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Mistakes and Missed Opportunities

The three key mistakes that keep women in STEM overlooked, undervalued and stuck in their careers. And how to overcome them.

The colleague in the other department mistakes you for someone’s assistant. Your boss gives the leading role for the new project to your male counterpart. You leave another meeting feeling overlooked, because you didn’t find anything clever to say right on the spot, so you didn’t say anything at all.

If any of this resonates, you’re not alone. Countless women in science and tech report things like this happening in their career and they feel unappreciated and stuck. And you’re not blame either. Rarely is “how to represent yourself” or “communicate with confidence” part of an on-boarding or development program. As we build our careers, the ‘soft skills’ we’re taught tend to circle around giving feedback or managing our time. What we’re missing are the skills that bring out the best in ourselves and others, and so we stay stuck.

If you’re tired of guessing yourself to career success, read on to learn the three mistakes that keep women in STEM from creating bigger opportunities for themselves.

Mistake #1: They don’t know how to show up as an expert with confidence.

Failing to speak up and contribute their ideas is one of the biggest struggles. Women in STEM often fear that their ideas aren’t good enough or they’re concerned to say something wrong and embarrassing themselves. Sometimes they even think they don’t belong in the room, feeling intimidated by senior managers.

This ‘lack of confidence’ often stems from the lack of knowing yourself. That’s why it’s so key identify the various elements that make you an expert and a unique, valuable contributor to the team. Knowing our strengths, values and what gives us a sense of purpose are just as important as the technical skills and expert knowledge we contribute. On top, we often have a ton of limiting beliefs and unhelpful thoughts we need to learn to identify and let go of. Adopting the right mindset helps overcoming all these hurdles which, thanks to neuroplasticity, is possible for anyone at any age.

When I met L., she would often feel quite ‘flat’ at work and not particularly excited about it. Or when she was excited she sometimes lacked the confidence to really drive her projects forward properly. Liz was struggling to find meaning in what she was doing and while she had a good technical knowledge and skillset, she found it difficult to feel motivated and valued. This impacted the confidence in her own abilities and lead to worries about how others perceived her.

So we took a close look at all the things she did that were standing in her way of being be a trusted expert who can be counted on. She noticed she would often unmute and then quickly mute herself again in virtual calls. L. hesitated, waiting for everyone else to speak first or didn’t jump in to correct mistakes. We uncovered a few limiting beliefs that kept her from positioning herself as an expert in meetings and she started to work to overcome these.

Within two weeks she noticed herself speaking up with more confidence, proactively sharing her thoughts and asking questions during meetings. She also ‘inserted’ herself in more conversations by asking to be invited to the meeting rather than waiting to be invited. And this didn’t go unnoticed: Next to this whole new level of confidence, L. received feedback from other managers in the company how she really became “the go-to person” for her topic and more junior colleagues asked her for her mentorship.

As you can see, while L. was sure of her technical knowledge and skills, it wasn’t enough for others to recognise her as the expert she is. But by uncovering what really drives her and overcoming unhelpful beliefs and negative, limiting self-talk, she finally started to show up and contribute with all her expertise. She started to tap into her strengths and established herself as an expert by speaking up more in meetings and engaging with stakeholders. Instead of continuously doubting herself, L. adopted the mindsets that give her the confidence to speak with conviction.

 

Mistake #2: They haven’t built the network and visibility with the right people, so no one knows who they are and what they can contribute.

The second big mistake that leads to women in STEM missing out on opportunities is that they stay under the radar for too long. Maybe their name popped up on a report or a slide deck, but they’re rarely known beyond their own team. Especially in large companies, this lack of visibility sometimes even leads to management taking you off of projects, because they don’t feel you represent them enough.

It’s vital, to become known for what you know, to build a network of mutually beneficial relationships across the company. Women in STEM have to turn colleagues and managers into fans so that they remember them when a topic related to their expertise is discussed, they sing their praises even when they’re not in the room and that they recommend and refer them to other open positions. And it’s possible to do this in a way that feels aligned with your values instead of icky or sleazy. The goal must be to make meaningful connections instead of seeing this as a hollow handshaking exercise.

