Tips for Women and Girls Interested in STEAM Careers

I came to tech by accident. Formally trained in public health and international development, I was presented with a problem that needed to be fixed. Suffering from a naturally inquisitive mind as I do, it was only a few rabbit holes later that I found my world blown open by a richly diverse global network of coders, mappers, geeks and dreamers.

These are folks who are trying to hack real-world development challenges faced by people fighting infectious disease outbreaks, communities piecing life back together in disasters’ wake, and advocates waging a battle against the collective harm, violence and systems of privilege that enable so many oppressions — situations that are particularly acute following civil conflict.

To women and girls interested in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art & design, and mathematics) fields, I say embark on the journey. It might be wild, but you should still take the ride.

1. Be Real

I fail regularly, sometimes spectacularly, at interpersonal communication. Humility when I’ve fallen short in treating others how I want to be treated hasn’t erased the errors. However, it does provide a way forward to build back credibility that may have been lost.

Operate on a raw level. This is as deeply vulnerable as it is fiercely courageous. There are many truths. You will be confronted with your own unearned privileges and tasked to challenges your assumptions. Do so.

Everyone has passions that move them. We all, to be fair, also have a place that makes us feel small. Own all of that and hold space for others’ authenticity. Identify how you can be a better ally and when you might be the one in need of an advocate.

2. Hustle Hard

You will meet people smarter than you, better than you, faster than you and more ambitious than you. Learn from them. They worked hard to get where they are. Respect their hustle.

These are not always going to be people you like, or who particularly like you. Recognize the teachers and the lessons they afford. I say this because my own ego has gotten in the damn way too many times. Sometimes you actually should take those several seats, boo boo.

Each stage of your career is built on the last and informs what comes next. One of the most challenging things I have learned is that my work can and will stand on its own. I have spent far too many years overcompensating for my own perceived shortcomings. There is also going to always be a different or better way. That too is OK. Be willing to iterate, learn what you don’t know, and keep building.

3. Take a Break and Have Grace

We all have our egos. I’m trying to get better at identifying when I have a valid point and when I’m just talking to be heard.

Grace starts with you. I am my own relentless taskmaster and harshest critic. Sometimes you have to slow down — yes sweetie, you really need that break. In truth, this is the lesson I am currently wading through the water to learn. Everyone has a point at which their masks come off.

My face is now laid pretty bare. Sometimes that happens. You belong here. So do I. Don’t wait until you’re 36 to lay down this anxiety.

The grind is hard, and in many ways the brutal nature of driven inquiry and desire to build necessitates unhealthy habits. So own them and be willing to consider what a more gentle pace looks like. Softness is not weak, after all. Take care of your body and your mind — they are the only set you have.

4. Take the Ride

There is not a job I have taken that didn’t have some aspect of work that I was uncertain about or lacked prior exposure to. You sell yourself in the details. Focus on what you can do and how you acquired that last skill.

I’ve gotten more jobs when honestly telling folks how I learned something new to address a gap than I have listing off the credentials I currently hold. Every time I take a new position I figure out what is there for me to learn and how to build value for my team.

It took me many a failed program design to learn one of the most important requirements is to mainstream your stakeholders’ insights. Sure, you’re brilliant, but you don’t know how to build for everyone. Ask for help and go down the rabbit holes.

You Are Empowered to Say BOTH Yes and No

Women and girls in STEAM fields run up against the same complexities and nuances present in our dynamic social world. Consent is not a fixed contract but a fluid continuum. It is OK to say No. It’s also true that you don’t have to know how to do all of the things before you can respond to a new opportunity with Yes.

Since I tend to have an unrealistic and highly undervalued perception of my own work. it can and has impacted my relationships with my colleagues. You still have to show up the next day, so have some humility and be willing to admit when you got it wrong.

It is inherently more problematic to overcommit and underdeliver than it is to say you simply don’t have the bandwidth. Holding the line feels uncomfortable. The more I honor myself, the easier this gets, but truth be told I have yet to find the optimal balance.

The ability to think critically and leverage a strategic mindset to tackle analytic problems will take you far. Your employer, school and community likely have more resources and opportunities available to you than you’re currently aware of. Use them. Knock on the doors and ask the questions.

The ride has taken me around the world more than once and reopened doors that my own fear and proper social conventions politely closed. Take up space, be resilient, iterate, and build out your networks. Don’t be afraid to be out here as disruptive as the next-gen technologies themselves.

Hilary Nicole is a creative analyst and disruptive technologist, passionate about security and development at the grass roots. She considers herself fortunate to have had the opportunity to live in and work alongside communities in 30-plus countries. A single mother and sole provider, she is committed to empowering the next generation of young female entrepreneurs and STEAM lady dreamers, makers and builders.

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