What it’s like to be a woman in… (a perspective on diversity)

woman in stem

We’ve been hearing a lot lately about women and other minorities being underrepresented, mistreated, undervalued, and marginalized in a variety of fields — from tech to the arts. It’s troubling stuff and I am not going to unpack all of the nuances of it in this post, but instead, I want to share a different perspective on how to approach diversity — from my experience of being a woman in many fields that have traditionally lacked female representation, my experience running an entrepreneurship program for high school students and seeking to bring a variety of perspectives to the classroom and within their company teams, plus experiencing the dynamics of diversity at MIT, Harvard Business School, and building a team at my own company.

I’ve been a woman in engineering at BMW and MIT, as well as a woman in management at GE. In the beginning, I didn’t really see myself as a “woman in” any of those roles, even though according to social stereotypes (aka: “STEM fields aren’t for women”) I was an anomaly. For a long time, I just thought of myself as an engineer, a manager, a capable and curious maker. To me, being a woman had no more influence on my professional achievements than being tall or having blue eyes. I knew that I had gotten to where I was by working hard in my roles, not by working hard for a woman in my roles. I was on the same level as my male counterparts, equally smart, valuable, innovative, and deserving of my positions.

Years later, I began to internalize this identity of “a woman in…”, and filter many things through that lens. That tripped me up. I became hyper-focused on that part of my identity and started to wonder if I was performing as a “woman in STEM” should versus just as my role. I overthought how to contribute in team meetings, what jokes I should be offended by, how people would perceive me bringing in baked goods, or wearing dresses or bright colors.  

Would that undermine me as a professional? Would it make me seem like the “office wife”, “office mom”, or the “office manager” versus the engineer/manager/maker that I was hired to be?

I got anxious about my computer models or 3D prints not being perfect right away, worrying that people would roll their eyes that they shouldn’t have trusted a female engineer to do a man’s job, even though I was always doing my work in half the time of my male counterparts.

All of that hand-wringing and second-guessing put a damper on my ability to be my authentic self, because I was so caught up in how the things that came naturally to me would look to others. If I didn’t fit a stereotype about my gender — or if I did — what did that mean? What did it say about me?

These are silly, but completely understandable considerations, given some of the ways we talk about diversity (especially gender diversity) within STEM, entrepreneurship, and society at large. The way we focus on diversity can sometimes come across more as tokenism than actual inclusiveness. This can lead to the people who check one or multiple “diversity boxes” (gender, race, sexual orientation, disability) sometimes being followed around by this cloud of second-guessing.

The feeling of being spotlighted as “different” isn’t just problematic emotionally; it can also impact performance. For example, our society has this narrative that women are worse at math and science than men are. It’s an unfounded stereotype that gets internalized by many women, even if we try to protect against it, and can lead to something called stereotype threat. This is when “negative stereotypes raise inhibiting doubts and high-pressure anxieties in a test-taker’s mind” and result in that person under-performing on a test or at a task.

In one study, women who implicitly connected men with math performed worse on a math test than women who did not internalize that same bias. In another study, female participants who were told that a test they were taking had historically shown gender differences in performance did worse than those who were told it didn’t. A different study found that women who were “reminded of other women’s achievements scored better on difficult mathematics questions” than women who didn’t get primed with the same information.

Similar studies have also been done on performance in math and other fields along racial lines, where participants were primed either with negative, positive, or neutral information about how their particular race generally performs in those situations. For instance, Black students (often wrongly stereotyped as being less intelligent) who were told a specific test would diagnose intelligence did worse than the control group of Black students who were not told that. In a similar study, Blacks who had to tick a box for race before taking a test did worse than those who did not have to self-identify their race.  

I could go on, because the data is definitely out there, but I hope you get the idea. It turns out that when people fear that they will “prove a stereotype true” with their performance, they are often unable to perform at their personal best.

Diversity is a buzzword that’s been thrown around so much that its meaning has been muddled, and it’s even been cast in a negative light. The reality that women, racial, ethnic and other minorities have been underrepresented in certain fields, leadership roles, and at certain companies is a problem for many reasons. Not least of which is the fact that it results in unequal opportunities, economic disparity, and the limitation of people’s potential. And, in addition to being the right thing to do, fostering a diverse workplace also comes with tons of business benefits.

Time and again, studies have shown that diverse organizations and teams are smarter, more creative, more innovative, and yield higher returns. Plus, we’ve all seen some of the PR nightmares that arise when tone-deaf decisions (products, ads, branding, etc.) alienate entire groups of people.

In order to stay smart and competitive, startups need to build diverse teams, but that’s not always as simple as it sounds. According to research at Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research, one common mistake companies make is taking the “add and stir” approach, where the extent of the effort is in hiring more people from diverse backgrounds, without consciously working to make everyone feel welcome, included, valued, and productive.

