Women have played just as pivotal roles in the emergence and development of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) technologies over the last century as men have. It is a great source of shame for the scientific community, and society as a whole, that these contributions were not recognized sooner. However, a silver lining to this has been that, in recent years, many women have finally received recognition and there has been a huge increase in the public awareness of many of these women.
As a result of this, and other general shifts in attitudes, young girls and women are being encouraged to consider STEM subjects as potential future career paths. So far, this has been a successful endeavor around the world, and obviously a worthwhile one. The number of women studying STEM subjects and working in STEM fields is higher than ever before.
So, What's the Problem?
In the UK, the benefits of this drive to attract more women into STEM fields is overwhelmingly benefiting relatively wealthy white women. Poor women, women of color, and women who lack academic certification, are all still hugely underrepresented in STEM.
There are also regional disparities. Consider a city like Manchester - home to a world class university that has produced some of the most ground-breaking science in the world since the industrial revolution. And yet, there are a great many STEM industries that are focused almost entirely around London. Women from Manchester who aren't able to afford the move to London after graduating can end up being kept from jobs that they are perfectly suited for.
It is important to remember that just because the number of women in any organization or group of people has increased, that doesn't necessarily mean that all women are being afforded the same opportunities. There are lots of STEM jobs that require a university degree, but there are plenty that can be taught to people who have few prior skills. For example, learning to code doesn't require you to know anything else.
We need to do more than just represent women at university events; we should be striving for a STEM industry that is more diverse than the STEM education sector. This requires us to think more creatively, but there are still some simple things that we can do to help the situation.
Engage in Outreach
Ideally, we want to be getting the message out to girls from a young age that they can work towards a career in STEM. As it stands, this advice is often given with the heavy implication that women should be aiming to pursue academic careers in science, maths, or engineering. However, we should also be making them aware that there are STEM careers involving more practical things like coding, or more creative things like design.
This is also important knowledge for older women who already have careers, but would like to transition into STEM. They may be put off from doing so because they think they require a university degree. But let's take something like cad courses – they offer the opportunity to learn an entirely new and sought-after skill with no degree required. professionals who want to expand their skill set in any field they choose without the need for a degree. This helps reach out to women over the usual barriers and across the divides that have conventionally meant that some women have been able to access better education services than others.
The number of women studying some STEM subjects is now on-par or almost on par with men. However, there is still a significant gender imbalance when it comes to STEM industries. This means that lots of women working in STEM are in male-dominated environments. Women working in these environments sometimes feel apprehensive about asking for help in case they are perceived as less capable.
It is important that women working in STEM have superiors and colleagues who they can approach for support if and when they need it. This will save them the kind of stress and anxiety that many women feel if they have to admit to a gap in their knowledge.
Teaching women how they can help themselves to advance their careers is just as important as helping them to do it. There are lots of steps that women can take on their own initiative in order to improve their career prospects, acquire new skills, and access fresh opportunities. Once women understand that they can do things outside of the classroom to help them access STEM, many people who would otherwise not have considered a STEM career will start taking those steps.
One of the most important things that anyone can do is to take the initiative and enroll on any courses or classes that are available and will teach skills and knowledge relevant to the field they want to go into. Making sure that women are aware of the value of some of these courses can help give them the direction they need to take their first steps towards a new career.
Within the worlds of business and academia, networking is a vital tool for enabling people to connect with others within their chosen field. It's never too early to start building a professional network. Women who are transitioning into a STEM field from another field should check their current network to see if there's anyone useful they can bring along for the journey.
Girls and young women who are studying for STEM subjects should try and attend any conferences or other events if they have the opportunity; these are excellent places to meet new people and to get an idea of what the professional landscape is looking like.
The internet is also a great place to network today. There are sites like LinkedIn, which is widely used by professionals operating in a number of different industries. Or there are the myriad online communities dedicated to STEM subjects, and even women in STEM specifically. Anywhere where you can meet people who have relevant experience and advice can help you build your network.
We should be doing all we can to make sure that we focus not just on recruiting women into STEM professions, but on recruiting women from all walks of life. There is such a wide variety of potential career paths available that there should be something that is ideally suited for just about anyone, no matter what their individual ambitions.
It shouldn't therefore be beyond our capabilities to encourage more women from minority and working-class backgrounds to aim for a career in a STEM field, all they need is the right encouragement. Seeing themselves represented in the profession will certainly mean more women thinking of a STEM subject as a viable choice for their future.
Great strides have been taken in recent times to raise the number of women who are working in STEM professions. While we are definitely moving in the right direction, there is still more that can be done to improve the representation of women in STEM. We need to encourage girls from all backgrounds to consider STEM career paths from the earliest age possible.
When their frustration with current fabric care options had fashionistas Gwen Whiting and Lindsey Boyd worn out, the two entrepreneurs made it their mission to start a new niche and launch their very own at-home, eco-friendly laundry detergent line.
