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Shonette Laffy


Deputy Editor

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Encouraging women into STEM – what can we do?


There's been a lot coverage on the need to develop more women for roles in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), due to the lack of representation across these industries. But where does the responsibility to change mindsets and expectations sit – with schools, universities, L&D departments, or at home?

Colleen Smith is responsible for planning, strategy and product marketing for Progress’ OpenEdge Business Unit. She has 20 years of enterprise software marketing, sales and product strategy experience, and has helped transform software companies into industry leaders. 

We caught up with Colleen to discuss the need for more women to be encouraged to work in STEM, the issues they're encountering in these industries, and what progress has been made already.

Shonette Laffy, Deputy Editor, TrainingZone: What do you feel are the main obstacles for women wanting to work in STEM?

Colleen Smith, Progress: I think first and foremost there needs to be a change in the mindset. I think that the majority of responsibility to get more girls involved in STEM subjects starts at home.

That is not to say that education and government don’t have an exceptionally significant role to play, especially in making opportunities available to young women. However, I think that parents sometimes have a more restrictive approach, focusing on activities like sports or dancing.

Although these types of activities are great for building teamwork and knowledge of the arts, children that have more well-rounded experiences and exposure to science and technology can end up developing very valuable attributes that can be used later in life and potentially form the necessary foundation for a very lucrative and rewarding career. 

Shonette Laffy, Deputy Editor, TrainingZone: What have been your biggest challenges to overcome?

Colleen Smith, Progress: I was quite lucky to have the opportunity to be involved in various types of activities as a young girl. 

For example, I loved puzzles and games that I needed to “figure out” how to make things happen – I also read mysteries and problem solving books and that kept me interested as opposed to some of the other types of books that many young girls tend to read.

I think it is those early years of playing with puzzles and creative thought processing around how to make things happen or building things – that were a big part of the reason why I became so interested in computer programming and problem solving when I got into High School and college.  

What we need to overcome is how we think of the STEM industries themselves

Typically, girls are less involved in these kinds of activities and so their minds do not necessarily get geared up in that way.  So I think it is like anything – it is how you are raised and the experiences you are exposed to as a young girl that shape your future interests.

Which is why I am such a believer in STEM programmes that are focused on helping young people get exposed to these areas and help them to see the potential possibilities in their future.

Shonette Laffy, Deputy Editor, TrainingZone: Are there any issues particular to these industries for women to deal with?

Colleen Smith, Progress: I think the key challenge we need to overcome is how we think of the STEM industries themselves and that needs to start at an early age.

We need programmes that start at a very young age (3-9) that will engage girls in ways that are tailored for them. Young boys typically play with Lego and build things; doing that stimulates their mathematical and scientific minds.

Young girls typically play with dolls and dress-up which is stimulating their creative and nurturing selves. We need to create toys and fun activities that combine these things together.

We need to let young girls know that is it cool to be smart and encourage them to engage in activities that in the past have been viewed by society as for boys only.

Shonette Laffy, Deputy Editor, TrainingZone: Which programmes are you aware of within organisations to encourage women into working in STEM?

Colleen Smith, Progress: I think the first thing that companies can do is to provide mentorship and programmes to help ensure that young women feel there is an opportunity for them to advance and more importantly learn from others that have been successful in reaching senior management positions.  

I know here at Progress we have developed a programme for some of the younger women who are in early stages in their career, where they can spend time with more senior professionals.  

Sometimes it can be easier for men to get more exposure to senior members of an organisation

We call it “Women at Progress” and just providing access to these resources and an opportunity to ask questions and learn/hear about experiences and/or challenges and what they have done to overcome any obstacles has helped a lot.  

This is an initiative that allows for equal opportunities as sometimes it can be easier for men to get more exposure to senior members of an organisation. It is important to make for a company to make these opportunities more accessible for young women.

Shonette Laffy, Deputy Editor, TrainingZone: Do you think STEM businesses are more or less progressive in developing women at the moment?

Colleen Smith, Progress: We’re certainly seeing more and more women break into the executive ranks. Today, some of the biggest and oldest technology companies such as IBM, Oracle, HP, and Xerox are led by women. This is certainly welcome, but I am not sure we can call it a trend.

Most technology companies are dominated by men, not because of discrimination (although, that can sometimes be the case) but more from a matter of lack of available talent.

Shonette Laffy, Deputy Editor, TrainingZone: What would be your advice to management teams in encouraging more women into the STEM workforce?

Colleen Smith, Progress: There are still not enough young women choosing STEM as a primary area of study and later of work and when they do, many choose to take a break or stay home when they have children.

While things are changing, by far the biggest issue is ‘working-mother guilt.’ Being a primary caregiver while working is definitely not an easy task. Women are always striving to meet standards and expectations that social norms impose on them. We are always told that we are supposed to do everything.

What women need is the ‘gift of flexibility

What women need is the ‘gift of flexibility. Flexible and remote working can be key in encouraging women into this sector.  

The advancement of mobile devices combined with access to the internet from virtually everywhere on the planet, has made the ability to stay connected with the office and your workload much easier. This is a benefit for both women and men.

2 Responses

  1. Maybe some of the
    Maybe some of the conditioning could be helped by examples of STEM woven into teaching curricula so that the practical value of these disciplines is appreciated.

    Skin treatments technology, the basis of Acne and biochemistry of pheromones could be one basic example especially at early teenage years. Both male and female students would find this of interest.

    1. That’s a great example, Mike.
      That’s a great example, Mike. As with all these things, it’s the context rather than the ‘lesson’ that’s important. It’s like teaching maths at primary school: you make it fun and relevant and hide the work they’re doing within the fun.

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Shonette Laffy

Deputy Editor

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