It’s not enough just to hire more women, if once they are there there’s no path for advancement or growth for anyone who isn’t male. Or if every cue they receive says the organization or office is very male-centered and there is no room for other perspectives.

Another potential pitfall is focusing too much on people’s differences, to the point where “celebrating differences” becomes “singling out people because they’re different”. It can open the door to stereotype threat or make team members question whether they’re only seen and valued as their identity, instead of as the capable individuals that are the best fit for their roles. When a person with one or more minority identities is handed a task, the expectation should not be — explicitly or implicitly — that they will tackle it as a representative of their minority identities, but as an individual and qualified member of the team.

Listen if people with minority identities tell you that a particular decision is problematic in ways that might not have occurred to you, or that the way something is framed might be inadvertently exclusive. But do not treat those team members as though their sole purpose or qualification is their minority status. Include them in all relevant decisions, make sure they know their contributions are always considered, respected, and welcome.

Sapna Cheryan, an Associate Professor at the Clayman Institute, suggests that one simple, subtle way to make everyone feel included is through the “social objects and decor” that set the mood of the workplace. That doesn’t mean you need to line your walls with posters of people with every imaginable identity. But, it does mean that your environment is probably not as welcoming as it could be if it only includes images of people who look like the majority.

Another way to tackle the potential subconscious or conscious bias of singling out people’s differences is to ensure that there are at least certain minimum thresholds of people of different minorities.  This doesn’t mean that if you have a small team of 10 people, that at least 2 or 3 are women, but so long as you do not have at least 8 of the people who are all exactly the same profile of gender, race, background, etc. then you will be creating a diverse team.  Several different studies have been done that show either a 20% or 30% minimum threshold of diversity to ensure inclusion and therefore have positive value, such as is shown through this study by BCG in 2016 where they show a higher rate of innovation and revenue returns at companies with greater than 20% female managers.  Similar minimum thresholds should be sought and attained for ethnic, international, and other backgrounds of diversity, ensuring it is across different people on the team and not consolidated in just a few people, to ensure everyone has different unique perspective to bring and appreciate in one another.

Here are some other concrete things you might do to bolster inclusiveness at your company:

  • Above all – don’t focus on it.  I know, that sounds counter-intuitive, but what I mean is be very careful about how you communicate your objectives of inclusiveness.  It can be extremely alienating and counterproductive.  As shown above, when people feel “different,” they can have insecurities subconsciously triggered that cause them to under-perform.  Ensure that you use inclusive gender language and imagery, but don’t make announcements about how great it is to see how many women are represented on a panel or at an event.  It feels demeaning.
  • Be aware of your potential biases.  Consider the profiles of who you have on your team, how they are similar to one another and complement one another.  Some people tend to hire others who are very similar to themselves, which is natural, but can leave gaps in potential perspective that can add significant value.
  • Hold a training about authentic leadership.  That’s right – I didn’t say a training about cultural sensitivity or about diversity.  Instead, hold a training about the value of being an authentic leader.  Refer back to my previous post on authentic leadership.  This can be used to encourage people to consider how amazing it can be to come to work at a place where they can be their truly authentic self, and use this as a discussion for how to make it a place like that for everyone.
  • Invest in developing every team member’s talents and strengths, plus consider holding sessions that allow team members to share their skills and knowledge, whether it be relevant to work or just fun.  
  • Ensure that you hire the best person for the job.  You should absolutely consider the diversity and profile of the team you are building, to ensure you have the right balance of different perspectives and personalities, plus experience to get the job done.  The message should not be sent, though, that a demographic, race, gender, or other factor is more important than work ethic or role fit.

Those are just a few suggestions. You can find tons more here and here, and many other places. And you can always turn to your advisors, mentors, industry insiders and HR rock stars who have more experience executing on inclusiveness than you do.

For diversity to truly benefit your company and all your employees, it can’t just be a box to check or a quota to fill. Instead, it needs to be a company-wide mindset that involves creating an environment where everyone feels included and comfortable sharing their ideas. No member of your team should feel like an outsider, ever.


Small footnote for if you are a “woman in” or other minority:  Things are changing but not overnight, so in the meantime, find ways to leverage the additional bit of spotlight that you might get from diversity opportunities.  While being a “woman in” had its challenges, it also meant that people always had their eye on me.  I was one of the few women in engineering at GE and BMW, one of the few women in the machine shop at MIT, etc.  Granted, eyes were on me because the men of the room weren’t quite sure what to think, but that meant that I had the opportunity more easily than others to be able to impress them.  Other people often have to fight long and hard for that chance to get the spotlight.  So while there may be downsides to having this spotlight, take advantage of the opportunities as well.


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