As I embark on the exciting opportunity to contribute to a book chapter on women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics), so called “technical” careers, I find myself reflecting on my own career path over the past 20+ years. This unexpected invitation has allowed me to explore the intersection of my professional experiences, personal growth, and the broader narrative surrounding women in STEM.

One significant chapter of my journey took place almost two decades ago when I worked as a Junior Infrastructure Specialist & Engineer at the World Bank. Engaging in impactful projects centred around infrastructure and development, I had the privilege of traveling to fascinating destinations like Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, and even Iran. These experiences broadened my perspective, offered valuable insights into diverse challenges, and sparked my passion for international development.

During my time at the World Bank, I was fortunate to encounter a remarkable mentor—an accomplished professional woman who became my main manager. She was a smart and experienced woman, a mother of three (funnily like me now 😊), who graciously took me under her wing. Her guidance and unwavering support taught me the importance of unity among women in male-dominated environments.

She embodied poise, authenticity, and calm confidence, leaving an indelible mark on my own leadership journey. I fondly remember her emphasis on gratitude, as she consistently acknowledged the contributions of every team member, including myself. Her inspiring presence continues to inspire me as a guiding lady-leader figure.

Simultaneously, I also had the opportunity to work in Central Europe, particularly in Poland, which allowed me to maintain local connections and frequent visits to Europe. During this time, an interesting observation came to light when I sought feedback from my (male) manager. He suggested that I work on being more assertive, using a male colleague as a reference. This colleague, often louder and more vocal in expressing opinions, didn’t always base his ideas on accurate information.

Curiously, I questioned the correlation between assertiveness and not voicing an “opinion” when lacking proper data, as I believed it was essential to refrain from providing answers when uncertain, i.e. the wisdom of “knowing when we don’t know”. However, this interaction highlighted the perception that some individuals/men are better received when they confidently voice opinions, regardless of accuracy. It left me pondering how such boldness would be perceived if I were to adopt the same approach as a woman. It intuitively didn’t feel like the best strategic choice.

I didn’t make the link at the time, but drawing now from Mary Ann Sieghart’s book, “The Authority Gap,” it becomes evident that women face a complex dilemma in leadership. They must navigate the fine line between being heard and avoiding negative biases. The status incongruity hypothesis sheds light on this challenge, suggesting that when women exhibit powerful behaviour, it conflicts with societal gender norms, resulting in discomfort for both men and women. Consequently, women are often penalized for being agentic, assertive, and confident—traits traditionally associated with masculinity.

To overcome these barriers, many senior women have honed their skills in emotional intelligence. Recognizing the delicate balance between being perceived as competent and likable, they have mastered the art of concise and impactful communication. It’s a constant dance where saying precisely what is necessary—no more, no less—becomes crucial for being taken seriously.

Additionally, biases related to voice pitch further perpetuate the challenge. Our subconscious biases intertwine deep voices with authority, but it’s difficult to disentangle whether this association stems from genuine authority or societal conditioning. These intricacies remind us that our unconscious brains often rely on heuristics rather than reason, perpetuating gender-related biases.

As we delve into the world of women in STEM careers and leadership, it is essential to break free from traditional norms, we can pave the way for future generations of confident and empowered professional women in leadership. By acknowledging and addressing the authority gap, we can create an upgraded professional landscape where women thrive and provide their unique perspectives to society at large.

Sincerely yours,

Dr Sophie