According to a 2011 Forbes report only one in seven engineers are female with the ratio not likely to increase any time soon. In the past there have been various articles, research papers and debates arguing the reasoning behind the above statistic before ultimately posing the question that has been on everyone’s mind since day one. Why are females grossly under-represented in the STEM fields? And why are there even fewer female engineers at leadership positions?
In response to this the Internet went into an absolute frenzy proposing various solutions ranging from: a push for more female mentoring programs to reworking the high school curriculum to evoke curiosity in science, math and technology in females from a young age. In fact some clever entrepreneurs like Debbie Sterling have even gone as far as inventing toys like Goldie Blox that aim to challenge girls as young as 8 years old to think outside the box, inevitably challenging the status quo and causing girls to replace Barbie dolls with sleek construction blocks that spark innovative thinking.
As a female in the engineering field myself, I can confirm that having a female mentor helps encourage and erase any misconceptions young adults may have around feeling incapable in such a evolutionary field. By going through mentoring programs the anxiety of entering this extraordinary field is replaced with a tinge of excitement when we witness ordinary females play the roles or powerful CEOs and executive directors. To be able to ‘shadow’ these mentors and watch them deal with clients and crisis situations with a sense ease in a manner of poise and confidence, our self-esteem reaches its absolute peak.
However we cannot let the statistical truth of under-representation of females in STEM fields stop the notion of female empowerment.
It’s time to shift our focus.
The other day I was in a meeting with my manager and watched confidence ooze out of him as he secured a deal with one of our biggest clients through a firm handshake accompanied a glossy project proposal. This small observation forced the slightly rusty wheels in my head to churn as I realised it was time to put on a new pair of glasses.
To put things into perspective, I believe that having male mentors in the STEM field can be equally as encouraging as female mentors and here are the reasons why:
- We learn how to play the game: there have been various instances where I have witnessed your standard executive directors, managers and partners head out for a beer or two before going to that AFL game that you were never invited to. By working closely with my male mentor I was able to understand how to use the sports lingo to my advantage when talking to directors and senior managers, making a solid first impression. However instead of focusing on the negative aspect of the segregation of sexes due to varying interests, I was able to understand the ease through which you could use various sporting and corporate events to create a lasting impression and in some cases even secure a deal.
- The power stance: we all know the importance of non-verbal communication in the workplace. The smallest of gestures like a relaxed posture with constant eye contact during a presentation allows you to connect and maintain the attention of your audience. When attending meetings or seminars with my mentor (on behalf of my team) I often noted how the directors maintained a firm tone accompanied with a relaxed posture, allowing them to affirm their points yet letting the client know that they are open to change. As an impressionable intern I was able to absorb this information like a sponge and apply this power stance in different situations both inside and outside of the workplace.
- Adopt an enthusiastic approach (even if you aren’t fully aware of the situation) just say yes: when I was in high school I had this cocky friend who would always walk out of exams with a confident smirk plastered on his face, while all of us walked out looking like we had just attended a funeral. When we got our results the following week, he was always the first one to yell out his grade even if they barely scraped the passing criteria and in some instances he’d boast about them even when he failed miserably. That was when I learnt a crucial life lesson. No matter what the situation , if you go in with a ‘ We Can Do It!’ attitude as embedded in the American wartime propaganda poster produced by J. Howard Miller in the 1900s, you will always walk away a winner. In the past I have missed out on multiple development opportunities simply because I was afraid of failure and did not have ‘clear picture’ at the beginning of the project. What I realised over the past year of working closely with my mentor is that you have to have confidence in your ability to learn on the job. Yes, it may be tough at first and might result in you questioning your existence at some point, but if you show the initiative there will always be resources around you that will help you complete the deliverable.
- Be unapologetically firm about your view: recently Lena Dunham wrote an impassioned plea “Sorry Not Sorry” to get women to let go of apologising, like a bad smoking habit. In her post Dunham mentioned how “So many of the women I know apologize like it’s a job they were given by the government (we’ll save the whys of that for a massive sociology text).” The mastermind behind the quirky series Girls got us to question why we say sorry by default, when subconsciously we are fully aware that the error which occurred was never our fault to begin with. Was it my fault that the printer decided to run out ink resulting in a messy compilation of the report? No. Yet I still found myself apologising on behalf of that machine. Working in a male dominated field this event served as a crucial reality check for me as I quickly realised how rarely the term ‘ sorry’ escaped the lips of most males unless the disastrous outcome of a situation was genuinely their fault.
At this point I would like to point out that the purpose of this article was not to place female mentors in a negative light, but rather shift the spotlight and “force” us to realise that both female and male mentors bring different lessons to the tables.
As empowering as it to have a strong female role model in such a dynamic industry, it is important to realise that the shortage of women at leadership positions in STEM field should not be a reason for limited mentoring programs, because truthfully we can learn just as much from the male mentors as we can from the females. It just takes a funky new pair of glasses for us to see it.