Crushing the STEM Glass Ceiling Without Crushing Each Other

  All images: Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya

All images: Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya

Are we our own worst enemy in crushing the STEM glass ceiling?

Women are underrepresented at leadership levels of medicine, technology and scientific research despite more women than ever going into STEM careers. The blame classically falls on the men who have run these fields for centuries, but do we really believe that our potential is in their hands alone?

In many science and research based careers, winning grants and having work published in high impact journals are what makes or breaks you. At a conference on diversity in science, as I listened to the speaker report that women truly fared worse than men in grant and publication success, the brutal punchline hit me – women can be bitches. The data showed that women are much harsher on other women than men are. But why?

Unconscious bias towards gender, race, ethnicity is real and hard to diagnose. In the case of women treating women harsher, in any career path, there is the tough love theory - as women we expect more from other women, so push them harder. There is also the basic competition theory – take out those who threaten your own success. Unfortunately, both can lead to defeat of spirit, relationships and career.

So how do we as women change the game for ourselves? There is actually a lot to be learned from reality tv contests.

Form alliances and keep them.

“Behind every successful woman is a tribe of other successful women who have her back.” - Unknown

To survive in a game of strategy, players must work together to be long term contenders. Alliances are key, but you must honor them. As women in STEM it is important find your tribe and have each other’s back. I am lucky to be a mentee of a tribe of women who received the tough love approach from their old school ivy league mentors in response to the choice to have both a career and a family. These boss ladies held the ladder steady for each other over the years and climbed to executive directors of major clinical labs, dean of a school of medicine, and president of a national non-profit all while raising children who are now following in their mothers’ scientific footsteps. They found strength in each other, refused an either/or life, and now use their experiences to mentor and shape the way their field includes and empowers women. 

Turn competition into collaboration.

“When women work together, it’s a bond unlike any other.” – Victoria Principal

Competition can be defined as “the opposition”. In STEM, opposition may be born from the friction of like minds. This type of competition can play to our favor and become collaboration. The past standard of scientists working in solitude to protect their ideas and inventions is over. Team science is here and thriving. Sure, competition still exists, but bringing together like minds and tackling a problem from different perspectives is an opportunity for women in STEM to flip the script. Join the opposition, leverage each other’s strengths, and create something unique that can only be achieved by working together.

There can be more than one survivor.

“Ruining Regina George’s life definitely didn’t make me any happier.” – Mean Girls

Unlike reality tv contests, in most careers there is room for more than one survivor. In STEM, recognition – getting the grant, the major publication, the awards of honor – is vital, but not at the expense of colleagues. Taking out the competition ultimately ends badly for everyone. Remember Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan? In careers where in addition to being brilliant, innovative, and creative we also must be fierce competitors, the proverbial claws can come out.  Don’t be a “mean girl”– it’s a stereotype that can limit us all. The STEM glass ceiling will not be broken by a single person or event, but by the persistence of many putting pressure on cracks already there.

Melanie Turner is Senior Manager of Research Operations for the American Heart Association (AHA), the largest funder of cardiovascular research outside the US government.  She has specific interests in global health and risk prevention in women and underserved populations. She has published several papers related to heart disease and stroke statistics, strategies and progress towards AHA and WHO goals, community and population cardiovascular health.

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