How to be a smart woman in STEM

Gabriela Mueller Mendoza’s new book is full of advice and tips on how women can advance in the STEM sector in the 4th Industrial Revolution.

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Women in STEM need to actively support and endorse each other if they are to achieve critical mass and transform the related professions that will hold sway in the 4th Industrial Revolution, according to a new book.

In How to be a smart woman in STEM Gabriela Mueller Mendoza argues that it’s time for women to verbally sponsor and uplift other women in the workplace, whether in meetings, over email or in conference calls. She says they need to build a tribe of like-minded women – whether internal or external to work – who have their backs and lift them up. Calling for more role models of women supporting each other, she says: “The success of every woman should be inspiration and fuel to another.”

Gabriela started her career in technology at a time when there was a surge in women going into the profession. Between the 80s and 90s the number of women in tech rose to 37% before falling to half that number.  Gabriela says her experience was generally positive, but she left the sector after becoming a mum and decided to move into professional coaching, something she has now done for 17 years.

While her book recognises that getting more women into STEM is an education issue, her focus is on attracting them into industry, keeping them there and helping them to advance. Too many drop out due to cultural issues, such as inflexible working and bias. For her change will come as a result of inclusive leadership policies, tackling unconscious bias and building women’s confidence. The book addresses both what women can do as individuals to advance as well as structural biases in the STEM sector.

Gabriela writes about how women in STEM face more challenges to prove their value because of gender stereotypes. She says: “Women’s mistakes tend to be noticed more and remembered longer, while their success is often attributed to luck, and men’s success stories are attributed to skill.”


On an individual basis, she says women need to have a long-term career strategy and work through it, communicating in a clear, concise and concrete way in the kind of language that suggests confidence rather than being apologetic. She says that networking is key, but that women tend to be uncomfortable about leveraging their network and about the idea of reciprocity. She states: “I’ve seen how women tend to add tons of value to their stakeholders (information, access, knowledge and even resources) and then shy away from asking a simple favour from the very same people. When and if you’ve added value to your network and contacts in the past, you absolutely have the right to request help or support from them.” That reciprocal relationship should also extend to sponsors, who in STEM are likely to be men.

The networking has to be done gradually from the offset so that it is there when women need it. “When you need a network, it’s too late to build it,” Gabriela advises. Similarly she advises women to take risks with their career when things are going well rather than putting it off until they have no other choice.

In her experience women need to fight against three main tendencies when trying to get their ideas across – the need to please people, the feeling of disappointing people they care about and the expectation that they have to be perfect and know it all. However, having earlier spoken about the way STEM culture is overly critical of women – and bearing in mind the general tendency to judge women more harshly than men – that kind of expectation may be an understandable response.

Do politics

Politics matters. For this reason, the book dedicates a section to carving a path through office politics, showing how to weigh up different players’ power, what motivates them and how to gain influence. The first step is to understand how different people work, says Gabriela. From there the book spells out how to influence others and advance, for instance, being proactive in offering something exclusive or personal that will benefit the other person and encourage reciprocity.

There is also a section on negotiating, including negotiating higher pay. Gabriela says it is important to be the one to start the negotiation as that gives greater control. She adds that women tend to undervalue themselves so she always advises women to request at least 30-50% more than what the figure they have in mind for a pay rise. “You’ll be in the range of what other male peers will be aiming at,” she states.

She adds that women need to operate on an ‘if I give you this then I get that’ basis, although she says many feel uncomfortable about doing so. However, doing so makes it more difficult to accept concessions, she says. Women also need to rehearse silences, she says. Silences can help in negotiations and being uncomfortable and filling silences can be self-defeating. “Don’t negotiate with yourself,” she counsels.

Gabriela says that, in addition, women need to separate the pay issue from the people who are in the position to make decisions about it.  “What you are negotiating about has little to do with the character of the people at the table, but a lot with what they are motivated about or their fears,” she writes.

The book ends with a section on working mums – the research showing that having a working mum is good for children, how self-defeating working mum guilt is and the importance of self care and self-empathy – and another on women in senior positions.  Gabriela says it is vital to bring men into the conversation and convince them to take action because diverse teams work better.

In a world of technology, she emphasises the human. “Let’s not forget to keep humanity at the centre of new developments,” she says. “Diverse teams perform better. Gender parity is a business imperative for organisations.”

*How to be a smart woman in STEM by Gabriela Mueller Mendoza is published by Panoma Press, price £14.99. 

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