Recently, there have been talks about how to address the lack of women in STEM, so when I heard about an opportunity to mentor young women about career choices, I jumped at the opportunity. My goal was to pique young women’s interest in STEM early on before they start in college. I also wanted to make a pitch for building a strong foundation in math and science and thus having the flexibility to switch fields.
First to note, The Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria, in the New York Public School system is designed for girls who are interested in succeeding academically and getting a head start in leadership. The classrooms that I was assigned to speak are for 11th graders, the age where American high schoolers take the SAT test and start in earnest with the college application process.
As mentors, in front the students, we talk about what we do in our jobs, how we spend a typical day at work, and what career path and decisions that had led us here, and what college and college majors have prepared us. The mentors’ field range from healthcare to finance to fashion to journalism to technology. I was very particular about what I wanted to do, which is to make a compelling argument about the importance of building a strong foundation of science and technology, and to pique young women’s interest in pursuing career opportunities in STEM.
During moments of self-introduction and Q&A’s, I’ve given away some non-traditional advice, including how to actively manage interview process, college application process, and networking opportunities, and some advice on risk-taking.
Unbeknownst to myself, my eyes were about to be wide opened. The moment, Lorena, another mentor in the room asked the students that how many are a first generation in their family to attend a college, and many hands went up, I felt my heart skipped a beat. Lorena also was a first generation in her family to attend university. I realized that the students here are very different from those students with whom I attended high school. I was touched that they found the initiative in themselves to attend such an excellent school, to apply to colleges, and to explore career opportunities.
After speaking with students in classrooms, the women scattered into the gym into career booths, where students could actively come over to ask questions. I sat at the booth labelled Science & Technology. There were young women who came over to ask questions, knowing specifically what is that they wanted to do and have well-defined goals. That brought us smiles. It was very encouraging to see young women who knew what they wanted, and are serious and prepared to take steps to reach those goals. Yet, we also note, the Science & Tech booth is not always as filled as some of the other booth. The question is why? That is a complicate question and probably deserves another post.
After the session is over, I found emails from the students that I spoke who said what I said made them feel more confident about college and career decisions, especially seeing that I changed my career over and over. I’m so honored to speak and to pique their interest in STEM. And I am deeply inspired and humbled by their own ability to change their life.
It’s okay to have an edge. It would be nice to be mellowed out like an old cat and curl up in a corner some days, but that gets old quickly. It is better to be a Cat Woman, mistress of the night and utterly fearless. As a mentor tells me, “it’s good to have an edge.”
A lot of women when the arriving to leadership roles face a choice of “being loved but passed over” or “being respected and even feared”. I would like to believe that there exists a perfect balance – in an image of an old matriarch, calm and even-tempered, who’d deliver forth sagacious words to a crowd of hushed voices. But it’s just an image. For young woman on the fast track, what benefit of old age offers to the old matriarch is not offered to the young lady. When one does not have much managerial experience, striking the right tone takes skill and a lot of planning. Moreover, upstart young women are likely to be as hot-blooded as the next man. Reining in one’s passion is a cultivated trait. To be honest, young women have got a lot of overcome, especially in highly competitive fields that are filled with men. It’s a tight rope to walk but I believe the experience is also meant to the train the best.
First, one needs carry oneself with confidence and feels every right to be there as the next man. Speaking from my own experience, there were many occasions in my professional careers that I am the token girl, surrounding by men during company meetings, conferences, or in client pitches. I tell you, having a woman on the team is a plus. It slows people down and makes them more level headed in decision making. If you are a woman in a roomful full of men, know that you are well-placed to stand out (you probably already do) and be instrumental to the conversation.
Stop apologizing when you don’t have to. Women tend to apologize way more often than men do. I even catch myself doing it sometimes, which makes me want to bite my tongue. If you have expert knowledge on a topic, chime in. There’s no need to preface with “excuse me” or “I’m sorry.” When it is not your fault, don’t apologize. It is awkward and suggests that you’ve actually done something wrong.
Be relevant. There is an article that generated a lot of buzz about why women entrepreneurs start women-related startups when they should enter into more male-dominated fields. I think women feel more comfortable doing women-related startups. But honestly, that argument misses the point. There are tons of men doing women related startups, in ecommerce, online dating, wedding planning. And there are tons of women working in real estate, energy and science. It doesn’t matter so much what you do, be it traditionally male or female dominated fields, as that you feel relevant in that field.
I like that advertisement by the Diamond Trading Company that says the following, “Your left hand says you’re taken, your right hand says you can take over. Your left hand celebrates the day you were married. Your right hand celebrates the day you were born. Your left hand says ‘we,’ your right hand says ‘me.’ Your left hand rocks the cradle. Your right hand rules the world. Women of the world, raise your right hand.”