6 Things to Know If You’re a Woman About to Work in STEM

Choosing a job after graduation can be intimidating. There are so many options it may feel overwhelming but if you’re looking to secure a career in STEM, chances are you’re qualified for a specific field. We spoke with an array of women currently working in STEM to shed some light on things you should know as you take steps to advance your career.

1. You’ll be thankful you worked so hard in college

Every major has its own challenges and time-consuming tasks. There were weeks when homework felt never ending and exams seemed nearly impossible, but somehow you managed to pull it off every time. This is because you’re driven. You want your dreams to become a reality. STEM majors can advocate for the craziness they experience in their classes but women working in STEM will tell you to keep pushing yourself because you’ll be grateful you did once you enter the professional world.

“In the moment [at college], I would say that it felt like I was working incredibly hard, like all the work I had to do was impossibly hard,” says Zarah Thanasides, an environmental engineer. “But looking back now, it doesn't seem as hard as I made it out to be, and it was definitely worth it. It really is true that hard work pays off. I feel very grateful to be in the career and job position I am in now and I would do it all over in a heartbeat!”

As you move forward into a career in STEM, remember the motivation that kept you going in college. Long nights of homework may be replaced with long hours at the office. Never forget why you chose this career. Carry that spark with you and put your extensive efforts in college to good use.

Related: Informational Interviews: What They Are, Why They're Important & How to Rock Yours

2. As a woman, you may have more to consider than a man in your field

It may be a tad early for some, but leaning into your career goals may have you considering what this means for your future family. Many of us will be content with our canine companions for years to come but others may want children sooner.

Dr. Ella Coffren, owner of Synaptic Chiropractic in Maine, has achieved great success throughout her career but has felt the pressure from time to time in terms of “having it all."

Dr. Ella says, “There is an unspoken bond between females within the STEM world. This is for good reason given the differences that many of us face. During grad school, I found that my strong work ethic allowed for me to rise to the academic challenge. What I was not ready for was my biological clock that started to voice itself during these years.” 

She continues, “As a professional female who is interested in a family, there is often a nagging thought of 'How will my career change when I have children? How will I manage both?' There is plenty of time in life for both your career and personal family. But there are no teachers to explain that you will need to juggle more mentally and physically than your male counterparts in this area.” These thoughts aren’t a bad thing, because women are strong enough to handle them, but they can be especially frustrating when others begin to doubt your abilities because you want more.

Ella explains, “There are subtle hints, from various employers, co-workers and society that a woman of childbearing age should not be hired due to the fear that she will become pregnant. That it isn't 'good for business' to hire and train an engineer or doctor  who is about to start a family.” Yes, we’re rolling our eyes too. The doubters clearly don’t know what modern women are capable of. “The good news is they are wrong. It is possible and working mothers are an asset to a great company. They know hard work and do it daily. You can be a great mom and one of the best in your professions. You can have both. It happens. It is purely up to you to make it happen for yourself.”

Don’t let multiple dreams, including that of starting a family, hold you back from a career in STEM. Women from many generations have found incredible ways to be successful in all aspects of their lives. Don’t rush it, but never limit yourself.

3. You should always ask for what you deserve

This is true for any career choice, but especially important to remember if you don’t feel equal to your male coworkers. Certain workplaces may make you feel lesser because you’re a woman, causing you to be hesitant to ask for a raise or opportunities to learn more. Don’t be intimidated.

Tracey Olsen, Lead Laboratory Technologist at York Hospital in Maine, shares her experience after working over twenty years in her field. “In 1999, I started work at York under a strong male personality. I did not feel that I was his equal that is for certain,” she says. “It did not stop me, however, after being hired, to approach him in his office to request a raise. Surprisingly, I had success.”

As long as you’re committed to your work and performing well, there should be no reason to sit back and let others receive the praise or perks that you equally deserve. Stand up for yourself, even if it’s scary at times, and you’ll be respected more because of it.

4. You may feel like you have to prove yourself

Zarah Thanasides fully understands the extremes of having to prove her abilities even after working for a construction company in the NYC area for over five years.

“I had one call a couple years ago that I will never forget. I was talking to a developer (a man) on speakerphone and he was expressing concerns about how our system would not work due to an interior grade beam being in the way. I must have explained to him four different ways how the system would not be compromised, and how we have dealt with similar situations on most projects,” Zarah continues.

“The developer was getting frustrated with me and was asking me the same question over and over again. He finally started yelling, 'You are not listening to me. You do not understand what I am saying.' My coworker, an older male who I consider my mentor, finally got tired of the verbal abuse I was being subjected to, and walked over to my desk.” Zarah says, “My coworker then spoke to the developer and went on to reiterate exactly what I had been saying for the past five minutes. The developer said, 'Oh wow, thanks for explaining it to me, that works, thanks for your help!' After the call I looked at my coworker, who was in just as much disbelief as I was.”

Zarah knew exactly what she was talking about but it took a man’s voice to drive the point home. Ridiculous, yes, but Zarah uses these unfair moments as motivation rather than a reason to get down on herself.

“Moments like that are what have fueled me over the years,” she explains. “The unfortunate reality is that women in STEM will constantly be faced with situations where they are made to feel like they aren’t good enough. It’s all about how you deal with it. Use it as fuel to prove yourself, prove your intelligence and prove that gender and intelligence/work ethic have no correlation.” Preach!

In any new position you have to prove yourself, but you may feel inclined to do more as a woman in a predominantly male field. Don’t let intimidation get the best of you. You earned the same degree as everyone else in your field, it’s your drive and unique experiences that will set you apart now. STEM careers need more powerful women, and you can take on that role.

5. Always put yourself out there for new opportunities

Wherever your STEM career path may take you, never turn down opportunities. Saying yes’to big projects, difficult tasks or even unexpected discussions with your higher-ups are how you’re going to continue to improve and reach the top.

Tracey shares that she has worked for two male bosses during her career and only recently gained a female boss. “I had a great working relationship with my male boss who made a career move and left York Hospital. I learned a lot about myself and acquired new skills because he was willing to take the time to share his professional experience and knowledge for which I am very grateful.” Tracey made it known she was eager to learn more, even after working in the field for over 20 years.

Tracey’s desire to continuously expand her knowledge is a major part of how she earned her current position. “I feel empowered to be holding the position of lead tech, for which I have worked very hard. Work ethic is very important to me and is a very admirable quality in all individuals.” It doesn’t matter what position you hold, having a solid work ethic will always make you stand out. You can enhance this work ethic by offering to take on new projects and learning the necessary skills as you go. Taking initiative will show your boss and coworkers that you want to improve and as a result you’ll be trusted with more responsibility down the road. Always say yes, you never know what advances it can lead to in your career.

6. Work for a company that awards you based on skills, not gender

If one of your biggest concerns is being overpowered by men in the STEM field, think again. With all the strides being made publicly and badass women taking stands, it’s no surprise companies are learning they need to get with modern times. These are the companies you should want to work for.

Tracey says, “Among my peers here at York hospital, I feel that we are on an equal playing field. We have both men and women who take on much responsibility and then we have those men and women that do not take initiative but will do something if asked. There is opportunity for growth to a certain degree for both women and men.” It should always come down to whether you’re a good worker, no matter your gender. 

Choosing where to work is ultimately up to you. It may feel like you have to take a not so ideal job, since student loan payments are lurking, but that doesn’t mean you should be discriminated against because you identify as a woman. You are worthy of greatness and fair treatment, don’t settle because you’re in a traditionally male field. Cheers to you and this next chapter of your life!

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