August 20, 2013

STEM Awards… Inspiring or Intimidating?

It’s the time of year when applications are due in for a number of prestigious Women in STEM awards, and it got me thinking. It’s a common theme that these awards seek to both highlight achievements of women in the industry and also encourage more girls to consider careers in the field. I don’t think many people would deny that trying to inspire more young people into tech (especially women) is a noble cause; as is celebrating the success of those who are outstanding. However I’m not sure the two can always go hand in hand as seamlessly as these initiatives might hope…

Full disclosure:

I have applied for these kind of awards in the past, and I probably will continue to do so in the future. I’m not trying to single out any in particular (google women in tech awards or women in engineering awards and you’ll see there is a range) and I’m not denying that they are overall a good thing, but I think it’s important to examine whether they achieve what they’re aiming for, specifically in regards to the attracting girls to the industry’ side of things.

It’s all about the confidence…

It’s pretty well established that one of the big reasons why fewer girls go into techy subjects is a lack of confidence. Girls tend to underestimate their own abilities, suffer from imposter syndrome and generally think they aren’t that great. If they’re anything like I was (and still am to a certain extent), presenting them with a whole load of amazing, successful women and saying Look, these women are INCREDIBLE… Your move.” is more likely to intimidate them away from the industry, not inspire them into it. If the only visible women in tech are CEOs like Marissa Mayer, award winners who started their own businesses at 16, and others who’ve done amazing things, girls will assume that to succeed in the industry you need to be exceptional, which many (largely wrongly) believe they are not.

I’m not saying we should hide successful women away — far from it! I would like to see greater visibility of women at all levels. The most inspiring moments for me have been hearing from normal’ women, who I can identify with, who’ve made a good career for themselves. Hearing that they didn’t necessarily get 5 As at A-Level and a First Class degree and yet are still having a great time and doing well can sometimes be way more inspiring than hearing about someone who makes you think I could NEVER be like that!”

Perhaps a different way of looking at it is that these awards highlight to influential people in the industry that there are women out there doing great things, and that they can often get overlooked. We know that all else being equal, men are still perceived as more capable than women, so if we can change the perceptions of people who are subconsciously biased, of course it is a great thing.

Questionable questions?

I think my concern arises from the emphasis these awards seem to place on the encouraging young women into science/engineering/tech’ aspect. As discussed above, a parade of incredibly exceptional women in front of a group who are notoriously under-confident might not be the best approach, but on top of that, these awards often require women to demonstrate the role they’ve played in promoting the industry to girls.

The applications tend to include questions such as Explain why you would be an excellent role model to encourage others to enter your chosen profession” (IET Young Woman Engineer of the Year 2013), Detail the specific activities you have undertaken to encourage girls and young women to consider science, engineering, or construction as a career” and If you won the award, how would you use it to encourage girls into science, engineering, technology or construction?” (WISE Awards 2012). I have a couple of issues with this:

Firstly, as women, we are socialised to be enablers. We are expected to be sisters, mothers, daughters, wives; to help and care for others. This has been cited as one of the reasons that women don’t end up getting the top jobs — instead of focusing on our own careers we tend to put a significant amount of time into assisting others. Questions like this simply reaffirm this notion that as well as being exceptional in our work, we are also supposed to be focusing selflessly on promoting it to the younger generation. This is difficult as the more time and effort we spend on it, the more we may end up falling behind male peers in our day jobs.

Secondly, it yet again puts the onus on women. Shouldn’t everyone in the industry be concerned about diversity? Wouldn’t it be better to encourage men to also put time into encouraging more women (and more people in general) to consider a career in technology? Do men ever have to qualify their prize money for awards in this way?

Are the awards the problem, or is society?

It was suggested to me that the problem isn’t the awards, but the way we raise women. If we could teach women to be as ambitious, confident and assertive as their male peers, perhaps they wouldn’t get so easily intimidated. A lovely idea, but sadly, even if we started doing this, it is pretty well established that women like this often are viewed much more negatively than their male counterparts, as the traits are considered unfeminine and unbecoming… It might require a much bigger social overhaul than it first seems.

On a personal level, I’m not sure I want a world where everyone is ruthlessly ambitious — I actually like helping others and am pleased when my colleagues do the same. I think we all agree that this is generally a good thing, right? So instead of socialising women to be more like men’, perhaps we could encourage everyone to take ownership of the diversity problem?

A compromise

To me, a better solution would be to have a women’s award for outstanding achievement and success, regardless of the contribution to encouraging more women into the industry. Then additionally, an award (open to both men AND women) to recognise contributions to increasing diversity. Both without any qualification on the prize money. Separately to this, people should be able to apply for funding for specific projects that aim to promote the industry and increase diversity. I’d also advocate incentives to get a wider range of both women and men to go into schools and talk honestly about their experiences. Easier said than done, I know!

I hope it’s clear that I’m not against these kind of awards, I think they do a great job of raising the profile of women in tech, and I’m always really pleased for the winners. But even though we might have the best intentions, it’s important to look critically at these initiatives and make sure they’re doing what we expect.

What do you think about these awards?

Have they inspired you or intimidated you?

How might we improve the process?

Updated Jul, 21 2020