Yesterday I had the privilege of participating on a women in STEM panel at the FIRST robotics competition. Surrounded by countless talented, smart, incredible, and inspiring women we spoke to a room full of students and mentors about supporting women in STEM. The room was packed with people who genuinely wanted to know what to do to encourage women to pursue and stay in STEM fields. It was also filled with the future of women in STEM. Bright young women who were looking for advice and reassurance that this is the right path for them. And while none of us had all the answers some great discussion and advice came from the panel.
But it wasn’t until a somewhat shy student in the fourth row raised her hand and asked “how do I get recognized for my accomplishments in an environment where others get recognition and I don’t?” that I realized how important this panel really was. This question honestly stumped me for a minute. I sat back and waited for some of the other panelists to answer. But as I started to think about it, I realized this is at the root of women’s struggles in STEM fields.
Women in STEM are frequently in the minority. We often look around a room to find we are the only woman there. It is extremely difficult for women to be heard and taken seriously. We often get lost in the pack. It’s why Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In has gotten so much attention. As females we have to be a bit more proactive and make sure we are in the conversation. We often have to step outside our comfort zone and make sure we are heard.
This, however, is not an idea that starts in the workplace. It starts early on in our lives when we are students. Boys tend to get more recognition than girls, especially when participating in STEM activities. I don’t think it’s something that intentionally happens, but I do think there is a good reason for it. Guys tend to be more open and up front about what they’ve done. They want everyone to know what work they did and how well it went. Everything they do is a big deal! It’s how they are wired. Girls tend to be more modest. Girls tend to think people will notice what they are doing, and that they shouldn’t have to talk about it. But in a room full of screaming people, often times accomplishments get overlooked. And girls far more than guys second guess themselves about the lack of recognition.
We are our own worst enemies. We are wired with this little voice in our head that questions everything we do. We see people constantly doing what we are doing, but we think they are doing it better. Then we see them get recognized for it and wonder why we aren’t. After that the downward spiral starts. We begin to question whether or not we are qualified to do this thing. We aren’t getting recognized and clearly there are people better at it than us so what’s the point?
And when you have a voice in your head telling you that you aren’t good enough, it’s really easy to walk away and stop doing it. It takes a really strong person to realize that the voice is just that, a voice, and it is wrong. It takes an even stronger person to stand up to that voice and say no I am good enough, I deserve to be here, I can do this.
So how do we help women develop the ability to combat this voice? How do we help women find the affirmation they need to keep moving forward?
Simple answer? We praise them when we see them doing awesome things.
The more complex answer? We encourage them to speak up. That it’s okay to tell people about their accomplishments. We let them know that with a room full of people sometimes it’s hard to know what everyone is up to and that it’s important to draw attention to accomplishments. A lot of guys have no problem tooting their own horns, and girls should be right there with them.
But there are more subtle ways to do this. Many women don’t feel comfortable speaking up about what they’ve done. They are afraid of being a braggart and that’s completely understandable.
What’s a more subtle way to handle this? An accomplishment jar.
People can put little notes inside about awesome things they see others doing or things they themselves have accomplished. Participants can submit peers or themselves. It’s a simple anonymous way to draw attention to accomplishments without the fear of sounding like a braggart. Then the leader of the group can read the slips periodically. It not only brings attention to what people are accomplishing, but also makes the group want to watch those people in the future. This means that the praise may start coming more immediately instead of after the fact. That said, no matter when it comes, everyone likes to be recognized from time to time.
On the flip side, it also takes realizing that you aren’t always going to get the praise you deserve. And that sucks! BIG TIME. But there are going to be times where you get recognition for things that you think aren’t really a big deal. And it’s going to seem weird. But you take it and say thank you. Because it’s the universe’s strange way of balancing everything out.
The long and short of all this, whether you are male or female doesn’t really matter when it comes to praise. Everyone likes to hear they’ve done a good job. None of us hear it quite enough. So go out there and make someone’s day by telling them you appreciate what they do, and that they’ve done a good job. You don’t know whose life you might be changing for the better.