Shattering the Glass Ceiling: The Importance of Female Leadership in STEM

Shattering the Glass Ceiling: The Importance of Female Leadership in STEM 

Thought Leadership

In the age of hyper-advanced technology and pioneering scientific breakthroughs, it's easy to imagine that the STEM industries have outgrown outdated stereotypes and gender bias. Yet, as we stand on the cusp of an era that promises unprecedented technological progress, a lingering question remains: why does the world of science, technology, engineering, and math still often resemble an exclusive ‘boys club’?

The answer may not be what you are used to reading. 

My name is Christine Lewington, I am the CEO of PIP International, a leading agri-tech pea-protein company which is commercializing a novel extraction technology. I have witnessed firsthand the groundbreaking innovative ideas that naturally flow when diverse perspectives are brought to the table. Different experiences bring different thoughts which contribute to creativity, productivity and innovation. 

Growing up, my father’s work in STEM inspired me… But looking back on my childhood, I recall being laughed at by my high school physics teacher when I said I wanted to be an architect. He advised me that I should choose a more suitable career for a girl.

Later as I made my way through engineering school and into the manufacturing industry, STEM was still dominated by men, and in my opinion it wasn’t a coincidence that my first job interview out of university came only after I switched my name on my resume from “Christine” to “Chris.”

The stereotypically male dominated image of STEM continues to discourage many talented women from pursuing careers in the field. It is this persistent exclusive messaging that I question now, after spending nearly 25 years in the industry.

Perhaps we should focus on building a more positive and inclusive image of a career in STEM that would attract more girls to the field.

Despite more and more women joining STEM, I am often still the only woman in the room. Efforts have been made to create targeted school programs with government-led funding and more employers express their commitment to gender equality. Yet gender equality in STEM continues to lag – according to a 2022 National Girls Collaborative Project report, women made up only 34% of the STEM workforce.

Maybe it is time to instead question why so few women enter the STEM field? As I challenge the industry to pivot to a more positive message, I believe we can attract and retain the interest of more girls and women in STEM. 

An interest in STEM begins early on in a child’s education and is supported by their teachers and families. To get girls more interested in STEM, we should clearly demonstrate to young girls how they can be successful in STEM by offering them positive role models. 

It is a fact that we get what we focus on, and if we always focus on how hard it is for women in STEM, then we’re framing STEM as a tough path for young girls. If representation of women in STEM continues to lag, then how do we overcome the challenge of seeing more women in leadership roles? It is clear, and statistics are proving that simply mandating equality, demanding diversity and closing the idea to another solution, is not moving the needle.

Why is it essential to ensure gender diversity? The answer is simple: diversity fuels innovation and innovation fuels competitive advantages which ultimately drive progress. It does not need to be a battle between genders for STEM roles and leadership, the bottom line proves gender diversity pays.

Research shows that diverse teams, with women at the helm, produce more innovative solutions and often drive better business performance. STEM careers are a pipeline of talent for leadership roles. To see more qualified women at the helm, we need to see more girls positively embracing math and science early on to get them interested and retained in STEM fields.

As an example, a Pepperdine University study showed that companies with more women in high positions were 18% to 69% more profitable than the median firms in their industries.

Thinking back to my first day in university, there were over 200 men in my engineering class. I joke that it would’ve provided for a great dating pool if I wasn’t so competitive. This is when I learned the value of a great mentor, and mentorship has been key throughout my career.

My senior professor became my first mentor and taught me the value of staying focused, as the opportunities were near limitless in the STEM industry, while also keeping my expectations balanced when building my career.

I never had a female mentor, as there simply weren’t any. Alternatively, I had several outstanding male mentors that have opened doors and helped navigate and knock down barriers. Men can be influential champions, sponsors and advocates for women striving to remove traditional barriers and enact change. The potential result? More women role models and mentors to inspire the next generation of girls to pursue STEM.

Having a vision is one thing but seeing that vision as attainable is important, especially at the outset for a young girl deciding if the STEM path is the right one. If girls see more women in prominent STEM roles, they'll start to picture themselves there.

I strongly promote equal opportunity versus mandating change. The playing field in life is never equal, but let’s at least give women the opportunity to play!

I believe the best way to equal opportunity is through mentorship and sponsorship. Leaders, regardless of gender, should actively mentor women to support a more inclusive workplace, which in turn shines a positive light on the STEM industry.

We all set out to make great career choices versus a dark and dreary lifetime of career regret.

To break down pervasive industry structural barriers that contribute to impeding women's progress in STEM fields such as the gender pay gap, a lack of family-friendly policies, and equal opportunities, we need to rethink what is truly contributing to this disparity. 

It is not just up to companies to fix biases and barriers. Responsibility lands on us individually, no matter our gender. By choosing a different mindset that supports our colleagues, daughters, sisters, aunts, and friends that choose a career in STEM, we have a chance at being successful in closing the gap.

Nevertheless, to be clear: the road to change is not easy. For change to happen, a strong unwavering “why” is critical to have. Companies want more productivity, innovation and improved workplaces which result in a more successful and profitable business. It pays to embrace diversity. 

Since it pays to remove our biases, systemic barriers, and the overarching negativity associated with women in STEM, how can we do better? The potential rewards for our companies, our industries, and society at large, are too great to ignore.

As we collectively invest in the future of STEM, we’re investing not just in women but in the untapped innovative potential we bring. It is possible, a future where STEM is as much a ‘girls club’ as a ‘boys club’. And with committed efforts from us all—leaders, founders, mentors, and individuals - we can turn this vision into a reality.

About Christine Lewington

Christine Lewington is the CEO of PIP International, with an Engineering, Project Management, and business background in the Agri-food industry spanning over two decades. Her vision for PIP as its founder is as impressive as it is inspiring, and the protein isolate that she helped create stands to revolutionize the food industry.

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