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I am the director of an engineering company. Here's my advice for any woman going into STEM.

I lined up nervously outside of my first engineering lecture in 2010, having no idea what to expect.

I didn’t know any engineers personally, let alone any women who had entered into this profession to ask for advice. Being an engineer has definitely not been all smooth sailing, but it has been one of the most rewarding things that I have ever done. 

So here is some advice for other young women looking to study or start their career in Science, Technology, Engineering or Maths, commonly referred to as STEM industries, to hopefully make your transition a little easier.

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1. Expect to be challenged.

While the industry is changing day by day for the better, I can guarantee that there will still be days that are challenging as a female in any STEM profession. 

I sincerely hope that you don’t experience misogynism, chauvinism and narcissism while studying or during your career, but I bet my bottom dollar that you will. Some of this bias is subconscious, but it might surprise you just how much conscious bias still exists. 

Things will be said, actions will be downright unfair, and you may find yourself having a solid cry in a toilet cubicle (more often than you would like to admit)… but just know that you are not alone.

By showing up as your amazing and unique self every day, you are helping to break these habits for the benefit of future generations of women and to improve diversity in general. Through showing up as your best self every day you are also supporting those people who are genuinely striving to create a more diverse and inclusive industry for ourselves and future generations. 

The pure visibility of women and diversity in STEM is enough to kick-start a change; remember this on hard days.

2. Find your group and love them hard.  

Let’s be honest, stereotypical engineers aren’t renowned for their social skills, but forming an amazing group of friends whilst at university was one of the best things that I ever did. 

These people will become your rocks during university, your champions as graduates, and your advocates in your later career. Having a group that understand the STEM environment as a sounding board for when things get tough, when you are exhausted, when assignments are due at midnight and you haven’t started (we have all been there), will honestly become your lifeline. 

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And there is also no better feeling than being a few years into your career and watching your peers absolutely smash their amazing career goals.

3. Learn to master a very important professional skill; boundary setting.

STEM isn’t generally a walk in the park; there are long hours, high expectations and often over-stretched budgets.

Add those things together with the Type A personalities that tend to gravitate towards STEM, and you have a complete recipe for burnout! I learnt this one the hard way; within five years I was forced to reduce to a part-time workload to recover from a particularly bad case of burn-out, so please heed my warning when I say: saving the world can wait until tomorrow. 

Learning to say no and to set firm boundaries when you are passionate about what you do is hard, but the alternative is far worse. Log off at a reasonable time, drink a lot of water, turn off Outlook notifications on your phone, eat healthily and get a lot of sleep. You will need it! 

4. Don’t hide your empathy and embrace all the amazing traits that make you, you.

A huge part of why STEM is so exciting is that you can really become anyone you want to be. 

Many industries see the value in hiring engineers, scientists, mathematicians and technologists for their practical problem-solving brains, and ability to be innovative and resilient. It is because of these traits, and others, that people with STEM qualifications are often also accelerated into leadership positions as young professionals. As women, surrounded by male leaders, it is sometimes hard to feel confident when your leadership style looks a little different, let alone when you start managing teams at a young age. 

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If it feels natural for you, embrace your feminine leadership traits. Examples of “feminine” leadership traits include empathy, communication, balance, vulnerability and generosity. I have seen these traits transform teams, workplace culture and employee engagement first-hand almost overnight. 

The best leaders that I know are comfortable in their own skin, but also embrace being human; so please don’t shy away from your own unique strengths. 

Image: Getty.

5. Chase your joy, not money.

The Department of Employment, Skills, Small and Family business has analysed labour force data and have found that STEM occupations are growing at almost double the rate of occupations requiring non-STEM skills. 

You are about to enter a world where your skills are in high demand and most of the industry is well aware of this. As a result, you may be pleasantly surprised with your graduate offer – and so you should be, you’ve worked your butt off to get there. But make sure that the jobs that you choose to take align with your own personal “why” or bring you joy!

STEM may not always be easy – but knowing that you are working towards a bigger goal, or that you are contributing to something larger than yourself every day definitely helps to mitigate the negatives. In saying that, don’t shy away from pay rises or putting yourself forward for a promotion. I have seen far too many of my friends be passed over for promotion or a pay rise simply because they “didn’t want to make a fuss” or be seen to be pushy. 

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Girl, put your case forward, be your own cheerleader. If you don’t, who will? 

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My last piece of advice is less about helping yourself, and more about supporting the sustainability of the STEM industry. If you feel up to it, and are ever given the opportunity, please share your story. 

Share frankly and honestly. Help to break down the barriers and stigma that may be preventing other amazing women from considering a career in STEM. 

Platforms such as QUT’s 'STEM the Tide' program help to put STEM professionals in the spotlight – sharing stories in real and relatable ways so that hopefully, we can continue to improve diversity within STEM, one share at a time! Although I did not have a female role model in STEM when I made the decision to enrol in engineering, I now aim to be that role model for others. 

So, if you are a woman in STEM reading this, please reach out to an undergraduate or graduate, just to check in and to remind them that we all have their back. 

And if you are an undergraduate or new graduate in STEM, approach that person in the industry or university that you look up to and ask them for some of their time and advice. 

You might be surprised by just how enthusiastic they will be to share their learnings with you. 

Feature Image: Supplied.

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