#ChooseToChallenge: IWD’s message rings loud and clear within STEM

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is #ChooseToChallenge”, which is a call to arms for us all to celebrate women’s achievements, raise awareness against bias and take action for equality.

In the spirit of the day, here are the thoughts of some of the female leaders within the STEM space. These business and STEM superstars provide us with fascinating insights, and in some cases, a very personal flavour and a reminder of the achievements, but also the obstacles, experienced.

IWD women within STEMKate Reading, platform area engineering lead at Asana

“With the rapid shift to remote work, employees’ feelings of self-doubt have risen and connecting with peers is harder than ever before. And it shows: in the past year alone, 69% of UK workers experienced imposter syndrome and 25% of women voiced that due to a lack of confidence they would not choose to study a STEM subject. To overcome feelings of self-doubt, businesses must establish an inclusive work environment where individuals are able to seek out support and mentorship, no matter where they’re located.

“As the one year anniversary of the UK’s first national lockdown fast approaches, we should take a moment to consider how remote work has impacted women in STEM. As we continue to work from home, working women are disproportionately affected, more likely to lose a job and more likely to carry the load of childcare. To tackle this, at Asana, we established a six-month virtual mentorship pairing program for gender minorities in technical roles. This programme matches mentors to mentees with similar goals and interests – to help foster belonging and increase representation across the organisation. While there may not be a speedy solution to achieving gender equality in STEM, acknowledging the heavier domestic burden on parents and caregivers and enabling employee connection on a daily basis will help promote gender parity in the workplace.”

Michele Romanow, co-founder and President, Clearbanc

“Disrupting the status quo and questioning convention is at the heart of #ChoosetoChallenge. But change is hard. You have to be prepared to hear no a lot. Most people won’t believe in you or your vision, which is exhausting. These little “elastic stings” used to affect me a lot early in my career. Over the years I shifted my mindset to say, “I was expecting that. This is the motivation I need to prove them wrong.” In some ways, I almost crave being underestimated.

“When looking back to my grandparents’ generation, my career choices would’ve been limited to teacher, nurse or secretary — all great careers but jobs I would be terrible at! We’ve come a long way, but there is still more to be done. That’s why I’m so motivated by what we’re doing at Clearbanc. We’ve helped 8x more female founders get funding compared to the VC industry average. Every day, we help more founders build their dream no matter who they are or where they’re from.”

Lena Reinhard, VP, product engineering, CircleCI

“I would really like for our industry to become a place with diverse backgrounds and life experiences across all levels. Lifting each other up is a really important part of that, as well as organisations building structures for diverse groups of people to thrive.

“As many have said before me, I believe in order to make progress from here on, our approach to diversity and inclusion needs to be really intersectional. It needs to include Black women and other women of colour, as well as disabled women, and women who are facing discrimination in more than one aspect of their lives. It needs to include non-binary folks, as well as gender non-conforming folks, who often experience similar gender-based discrimination.

“The more we make our communities inclusive places to people who have been historically excluded, the more we’ll be able to join forces in making our industry a better place.”

Emma Davies, principal scientist at Healx

“Eradicating gender bias in STEM isn’t something that can be achieved in just one day. But this International Women’s Day is a great opportunity to shine a light on why women should feel empowered to challenge gender stereotypes by pursuing a career in science.

“One of the main reasons I love being a scientist is the opportunity to problem solve. I have always been interested in the natural world and was lucky enough to be supported by my educators in nourishing this curiosity for science throughout my school life. Due to this nourishment, I never saw gender when looking up at my role models, even though they were predominantly male—I just saw an opportunity to make a difference.

“However, I know that there are women and girls who don’t feel like this; we can see this in the various gender imbalances at all stages of the scientific pipeline. That’s why it is crucial that we raise awareness about the disparities that still exist in STEM, and work together to break down unnecessary gender barriers. We all know that teams are better at solving problems if they come from diverse walks of life. Therefore, leaders in STEM workplaces must ensure that they are creating an inclusive and representative environment where everyone can thrive.