With a mission of turning an everyday domestic chore into a luxurious experience, these entrepreneurs not only conjured up an idea for an unconventional product line, but they successfully built their business while turning down the offer of every venture capitalist to knock on their door.
Gwen Whiting and Lindsey Boyd co-founded The Laundress in 2004 after dealing with their own personal frustrations with limited clothing care options. Whiting, having worked at Ralph Lauren in design and Boyd having worked at Chanel in corporate sales, soon accumulated a stylish wardrobe of designer pieces as perks of their jobs in the fashion industry. However, the duo quickly realized that the maintenance required for upkeeping these items were far from adequate. Laundry products on the market at the time did not cater to delicate textures and fabrics such as tweed blazers, cable-knit cashmere and silk blouses. Taking their clothing to the dry cleaners also proved hopeless as their clothing would often come back with stains or even be ruined despite the overload of chemicals used to clean them. With nowhere left to turn, Whiting and Boyd were determined to create their own laundry solutions designed for specific fabrics.
Not only did the entrepreneurs develop the business expertise needed to finally begin their own company, but they also shared the same educational background that equipped them to pursue their unconventional business venture. Whiting and Boyd met in college as students at Cornell University majoring in Fiber Science, Textile, and Apparel Management and Design. The pair was introduced by a mutual friend and instantly knew they would become business partners. "It was inevitable that we were going to have a business together. We are both extremely entrepreneurial by nature, and it was one of the connections that we instantly shared" said Whiting. After focusing on pursuing their own individual careers for a while, Whiting and Boyd quickly discovered a void in the fabric care marketplace when their clients would continuously inquire about the upkeep of their designer pieces.
The entrepreneurial duo was committed to researching and developing their own eco-friendly laundry products and soon launched their own at-home solutions for specific fabrics like silk, wool and denim, which ultimately eliminated the need for dry cleaning for those particular items. Despite their products filling a necessary void in the market, it quickly became challenging for the founders to persuade people to shift their focus away from traditional laundry care options in order to try their products. However, Whiting and Boyd believed in their mission for the Laundress and bootstrapped from the very beginning, refusing all venture capital funding with the goal of growing organically. In order to be successful, they had to get creative in fundraising. "In the very early days, we funded business development by hosting a 'for profit' party at a New York City restaurant and inviting friends, family, co-workers, etc. to support our new venture. That was pre-Kickstarter and an inventive way to make everyone feel a big part of our decision to be entrepreneurs," said Whiting.
While turning down VC funding as new entrepreneurs seems unimaginable, it is as equally unfathomable to consider how these women gained national traction without social media, all the while hustling to fund their business. For Whiting and Boyd, who started their business before social media existed, it was imperative that they promote their brand by leveraging the resources they had available to them. The CEO's were one of the first to sell consumer goods, let alone detergent, online with the goal of reaching a national audience. Despite having limited retail distribution, they leveraged the power of their website and became featured in publications on both a national and international scale. "Before social media platforms existed, we nurtured our own Laundress community with engaging content on our website, step-by-step tutorials on our blog, and one-on-one communication through our Ask The Laundress email," Whiting explained. With technology evolving and the birth of social media platforms, the founders expanded the conversation about their products from website, blog and email to platforms like Facebook and Instagram.
As female entrepreneurs, Whiting and Boyd faced additional hardships as misconceptions about their mission ultimately proved to disappoint more than it encouraged them. As women selling luxury detergent, there existed a preconceived notion that funding would be more easily attainable based upon their gender.
"Everyone thought it was easy to access capital as female entrepreneurs, but it was actually very challenging. We had this unique and disruptive idea within a very traditional space and it was hard to get people on board at first. It's been a continuous journey to educate people in fabric care and home cleaning," said Boyd.
Reflecting on their journey as entrepreneurs, the founders express no regrets about refusing to accept venture capital throughout the process. "Over the years, we could never quantify the cost benefit of VC funding so we continued to grow organically and remain independent by funding ourselves with credit cards and loans," explained Boyd. While their decision proved fruitful, the duo expressed their consideration towards other entrepreneurs who may not be able to fully fund their business as they grow. Because funding is a situational experience, entrepreneurs must ultimately do what is best for their business as no one path is optimal for every entrepreneur or every business.
With an increasing amount of women entering entrepreneurship with their own unique set of products or services, the CEO's offer up one piece of advice on how female entrepreneurs can be successful in their endeavors.
Whiting: "Our advice to anyone looking to build their brands: Have a strong business plan and vision. If you are not disciplined to write a business plan first then you are not disciplined to start a business. Get your ideas down so you ask yourself the right questions; it helps you get organized and plan next steps."
Boyd: "Create quality products without sacrificing the ingredients—no cutting corners. What you create should be the most important piece. Stay passionate, and trust your instincts and follow your gut—something woman are awesome at!"