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#2020wasEPIC elevate your career in STEM as the "only"

#2020wasEPIC elevate your career in STEM as the "only"

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Full text also available in the ACM Digital Library as PDF | HTML | Digital Edition

Tags: Computing profession, Women

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Every year, I come up with a hashtag that becomes my mantra for the year. For 2020, #2020isEPIC seemed fitting. Though #2020wasEPIC, it exposed many preexisting challenges and exacerbated them. In line with this issue's theme, the continued need to diversify STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) remains an important challenge, especially for women. The number of women in technology are dismal and begin to dwindle once you consider women of "double" minority status, like myself, a Black woman in STEM. Many may wonder where the women are in STEM careers, and why they are not pursuing careers in the technology workforce. I'll attempt to address these questions by sharing how I have persevered despite the many challenges I and others have endured in our STEM careers. This article will provide you with tips and pose potential solutions to combat and help change this theme of women not belonging in tech to help you elevate your career in STEM as the "only."

It's important to note I have always been passionate about STEM. It was not until I was in undergrad that I realized approximately 10 girls from my incoming class were in the computer science program; I was shocked. That number quickly decreased after we took a programming proficiency exam during our freshman year. As I continued to matriculate through the program, I began to experience what it felt like as the "only." When you are the only woman in the classroom, boardroom, etc., it can feel daunting. You may dread showing up, anticipate being picked on, called upon, and you may even fear speaking up. There is no doubt that gender plays a role in our experiences; additionally, physical appearance plays a role. Unfortunately, one's appearance further magnifies other perceptions or stereotypes. Once you add race, class, or religion to the equation, it also complicates one's experiences. Our lived intersectional experiences are valid. It is not easy to express to others who cannot directly relate or identify. When faced with the reality of being the "only," here are a few strategies to consider to elevate your career in STEM.

Seek mentors. Seeking mentors can be difficult, but the ultimate goal is to connect with someone in the field. Although you may be the "only," you have the advantage of finding mentors who look like you. Alternatively, you can have mentors from different backgrounds and experiences to support your success. Your mentor(s) will assist you in elevating your career. Mentors provide career advice, resume reviews, and often can develop into lifelong friends. You can utilize LinkedIn to build and expand your professional network. Don't be afraid to ask or even receive a no. Those who are truly sincere about mentorship do not take it lightly and will not accept unless they have the proper time to invest. No is not always a bad thing. Start with one mentor and monitor your elevation in STEM with their support.

Use your voice. Remember your views, perspectives, and your voice matter. Using your voice is essential to elevate your STEM career as the field is progressing toward making impactful change. Don't be afraid to speak up or speak out not only for yourself but for others and your community. You would be surprised not only at who is listening, but who also may be taking notes. You can use your voice through blogging, vlogging, writing articles, doing talks where you share your journey, volunteering with technology or STEM organizations, podcasts, through research, etc. Also, speaking up when you see injustices or wrong-doings is equally as important. The world needs to hear from you. Your story, experiences, tips, strategies, successes, and failures are all relevant and necessary.

Become a mentor. Becoming a mentor to others can benefit your experience and help to propel your career in STEM. Mentorship roles help not only the mentee but also the mentor. In the mentor role, you will grow and develop just as much as your mentee. Healthy relationships are not one-sided. Help someone else once you feel confident or in a secure place.

Identify a role model. In your respective field, it is okay to have a role model who you admire. These people inspire and can serve as a blueprint for success. It is also okay to let others know they inspire you. Remember, they might also be experiencing feelings of self-doubt.

As the "only" in a STEM career, you might feel like you have to continue to prove yourself in academic and professional settings. This constant fear of judgment may cause you to develop imposter syndrome. Doubting your abilities or accomplishments are all symptoms of imposter syndrome. Feeling fraudulent or unworthy are feelings that surface in spaces where you do not see others who embody similar characteristics as you. It's essential to let your light shine in these tech spaces.

Here are more strategies to consider to elevate your career in STEM as the only and combat imposter syndrome.

Be extra. Stand out by being extra in a healthy way. Additional work (or the work no one else wanted to do) has often led me to a promotion, accolade, newly gained passions and interests, leadership roles, etc. I cannot emphasize enough that while you may deem it necessary to prove yourself, make sure you are doing it at a cost you are genuinely willing to pay. For example, is working nonstop every weekend a necessary price you are ready to pay to be noticed in your next team meeting? Or is taking on every project essential to get you to the next point in your career? Make sure you are strategic and wise in all that you do. A healthy you is the best you.

Find allies. Along with your mentors, you need allies. Allies are those individuals who will stand up, support, and advocate for us when we cannot do so. Allies are essential in advocating when others are voiceless or in positions where retaliation can happen.

Consult your support system/mentor. During those times of self-doubt, reach out to those who you know will provide support. You can reach out to a family member, friend, mentor, or colleague. These individuals will be those who are quick to remind you of how amazing you are and also act as accountability partners. They are the team that will help keep you grounded.

Create a schedule to plan out your time (professional and personal). The old saying, "If you fail to plan, then you plan to fail," has often stuck with me. Even though you might not stick to a plan 100 percent of the time, it's good to have a plan of action. It also serves as a place to remind yourself of the journey ahead and the ground you have already covered.

Evaluate yourself often. Checks and balances are needed, especially post-COVID. Now more than ever in the technology space, we are in a season of busyness. We must do check-ins with others and ourselves, both professionally and personally. Both areas should be intact for optimal results. Make sure to ask yourself:

  • Am I on track with my plan?
  • Have I been practicing self-care?
  • Are my expectations realistic?

2020 was epic in more ways than one and showed us areas of improvement and opportunities for growth. Some of these areas include finding a strategy to combat imposter syndrome, reconciling being the only, and dealing with the need to prove yourself. Being a woman in STEM with varying intersectionalities is complex. Often, after you have fought to be in the STEM workforce, for some reason, you still can feel like you don't belong. It's unfortunate, but I cannot say that you are alone in these thoughts. As you move forward, remember to know your purpose, create a plan, and implement a strategy when necessary to aid in diversifying the technology and STEM workforce and the world. 2020 will forever be a year that we will remember, but I look forward to hearing from you on your STEM careers' elevation this year #2021isGlorious.

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Dr. Siobahn Day Grady is the first female computer science Ph.D. graduate from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. Siobahn received her B.S. in computer science from Winston-Salem State University in 2005, her master's degree in Information Science from North Carolina Central University in 2009, and in 2018 obtained her master's and doctorate of philosophy degree in computer science from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. She is an assistant professor of information science/systems in the School of Library and Information Science at North Carolina Central University, an AAAS IF/THEN Ambassador, a North Carolina Central University OeL Faculty Fellow, and a BlackcomputeHER Fellow. Prior to this, she served as an adjunct instructor at several colleges and universities where she taught an array of courses in computer science. She has delivered numerous presentations on a variety of technology topics at national and regional conferences. Dr. Grady is also an entrepreneur. She created Dreams Creative Group in April 2015. Dreams Creative Group offers unique web and graphic design solutions to individuals and institutions.

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