“A career in STEM offers women a golden opportunity to succeed—it is now up to us to encourage them to seize it.”

Kristel Leisalu, head of engineering at Pipedrive

“This year’s campaign theme for International Women’s Day is #ChooseToChallenge – to recognise the unconscious bias we assume every day and take the necessary steps to desist from making these judgements.

“Demand for technology skills continues to increase; however, women remain underrepresented – making up a mere 24 percent of STEM roles in the UK. By actively challenging gender stereotypes and thought in the STEM sector we can pave the way to an inclusive workforce. As head of engineering at Pipedrive, I’m a woman working in a typically male-dominated sector. Fortunately, I haven’t experienced gender inequality in my career, but I think it is important to have a strong mindset of being equal to one another, being true to yourself, and not contributing to gender bias within the workplace. The future of work will be defined by the organisations that attract and foster an inclusive and diverse workforce, so be sure to find a company that addresses equity on a daily basis and supports your growth.”

Liz Beavers, Head Geek™, SolarWinds

“This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is “Choose to Challenge,” which couldn’t be more fitting as we embrace a new year. Women from all backgrounds and across all industries were met with so many obstacles this past year. Despite the hurdles I’m proud to reflect on how this community of women banded together to show unity, resilience, strength, and compassion. It’s not to say those challenges of equality are behind us, but 2020 showed women’s steadfast determination and will to advance, during an international pandemic.

“As a young female in technology my hope is to see more diversity and inclusion amongst those that are influencing industry trends and leading organizations. Seeing more individuals who are underrepresented, in a historically male-dominated industry, can inspire the change, advocacy, and empowerment needed to grow females’ presence at the table. Using our collective voices and experiences in technology, we have an opportunity to influence the narrative and innovate how technology is developed, perceived, and used.”

“I’m raising my voice because I want more women to see themselves in leadership positions, for more women to have the confidence to advance their careers, and for more women to ask questions and challenge the status quo. I’m raising my voice so our allies can actively listen, support, and collaborate with women, to tackle gender barriers. I #ChoosetoChallenge others to continue to speak up to advocate for change and inclusivity in technology.”

V Brennan, regional lead, engineering EMEA at Slack

“Never has there been a more fitting theme for International Women’s Day than this year’s notion of #ChooseToChallenge. 2020 stretched us all in ways that were previously unimaginable—it pushed me to adapt quickly and rely on my own abilities. As a woman who has pursued a career in what is traditionally seen to be a male-orientated industry, something I learned early on was the importance of openness and vulnerability: I no longer apologise for being female or play to stereotypes.

“For most women, growing in confidence won’t happen overnight. That’s why I want to highlight the importance of encouraging allyship and creating a supportive culture in the workplace—whether virtually or in-person. Leaders can instill a sense of allyship by promoting mentorship. Seeking a senior male figure as a mentor can help women to navigate the workplace landscape and unlock their potential. In return, women can open their mentor’s eyes to the struggles they face, highlighting areas where gender equality needs to be more prevalent. Without educating everyone on the importance of being an ally, we cannot experience the benefits diversity provides: getting everybody in the building is not enough if they do not have a voice.

“An open culture is key for transparent conversations as we continue to work remotely. This is where channel-based messaging tools can step in. Through channels, everyone has the ability to share thoughts and find updates. Setting up dedicated spaces for leaders to communicate around changes to policy or new initiatives demonstrates how diversity and inclusion are always top of mind for the business.

“The pandemic has transformed all aspects of our lives and challenged our perceptions of normality. This International Women’s Day, we must all work to create an inclusive environment built for the new hybrid world.”

Anna Brailsford, CEO at Code First Girls

“Even in 2021, the gender gap remains a global issue in the workplace—especially in technology-related fields. With this year’s International Women’s Day theme as #ChooseToChallenge, we have an opportunity to voice the gender and diversity challenges within tech and explore how individuals and organisations can enact change.

