What are the issues facing women in STEM today?

Colleen Smith is the Vice President and General Manager, Progress OpenEdge

How do you view women’s general position in the industry right now? How has it changed from a decade ago?

Women in STEMWe’re certainly seeing more and more women break into the executive ranks. Today, some of the biggest and oldest technology companies such as IBM, Oracle, HP, and Xerox are led by women. This is certainly welcome, but I am not sure we can call it a trend. Most technology companies are dominated by men, not because of discrimination (although, that can sometimes be the case) but more from a matter of lack of available talent.

There are still not enough young women choosing STEM as a primary area of study and when they do, many choose to take a break or stay home when they have children. While it’s getting better, by far the biggest issue is ‘working-mother guilt.’ Being a primary caregiver while working is no easy task. We’re always trying to conform to some set of societal norms set by “someone” about how we’re supposed to do everything.

One thing that has changed significantly in the last decade is the ability to work from anywhere at any time. The advancement of mobile devices combined with access to the internet from virtually everywhere on the planet, has made the ability to stay connected with the office much easier. This is a benefit for both women and men.

Is it easier for women to succeed in start-ups than in large enterprise companies?

I don’t think one is necessarily better than the other. Women succeed everywhere, big and small companies alike. It is a matter of personal fit. Small companies don’t have the resources to make sure everything is covered. There is always too much work and not enough people to do it. Women are particularly good at multi-tasking and can jump in and perform a variety of roles. Start-ups provide an opportunity for women to show their versatility.

Large enterprises have their own challenges and women can certainly shine in those environments as well. Cross organizational collaboration is critical in larger companies and women have a unique ability to shine in this area.

What can be done to encourage young girls to study STEM subjects? Should the government do more?

This is the key challenge and biggest opportunity to growing the number of women in high tech. We need programs that start at a very young age (3-9) that will engage girls in ways that are tailored for them. Young boys typically play with Lego and build things; doing that stimulates their mathematical and scientific minds. Young girls typically play with dolls and dress-up which is stimulating their creative and nurturing selves.

We need to create toys and fun activities that combine these things together. The government can help by incorporating these engagement programs in primary schools, but this also needs to be addressed at home. We need to let young girls know that is it cool to be smart and encourage them to engage in activities that in the past have been viewed by society as for boys only.

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