My client F. struggled a lot with this. She even said she’s ‘physically in pain’ when she has to contact other managers in order to build her network. F. was very frustrated and demotivated in her job, because she felt that the company politics put her at a disadvantage. She didn’t have a formal development plan, there were no open positions to apply to that sounded attractive to her and she feared that her boss wouldn’t want to let her go anyway.

But she knew – no matter how uncomfortable it would make her – she had to change how she approached the situation or she would be getting the same results over and over and stay stuck. Together we came up with a strategy for her to capitalise on existing opportunities that put her name on the radar along with showing her clear intention to progress and develop within the company. We also brainstormed a number of new ways to expand her network and gain greater visibility beyond her immediate team and the people she already knew.

Those changes didn’t always come easy. But F. was willing to experiment and learn what works, and to put herself in situations that felt a little uncomfortable. In one session we also took a closer look at the thought patterns that were standing in her way so that she’d recognise them and could do something about them going forward.

Within three months all those subtle changes she made to how she showed up initiated a discussion with her departmental head about further developing her and even creating a special role that would align with her interests and strengths with a move up in the hierarchy that made her feel truly appreciated and valued.

This case clearly shows that unless you’re willing to put yourself on the radar, you’ll miss out on existing opportunities and forfeit the chance of even creating opportunities for yourself. Clearly demonstrating your abilities and ambitions beyond your immediate team and making meaningful connections are key progressing in your career.

Mistake #3: They lack the communication skills to make their ideas heard and acted on.

I know a lot of women in STEM who are confident and speak up regularly, who built a network and continuously demonstrate the value of their work through the contributions they make … and yet they struggle to get endorsement and support for their projects or they’re still not considered for bigger opportunities.

What these women still have to figure out is how to communicate with the various people they get in touch with every day in a way that is influential and impactful. With a background in science and tech we’re often prone to speak in technical terms with a lot of detailed information. What we need to learn though is to tailor our message to the audience we’re talking or writing to, bring our point across concisely so that we don’t confuse our listeners and structure the flow of our communication in a way that inspires action on the other side.

M. is Regulatory Specialist. She’s the one who has to ensure that the products her company develops comply with local regulations. When we first started working together, she

    • Had a lot of work and people constantly interrupting her asking for the status of a project, because she struggled to set clear boundaries.
    • Didn’t get involved early enough in projects by the product development team, because they didn’t understand her responsibilities and how to best work with her.
    • Was brushed off by senior management in various meetings, because they didn’t take her role seriously and didn’t understand the risks and opportunities for the business that come with regulatory compliance.

She was so frustrated about constantly being ignored and not taken seriously that it happened on occasion that she snapped. Of course, the more aggressive her tone was, the less credibility she had with others. M. realised she had to try a different strategy and overhaul her approach to communication completely. Within the three months we worked together, she tailored her communication to the different audiences and the results speak for themselves.

It didn’t take long and she had established clear boundaries, giving her the time she needed to focus on her work. M. also created a great working relationship with the product development team, so that she’s now part of their projects from the very beginning. This means that the product development cycle is much quicker and smoother now. To top it off, a presentation she gave to the CEO and other senior managers in the company went so well, that her boss suggested she should be promoted.

M.’s story shows that paying attention to how we communicate with the different stakeholders we have at work makes a difference to our workload, how much we enjoy the day-to-day interactions and the results we get both for the company and our own career. Tailoring your message to your audience, communicating in a clear way and being consistent (and pleasantly persistent) in bringing that message across is vital to creating bigger opportunities for ourselves.

Enough of being overlooked, undervalued and stuck in your career!

In this article I covered three strategies that often only need subtle shifts in what you do to help you feel seen and valued at work, and progress in your career without burning out. I’ve seen these strategies work in my own career and with my clients and I know it’s possible for you, too.

Do you feel inspired by the stories I shared and want some support with creating bigger opportunities in your career? Then I’m happy to help you become confident and build your expert credibility, gain visibility in the company with the right people, and develop the skills for influential communication to get your ideas heard. Simply send an email to nicole [at] intoactioncoaching.de and we’ll take it from there.

If you found these insights valuable, be sure to share this blog post with another woman in STEM to help them create new opportunities for themselves.

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© 2021 Dr. Nicole Tschierske
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