“To achieve gender parity in the tech industry, organisations must establish a company culture that empowers collaboration and communication between women in the workplace. Key to its success is ensuring that this initiative is not just driven by the leadership team but supported by the entire team. This will allow for an open and inclusive culture to be created, that empowers female voices within the business and facilitates the discussion and learning of their shared experiences.

“No matter where you are in your career—whether you are looking to make a fresh start in tech or are already established within the field—integrating yourself in a community will be an invaluable way to access support and guidance from other females within the same sector. Not only will a community help you to expand your network of personal and professional contacts, but it can also help with support and advice. At Code First Girls, we have built a community of over 25,000 women who actively help each other to break into and excel in the tech industry. We are always looking to grow our community, and offer support no matter whether remote or in-person!”

Lauren Tiley, senior director, strategic client partnerships at DoubleVerify

“I believe in creating space to challenge conventions that don’t support diversity and inclusivity. As an industry, we need to do more to abolish industry stereotypes, particularly in evolving sectors, such as ad tech. We’ve seen momentous shifts in the space which require new skills, ideas and talent. To keep up with and thrive through these changes, it’s important to enable creativity and collaboration and that means making more voices heard.

“Authenticity has been a powerful theme throughout my career. It’s helped me establish my leadership style and help create an innovative team that is representative of what a diverse industry could look like and achieve. Authenticity is crucial when we talk to our customers, industry partners, and each other. We must remember that we don’t have to fit into the mould of previous or existing leaders, but rather empower ourselves and others to charter our own paths towards leadership.”

Gali Arnon, Fiverr’s chief marketing officer, Fiverr

“Research has shown that Covid-19 has exacerbated gender disparity in the workplace, with women being more likely than men to lose work and have greater responsibilities with childcare during the crisis. However, at Fiverr this is not the case, with female freelancers actually earning 9% more than male freelancers. So how has Fiverr bucked the trend and reversed what’s happening in the corporate world?

“In the global freelance industry, quality work takes precedence so factors such as gender bias are diminished. Fiverr customer reviews are a major deciding factor when selecting a freelancer, so, unlike the traditional labour marketplaces, gender, sexual orientation, race or religion do not come into play on our platform.

“It is essential that we choose to challenge the gender inequalities that have been heightened by the pandemic. Recent research by The Female Lead reveals that Covid has aggravated the ‘unentitled mindset’ (the theory that women have been socially conditioned to feel less entitled than men) and has resulted in the burden of domestic chores falling disproportionately to women. It’s crucial to provide an environment where we can counter these trends and ensure that we succeed offline in the way Fiverr has online. We have created a level playing field where individuals are judged by their credentials on their profile, a visual portfolio, and reviews from past clients; eliminating the issue of wrongly ingrained prejudices. Technology has the potential to continually help remove the stigma but we must translate this to every corner of our society.”

Karen Plum, director of research & development, Advanced Workplace Associates

“I heard somewhere that adding one woman to a meeting increases the social intelligence in the room significantly. It’s easy to leap to generalisations, but the skills of empathy, listening to hear (not to respond) and building trusting relationships are all vital in today’s boardroom. Diversity in the boardroom is more likely to be mirrored through the organisation, and can deliver a range of ideas and experiences, allowing for richer conversations and better solutions and decisions. But only if we adopt an inclusive approach where everyone’s views are welcome and received without prejudice, scorn or simply as a box ticking exercise.”

Rachel Houghton, MD, Business Moves Group

“I don’t think women come with any magical powers that men don’t have. Just like I don’t think men come with any magical powers that women don’t have. It’s not about gender, it’s about balance. It’s about finding the right person, the right fit for the board – someone with the same aspirations and vision as the organisation they represent, someone who brings with them a certain energy that excites and motivates the people that are coming through the ranks.”

Whatever position you find yourself in your career withing STEM or otherwise, at the first rung of the ladder or the very top, it’s important to take the time to appreciate the women around you and look for those who have succeeded for insights and advice. It’s time for everyone within the STEM industries to #ChooseToChallenge.