Challenges Women in STEM are Facing Today


| April 23, 2024 | in

Earlier this month, I attended the Nebraska Women in STEM conference in Omaha, and it was my first time experiencing it. I wanted to share a few thoughts with others regarding the conference. First, seeing so many women in one place was powerful; the second observation I had was that whether it was intentional or not, the theme of authentic self and bringing your true self to all parts of your life, from personal to professional, was encouraged by speakers throughout the day.

As one of the conference’s sponsors and a member of BioNebraska, we wanted to bring a thoughtful activity to the event and perhaps understand a bit more about what women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) are facing today in terms of achieving more in their respective fields. So, we posed the question:

What are the things holding you back from achieving more in your professional careers?

We have used this survey concept before (see Doug Durham’s post, A Snapshot of Software Developer Maturity and Non-coding Skills), but this is the first time we have explored what women specifically face.

We gave attendees a list of common goals that they would like to achieve:

  • Move into a Role That Meets My Financial Needs
  • Find a Career I Love with a Company I Admire
  • Be Celebrated for My Abilities and Contributions to My Company
  • Move into a Leadership Role in My Company
  • Be a Thought Leader in My Industry

We asked them to drop colored ping pong balls to indicate blockers that have prevented them from achieving those goals:

  • Too Many Distractions
  • Too Many Doubts or Fears
  • Not Enough Knowledge or Information
  • Not Enough Leadership or Culture Support
  • Not Enough Money or Resources
  • Not Enough Time or Energy

As this was our first time at a conference that more broadly covers STEM industries and is targeted at women, we weren’t quite sure what to expect from the results. In some cases, we may have had some basic assumptions but nothing definitive.

Here is what we learned:

Move into a Role That Meets My Financial Needs

When it came to financial needs, this column had the fewest balls. At the observation time, those early in their careers were those who placed the balls in this category. This was not the least bit surprising to me. I say this because I have repeatedly seen women who go into their careers not for financial gains but for values, the ability to make a difference, and be part of a cause for the greater good.

Find a Career I Love with a Company I Admire

On the opposite side of financial gain, this question addresses women wanting to find careers in places that value their contribution and where they can make a difference. I was also not surprised that women had too many doubts or fears. This is often because they do not have the luxury of being able to choose a company that fulfills their values and needs as their first career job. It takes time.

Be Celebrated for My Abilities and Contributions to My Company

Words of affirmation are one of the most sought-after validations that we seek. This is especially true when we are contributing individuals in our companies. Many companies do this well, but others still need to improve as a core way of celebrating their team members. Recognition for people to feel that they are making a difference in their companies is important. These results were also not very surprising. It all depends on the culture of the company and whether the management and the teams are open to recognition and being able to celebrate openly or not.

One of the ways I see recognition happen at Don’t Panic Labs is in our weekly L10 meetings. We start each meeting with everyone reflecting on the previous week and sharing either an “Employee+” or “Company +” regarding something good that happened. Being recognized for the efforts on a weekly basis rather than waiting a year for an evaluation is one way that management can become better at celebrating their employees’ contributions.

Move into a Leadership Role in My Company

Too many distractions, not enough time or energy, and not enough leadership or cultural support were standouts in this category. Again, I was not surprised. As women, we tend to say “yes” more often than “no”. This means we have a lot to juggle and potentially get hindered from being recognized to step up in a new leadership role because it would require a lot of time. It also depends on the woman and their life circumstances. Some are more eager to be in these roles than others. Sometimes, we sacrifice more of ourselves for something that might not be the greatest path to growth, but if the timing is right, it can be a great growth opportunity.

Be a Thought Leader in My Industry

Each of the goals and the blockers that prevented someone from achieving their goals in each category has a definitive standout. As I don’t want to make this article a million pages long, I want to concentrate on the last one: Be a Thought Leader in My Industry.

I could see right away that most women pointed at “not enough time or energy” as the biggest blocker. Frankly, I am not surprised! As women, our plates on any given day are overflowing, and we are not only trying to figure out a way to be thought leaders or leaders, period; we are also yearning to help others around us, whether they are younger colleagues, our peers, or our leadership team. Sometimes, we are the only representative in the room for our sex, and that is not even considering us as women that we are outside of our careers. This is a struggle we have to balance on daily basis as we want to be thought leaders and also good humans all around.

Closing Thoughts

Each participant was asked to take a sticky note and write what could help with these barriers. I wanted to share a few examples that we saw as themes:

  • More money and resources
  • Say “no” more often
  • Stop comparing myself to others
  • Time management and focus
  • Be more intentional with my time and efforts
  • Be transparent with leaders and ask for feedback
  • Keep Learning
  • Have more confidence in myself
  • Ask for growth opportunities
  • Find a mentor

The Women in STEM Conference gave us an opportunity to be in a room full of thought leaders and business executive decision-makers. I don’t have all the answers and won’t pretend to know everything. However, the sticky notes and the survey show that women are capable and willing to step up to be the leaders in their company and value what they do.

The ways to help cross these barriers don’t seem hard to bypass to success, and what can we as leaders do to help? I think the answers are in the bullets above. We can be mentors and help others find fulfilling roles and leadership opportunities to share with our colleagues. We can build confidence by sponsoring those amazing women and sharing their names in meetings where their voices need to be heard.

I want to leave more room for discussion and want to hear from you. If you haven’t participated, you can still do so in comments.

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