5 key strategies for women to succeed in male-dominated STEM industries

August 4, 2021 |

By Jenn Donahue, Founder of JL Donahue Engineering

Special to The Digest 

Being a woman in a male-dominated environment has its challenges. If you are like me, the last thing you want is for your gender to be your defining characteristic and the basis upon which all judgments of your worth are made.

In most societies, few women study and practice engineering, and there are even fewer who also volunteer to join the military. Female representation in Navy Construction Battalions, like mine, is at around 9%, and the percentage is even lower in leadership positions. In every aspect of my career, I have become used to being the only woman in the room; as I’m sure many women in STEM have experienced as well.

Through my successes, pitfalls and overall experiences, I’ve found a few simple steps that will make this process look routine.

1.     Be Confident in Your Decisions

Being the only woman in the room, whether it’s the Combat Operations Center (COC) or in a boardroom, I’ve found the easiest way to earn the respect of my team is in these three simple steps: stand up straight, calmly listen for the information you need, and make clear and sound decisions.

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you will not have all the information you need to make a decision. And sometimes you will need to make decisions based on imperfect information. In the military, we have a saying called “paralysis by analysis”, meaning that some are afraid to act, in the hope that they may eventually receive more information. This fear, however, wastes time and doesn’t gain the respect you seek from colleagues. Have courage and take decisive action. Know that you have the team’s best interest in mind, so make your decision and stand by it.

When I was deployed to Iraq, I was frequently interrupted from my sleep to respond to urgent situations. I would arrive on the scene at two o’clock in the morning amidst a crisis, out of uniform and with disheveled hair. Looking completely unprepared for duty, I was immediately in charge of a room full of men.

I quickly learned that these details are only noticed if you let your insecurity show. If, alternatively, you stand tall and lead with unwavering confidence, your team will trust and respect your decision making.

In a combined study at Columbia, Stanford, and Harvard Universities, it was found that a tall, correct posture not only increases feelings of power but also increases confidence-boosting testosterone in the body.

Standing tall projects confidence, and projecting confidence reinforces feeling confident.

This is an easy, simple act that may give you an immediate advantage as soon as you enter any room.

2.     Have a Variety of Mentors, Including Men

You don’t necessarily need a female mentor to be your sole supporter to be successful. You can also have a male mentor. And actually, some of my best mentors have been men. Having a male mentor can be very valuable because a lot of times these men are in positions of leadership and power, and they can bring you up the ranks with them.

Having more than one mentor is essential. Think about it as having a board of directors. One of my mentors is a technical genius, one is a wizard at business, and one masters the balance of family and work life.

Having a female mentor in the mix that’s been through everything that you might be going through is great because she can help you navigate similar situations that she’s handled. But if I had stuck with just one mentor, I believe my business would have failed.

No one can fulfill all aspects of your unique personal development. So instead of seeking out a “female only” mentor, I’ve found it best to instead identify the area that you most want to improve and find a mentor that fits that goal. Once established, look at other parts of your life that you would like to improve and seek out more mentors.

  1. Stop Competing and Comparing, Know Your Worth.

It is crucial, especially in STEM, not to compare yourself to others.

We compete with people who have something we want and are close enough to our position that we stand to benefit from the outcome.  Competition in these circumstances is nothing bad or wrong; it keeps us on our toes and shapes us into better versions of ourselves.  But when I look around the business world, it seems that competition between women often exceeds healthy levels.

If you can understand your own worth and why you love your career, competition falls away.  Understand and recognize the value you offer and earn the respect of your peers and superiors by promoting others and recognizing their achievements, too.

Dr. Lisa Firestone, a clinical psychologist and the Director of Research and Education for the Glendon Association, explains that women need to learn to compete because society still considers it more acceptable for men to be competitive while giving women feedback that competitiveness is undesirable.  Dr. Firestone offers that because we developed “under the stigma of being the weaker sex,” women have historically been expected to be more covert or manipulative in their efforts to achieve success, and we learned to deal with competition indirectly.

As women, we must change these norms by developing a healthier and more direct approach to competition, and we must learn to keep the mean girl out of the workplace by vowing always to compete fairly.

Focusing on the actual competition and setting a good example are two ways to develop this skill. You are not in competition with anyone but yourself.  If you want to achieve something, you have to become a better version of yourself to earn it.

“I find collaboration will launch you much further than unnecessary competition.” says Dr. Lisa Firestone and I couldn’t agree more.

You will feel much better about yourself, and others will become more likely to acknowledge your achievements as well when you practice these skills.

And, as women in STEM, we need to remember why we are there. A lot of times we’re not as assertive and we need to actively find courage, drive and fire to remember why we love what we do. When you love your career, don’t be afraid to stand up and say, “You know what? This is what I’m going to do.” Stand tall, be brave and always remember why you love what you’re doing.

4.     Create a Network of Women

Surrounding yourself with other women in your field not only builds a support system, but it allows you to regularly see, understand, and learn from other successful women in a male dominated industry.

It may not be easy to find other women in your field or you may think, like I did, that all-women groups sound unproductive. But, if you are passionate about being a leader in a male-led industry, you will find your network and grow it.

In this study done by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they find…

“…that women leaders who have an inner circle of high clustering and high diversity, appear to reconcile the dual employment challenges that women have to face in male-dominated jobs. In male-dominated settings, women need to gain trustworthy, gender-relevant information about job cultures and social support and wide access to diverse public job-market information.”

There are many large organizations that you can join like the Society of Women Engineers or Women in Technology. If you don’t feel comfortable with starting big, you can just as easily start small by finding other women through your work or even alumni groups.

It turns out that most of the women in these organizations are also oftentimes facing situations where they are the only woman in the room too. Having a group of people around you that can understand and empathize with your setbacks and struggles and discuss issues and solutions is vital to your success in engineering.

5.     Step Out of Your Comfort Zone, Promote Yourself

As women, we often don’t feel comfortable talking about ourselves. But if you don’t promote yourself, who will?

Each year in the military, we are asked to turn in our own self-assessment. I struggled with these for a long time because I found it hard to talk about myself. What I learned, though, is that it’s important for people to know and understand what you’re contributing.

If you know and understand your value, then sing your own praises!

We can learn from men in this way. Men are confident and willing to talk about their accomplishments and we can be too. Next time you go into a meeting, tell your team what you’ve been working on. It can be as simple as that.

It takes courage and vulnerability to be your own biggest advocate and cheerleader and verbally own your achievements. If you can step outside your comfort zone to do this, you will eventually feel comfortable speaking about yourself and encouraging your own advancement in your field of work.

Strategize for Success

It can be hard to be as successful as you can be when you’re a female in a male-dominated industry. As women in STEM, it seems like there are obstacles that our male counterparts simply don’t have to face.

If you can learn these strategies, you will start to earn respect from your team, move forward in your career, maintain your professionalism and dignity, and earn respect from your colleagues as a female leader in engineering.


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