You’re a smart woman, and a fabulous scientist or engineer. You know you can be a great researcher or professional engineer. But have you given thought to doing more than your job – to becoming a leader? F. Mary Williams and Carolyn J. Emerson hope you will, and to encourage you, they’ve put together Becoming Leaders: A Practical Handbook for Women in Engineering, Science, and Technology. The book is a joint project of the American Society of Civil Engineers, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and the Society of Women Engineers.
As the authors note in the introduction, there is plenty of research out there that looks at women in the workplace, particularly STEM workplaces; that delineates the history of women in science; and that examines inequities and analyzes social and economic issues. Most of you don’t have time to wade through all the research. What you want to know is, what are the “practical, manageable actions that [you] or [your] organizations can undertake” to promote your own career and improve the situation at large for women.
The handbook is organized into 20 chapters, and the authors present a “road map” or groupings of chapters that are most beneficial for various target groups. Faculty members, for example, may be most interested in “Tenure Strategies for New University Faculty”, “Career Path and Progress”, “Work-Life Balance”, “Time Management”, “Personal Networks and Mentors”, and “Women Are Leaders”. Deans and department heads may be interested in “Proactive Diversity for Academic Deans and Department Heads”, “Promoting Women’s Participation”, “Sexual Harassment”, and “Work-Life Balance”. There are similar groupings for students, career women, and managers. The introduction and chapter 20, “Women in Engineering, Science, and Technology” are recommended for all. Williams and Emerson don’t limit their focus to academia, and so this book is also useful for those interested in careers in industry or public service.
The focus of the handbook is not “how to succeed just like a man”. Instead, it promotes awareness and understanding of gender dynamics and gender schemas, with specific advice on how to manage them and mitigate any potential negative impacts on your career.
There are, in fact, both advantages and disadvantages to being a woman in the STEM workplace. A realistic and informed assessment of the gender dynamics is a first step in managing the advantages and disadvantages to achieve a desired outcome. This handbook provides background information to help in making that assessment.
For example, the chapter on families addresses not just what you need to do for your family, but also how your family can support you. They include a section of advice for children of scientists and engineers, which is something I personally have never seen before. True to their focus on advantages as well as disadvantages is the following:
Sometimes [your mother] goes away on business trips. Do not expect a present every time she goes…Instead ask her for pictures or postcards you can show your friends. If she went to a strange place, ask her to show you where it is on a map. You can use this for show-and-tell at school or a family Web site.
Throughout the book, the authors refer to “partners” rather than just husbands, and this inclusiveness is a welcome change from the general assumption that all women are heterosexual and/or married.
The chapter “Media Appearances Are Opportunities” is particularly useful, addressing specifically the credibility issue for women in STEM careers – something, they note, that is not usually included in general media training. There are tips on how to undermine the usual negative gender schemas about women and authority/credibility.
The chapter for deans and department heads lists a series of objectives, each with a detailed list of actions that can support that objective. And a really wonderful chapter is tactfully titled “Commonly Asked Questions and Sample Answers”, though I would have called it “Good Answers to the Stupid Repetitive Questions That Come Up Over and Over and Over Again”, including the perennially popular “why do we need special programs for women in science?” and “maybe girls/women just aren’t interested in engineering”.
An underlying assumption throughout the book is that you must actively promote yourself and your career. You cannot wait around for someone to show you the way and recognize your brilliance. Self-promotion sometimes runs against our instincts as women, or our training as scientists which tells us our work should speak for itself. Unfortunately, women’s work doesn’t speak as loudly as the same thing done by men, so you have to work all available options to make sure others can see your worth.
I would recommend this book for women at almost any point in their career trajectory, and it certainly should be on the shelf (and in the minds) of every dean, department chair, or manager. It provides a welcome emphasis on not just surviving a STEM career, but actively managing it with the goal of becoming a leader who can influence institutional behavior. It’s time for women in STEM to claim their role in leadership.