As a woman working in a STEM industry, I find myself thinking about issues of representation constantly. Why are women being overlooked for executive opportunities? How do we create a pipeline of women for the future of this industry? And I’ve come to the conclusion that if there is one thing that women must do to encourage more women to pursue careers in STEM fields, it’s this: Mentor them.
It is through the concerted efforts of about half a dozen mentors that I have made it from Arkansas to MIT, through raising a kid during grad school and now, to being a CEO.
During my hardest times in grad school, I used to call a former senior lab mate whenever I felt like giving up. I first met him when I was an undergraduate researcher in our group at the MIT Media Lab. In my phone, he is listed as “Department of Motivation,” because his perspective is what helped re-frame everything I was going through and give me enough ‘oomph’ to keep pushing. After I finished, I immediately went to work for him in San Francisco. I found a mentor early on, but not everyone has that experience.
This is why every employed or technically trained woman has a responsibility to engage with every young woman who crosses her path. You might be wondering why I’m calling on women to do this, and not men. And it’s not that I don’t believe men should be doing this, too—my own mentor was a man. But I believe that in true moments in which I wanted to quit, what would have helped me more than anything was to see other women in the rooms I was in. Other women who were making it work.
What I’ve realized is that the path to changing female representation is very much about being a physical presence in the STEM world. We need to show young women that we exist, that we are here for support and that they are of value, regardless of the path they choose. We need to listen to women and build closer connections between women in disparate fields, because the majority of women in STEM fields have no internal support systems at their jobs — as I’ve experienced many times, there might not even be another woman on their team. There are far too many young women out there who have simply never seen or met a woman who owns or runs a business, is a technician or does research.
What’s the solution? Be a face with a name and clear values. There is such a small percentage of women in STEM that we need to completely saturate the media every chance we get. If we continue to be hidden, we cannot inspire and we cannot change the tide. After I stopped hiding behind the lab bench and started talking publicly about my perspective as a woman engineer, I realized that I had something important to say. I got better at communicating my thoughts and advocating for people in my department. I was able to get more done, and be seen as not only a scientist, but as a leader.
When you make a pact to share your story and share your time with other women, you will find that you get as much value out of it as they do. When it comes time to hire or start a new company, you will have your finger on the pulse of a strong talent pool. When it comes time to vet ideas for new products and services, you have access to the perspective of a generation other than your own. It wasn’t until my 30s that I had a female mentor, which meant that there were a handful of men who made it a point to step out of their comfort zone and support a young woman. I’d like to believe that I have helped them, too — pushing them on their hiring, their language, and their biases — and I’ve been thrilled to see them mentoring more and more women in tech and reaping the benefits.
As a potential mentor, go ahead and take the first step. Reach out to a talented woman you met at a conference or meet-up or whose work you saw online and learn more about her. Find out if you can be of any assistance to her. If we all did this, we could accomplish a lot more and create an incredible support network in a very short period of time.
If you are a woman who wants more support or would like a mentor, don’t be shy: reach out to someone you know and ask for some of their time. Even if they decline, it will be good practice as you build your career. It may seem like a small step to take toward such a momentous goal, but one small step can go a long way.
Danielle Applestone is the CEO of Berkeley-based manufacturing tech startup Other Machine Co.