important aspect is to develop male allies and role models. The lack of these prevents many women from pursuing STEM careers. These include men who aren’t enlisted in the “boys club” network and  can support technical women in the company. This can also counter the feelings of aloneness and feeling of “otherness” that can cause frustration and lead many women to resign their positions.

Another helpful idea is to set up a form of reverse mentoring, where younger women are mentors to senior managers to help them better understand their experience and points of view. This is particularly helpful to root out work processes and routines that were designed for all-male environments, and have become so embedded in tech companies. Just search for Uber’s early history if you need further convincing.

So read this book. Send a copy to your manager, and make him read it as well. Only by changing one dinosaur at a time can we evolve as a species. And perhaps be more inclusive to not just women but other under-represented people in STEM too.

2 thoughts on “Beating the odds: how STEM women succeed

  1. I attended all-male Brooklyn Technical High School (coed a few years after I graduated) and essentially all-male Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn (90:1 male/female then, likely more female:male now). Summer jobs in college at Bank of New York back office there were competent senior women managers (from whom I picked up lasting work habits). IBM, first professional job, hired maybe 500 people around same time with women well represented in cohort. Some but not many women managers, as I remember. Second job joined data center with kick-ass brilliant woman manager who held her own among the bozos, plus other respected women. But there WERE incidents of blatant sexism/stupidity, not necessarily with consequences. And that’s just one journey — I’m in no way discounting horrors women have described to me from personal experience. Having been I guess sheltered — plus, of course, male — stories have astonished/appalled me. It’s good, and overdue, that things change.

  2. Thanks for your comment and personal story — we need to get more of them out there! Working in a male-dominated world is tough for most women, but worse in tech because they are almost always ‘the only woman’ . The isolation (which we are all learning about now thanks to Covid-19!) gets so tiring. But we wrote the book to talk about the ‘winning strategies’. The women we profiled have beat the odds and tell stories about how they did it that we can all learn from, particularly male managers who can help make their paths smoother. I hope it comes across as an upbeat book, not another man-basher. The stories are funny, sad, frustrating, but mostly inspiring.

    Shout-out to David for getting this review out to a technical audience who may be managing women. As we point out in ‘Beating the Odds’, 50% of technical women leave the field before they reach their 10 year mark—such a huge loss of talent and education. In this era of engineering shortages, if we could retain these women we’d reduce the shortage by millions globally. Think of the savings in recruiting and onboarding alone. I hope readers of this blog can help!
    Patty Burke

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