College Voices

Women in STEM: 3 Challenges we face ̶ and how to overcome them

"One of my main worries after graduating isn't necessarily securing a job but is being accepted in the workplace," said Marlee Kopetsky, a biomedical engineering student with a focus in psychology at Stevens Institute of Technology.

Marlee Kopetsky is a junior at Stevens Institute of Technology, majoring in biomedical engineering with a focus on psychology.
Photo: Dana Kopetsky

Women have made strides in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math): They made up 27% of STEM workers in 2019, compared with just 8% in 1970, according to research from the U.S. Census Bureau. But, that means that men still make up 73% of all STEM workers.

 Many women who are in college and pursuing STEM careers, like me, share Kopetsky's concern. Although there has been an increase in the number of women in STEM careers, there are still many challenges we face that can make it intimidating when considering a job after college. 

Three of the big challenges we face are 1) Confidence 2) Lack of mentorship and 3) Understanding our salary.

There are many of us who feel this way, but we must not forget that we are not alone and there are ways that we can help get over these challenges. 

Confidence

It's easy to feel a lack of confidence in various settings. For example, when it comes to understanding material, many times we may feel that we must be an expert on a topic to speak up, apply for a position, or work on a project.

It's important to remember that no one is an expert in the beginning. If you have something to contribute, you should speak up. Don't let that fear, that lack of confidence, keep you from an opportunity.

"If you are a perfectionist like me, starting on a new technical project can be daunting," said Simona Aksman, a senior data scientist at 23andMe. "You may feel that you need to have a deep level of expertise to even get started. My advice is to focus on creating a small working prototype. Creating something that works, no matter how small, can give you a major confidence boost that may motivate you to keep going!"

Whenever we may feel overwhelmed, breaking it up into small pieces can help us build confidence on a certain topic, which will allow us to break that fear, tackle the project and find new opportunities.

Confidence is key and something that we can work on step by step to conquer.

It will also be helpful if our colleagues are supportive. It's definitely not easy being the only woman or one of a few women on a team – especially if you are just starting out in your career. A little support from the team will go a long way!

"I think what is needed is encouragement and appreciation," said Mitsu Patel, a student at Rutgers University majoring in cell biology and neuroscience. "Women should be respected for the work they do and must be appreciated in order to inspire other women to join in and feel confident."

Mitsu Patel is a third-year student at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, majoring in cell biology and neuroscience.
Photo: Mitsu Patel

Confidence is not only something we can work on for ourselves but also give to those around us to help support and lift each other up. 

Lack of mentorship

Unfortunately, many women in STEM careers don't feel like they have mentors to ask questions, learn more about their career path, or have some guidance when they are feeling lost. There are many women who are first-generation college students who do not have family members in the industry, know anyone who is in the position they would like to pursue, and may not have a support system at all.

The truth is, a mentor can be a professor, a friend who is pursuing a career, a professional you connected with on LinkedIn, and just about anyone who can help you better understand what questions you may have about your career and how to go about different situations you may deal with. 

So, don't worry if you don't know anyone. And don't wait for someone to assign you a mentor. Reach out to a professor, an alumnus from your school or someone you met at an industry event or on LinkedIn. Reach out to several people. You'd be surprised how willing people are to talk to you, give you advice and help you – if you just ask.

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Antonia Zaferiou, an assistant professor at Stevens Institute of Technology in the department of biomedical engineering, said she found support from her professors when she was in school, so she wants to carry that on and be a supportive mentor for her students.

 "My professors at The Cooper Union inspired me to be a professor that prioritizes student development. Further, right after defending my dissertation, I became motivated to mentor Ph.D. students so that they can ultimately feel the way I felt that day: proud of the resilience needed in research and prepared to be an independent scientist." 

These are things we all want to feel: Proud and prepared. A mentor can help build our confidence level as well. You feel supported and are more likely to take a chance on something new. Would you go sky diving without a parachute? A mentor can be our parachute, the one who softens the landing when you feel scared to jump into a new experience such as applying to jobs after college, changing your major and that support to ask whatever questions we may have.

"What's amazing about mentoring is that, worst-case scenario, you get to learn firsthand about these roles, companies and individual stories of how people got there and how other people they know got there," said Felicia Rutberg, a data scientist at Spotify. "Best-case scenario, you develop close relationships where you can ask for advice, resume reviews, connections to people in their network, interview prep, referrals etc."

Rutberg said she sees mentoring as truly helpful for 1) discovery and exposure, 2) advice and 3) connections.

What's more, you may also learn about a new role that you never heard of before that sounds like something you would be interested in pursuing. There are many roles in STEM that we may have not heard about before, so having that exposure can allow us to learn more about what is out there, about yourself, and what you are passionate about. A mentor can be life-changing!

Understanding your salary

Let's talk money. Understanding salary can feel alien-like at times. Many of us do not understand what our salaries should be especially a first job right out of college.

This is a topic that is not spoken about as much as it should be. Women – and especially women of color – have historically been paid less than their male counterparts in a lot of industries. So, it's important to do your research, ask questions and understand your worth.  

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 "The best advice for students is to do your research throughout the interview process," said Pamela Weinberg, a career coach and personal branding strategist. 

The research is out there so there is no reason why you shouldn't know what salary to expect when you go for a  job interview. Weinberg recommends sites like www.glassdoor.com for salary information as well as Onet.org, which breaks it down by zip code.

The U.S. Census Bureau also has some good research on the ranges women and men get paid in various STEM fields. Interesting: They studied 70 STEM occupations and found that women earned more than men in only one field: computer network architects.

Students should also network with alumni in their field from their college – they can help shed some light on what type of salary to expect, Weinberg said.

No one said a career in STEM would be easy. But, if we work on challenges, like our confidence, finding a mentor (or several mentors) and researching our future salaries to know our worth, it will help us make the leap and build a successful career.

CNBC's "College Voices″ is a series written by CNBC interns from universities across the country about getting their college education, managing their own money and launching their careers during these extraordinary times. Sabiha Farheen is a student at LaGuardia Community College and an intern on CNBC's digital product & design team. Her mentor is Jennifer Liu. The series is edited by Cindy Perman.