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Is Elizabeth Holmes an Outlier: Women in STEM (Part II)

(David Sprague)

“We know a lot of cases of corrupt and fraudulent men, but we are not used to seeing female names associated with this type of behavior. One of the main reasons is because the percentage of women in leadership and influential positions is quite low.”

Challenging Stereotypes, Eliminating Myths

As Elizabeth Holmes began to grow as an entrepreneur and CEO, she decided to change and adapt aspects of her life to gain trust and credibility from investors and other possible partners, most of them male. She used a lower voice pitch and dressed androgynously to sound and appear more convincing—maybe because several studies and publications have claimed that deepening your voice can make you more influential or convincing.  When entering the workforce and, primarily, positions of power, women are not the only ones who suffer from sexist myths or stereotypes, but they are the most affected. Filipa Rodrigues believes it’s easier to associate male behavior to successful outcomes in STEM industries. “It’s only natural that we all end up changing something in our behavior in certain situations to gain credibility,” says Rodrigues. Ayumi Moore Aoki, Founder of  Women in Tech® and CEO of Social Brain, states that we must fight against workplace gender stereotypes, especially because, “Many men think that a woman that is attractive and has a leadership position climbed up the ladders due to her physical assets.” We also need to start trusting women more, creating community, and paving the path for future female entrepreneurs.

Many claim that women are less likely to succeed financially than men or less likely to take risks to achieve their goals. Most of the times our risks are larger; we risk being rejected and laughed at just because of our gender; we risk not be taken seriously while being working parents or not being promoted because we may get/are pregnant. Elizabeth Holmes succeeded in convincing investors about her project and getting as much money she wished for, but not everyone is as lucky as the daughter of an Enron executive. “Can you imagine that I went to six different banks to try and make a small loan in order to launch our non-profit?! I always had a negative answer. Lots of very big companies say to me, ‘I love what you’re doing, we would love to support!’ But in the end, there are just words and no actions. It’s really very deceiving,” shares Moore. Words must become actions if we want to mitigate stereotypes and create real opportunities. Many countries have implemented policies and solutions to counteract potential risks for women in the workforce and increase female leadership, but these are not a reality everywhere—nor are they enough.

Equally, the challenge of work-life balance may alienate women even further. “In STEM fields at Yale, it’s harder for women to become professors because they usually need a Ph.D., and this takes many years. It alienates women who want to work but also start a family; finding a balance is what has kept away so many women from advancing to higher positions and leaves students without an important pool of mentors,”  Yale senior Constance Lam stated. In the U.S. until 2017, 71.1% of working parents were mothers with children under the age of 18; most of these women will be unable to reach a board director seat or a similar position of power. Additionally, according to the 2018 International Labor Organization Report on World Employment and Social Outlook, contributing family work accounts for 42.3% of female employment, compared to 20.2% of male employment in developing countries. The ILO does not expect any reductions in the the work-family gap during the period up to 2021.

Breaking down myths about motherhood and parenting seems crucial in empowering women and getting them to the C-Suite. On this, Moore encourages women to fight against biased ideas that exist since pregnancy and infancy: “Another gender bias says that a woman who wants to succeed in her professional life should not start a family. She should choose between having a career and having babies. I decided to have four children, my digital agency and an international non-profit organization.” As a part of women’s efforts to bust the glass ceiling, by creating the Digital Business Women platform, Costa wants women around the world to know that they are not alone and to look for support from our own groups:“We have this feeling of we need to be perfect, multitasking, balancing family and professional life, taking care of children, parents, husbands, our team. We put too much pressure on ourselves without thinking in the long term cycle. So now, we are overstressed, burned out, feeling inadequate, etc.” 

So are men or people with manly characteristics better negotiators, leaders and influencers? Probably not. Nevertheless, social constructs on femininity, masculinity, parenthood, and nationality have a crucial impact on the growth of individuals in STEM industries.

Conclusion

Related Article:  A Reply to Henry George: "The Virtue of Nationalism"

Elizabeth Holmes lied, cheated, and must now be held accountable for her actions. Despite her actions, she is an outlier, and the number of women in STEM industries continues to grow. Her actions and crimes should not impact other women inside the industries, nor should they be regarded as better or worse due to her gender. “We know a lot of cases of corrupt and fraudulent men, but we are not used to seeing female names associated with this type of behavior. One of the main reasons is because the percentage of women in leadership and influential positions is quite low,” believes Rodrigues. On this, Moore adds that, “gender is not a guarantee of honesty or good conduct.”

It is not unlikely that in the next few years we will see another woman become a tech giant and break the glass ceiling for girls all over the world. Women empower women, but men are also responsible to be conscious of their actions. Machismo, sexism, and inequality can only be eliminated by acting with an intersectional mindset.

I would like to end these pieces by sharing some words of encouragement and advice from the interviewees and my personal role models.  

Constance Lam, Yale senior and engineer at Snackpass: Don’t feel discouraged, seek networks of other women in your field, find support through them, and speak up against male counterparts.

Ana Carolina Mexia, Mexican Software Engineer at LinkedIn:  Stay authentic and stay true, embrace who you are and don’t be apologetic about it. Don’t think too much about being a woman and serve as an inspiration to others.

Alma Patricia Chávez, Regional Director of IT and CS at Tecnológico de Monterrey: Empowerment means letting go of your fears, you must lose the fear of failure to pursue your dreams. Give meaning to what you do. Technology is nothing without sensibility and purpose.

Candyce Costa, Founder of Digital Business Women & Hello Tech Business: Encourage your sister, your daughter, your girlfriend to embrace technology as a career and create an environment where everyone is welcomed. See your female colleague as equal, as smart as you, as proud as you, as brave as you.

Katz Kiely, CEO of BEEP and International Consultant: Nothing to do with luck and everything to do with self-belief, no taking any notice when people say no, and taking that as fuel. Do something if it feels right, ask for forgiveness, not permission.

Filipa Rodrigues, Data Scientist at Outsystems: Working in Tech and science usually means freedom to be creative, to explore extremely interesting things and create solutions that can change the world! You shouldn’t be afraid to work in a male-heavy environment, be more confident, and fearless.

Ayumi Moore Aoki, Founder of Women in Tech and CEO of Social Brain: Be clear about what you want and take on a project that has a purpose for you. Believe in it and believe in you. Take actions, start today and never leave it for tomorrow.

Verónica Lira is an honors graduate with a B.A. in International Relations from Tecnológico de Monterrey, who is currently focusing on gender studies and developing student programs against gender violence. She can be reached on Twitter @vero_alo.

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