by Gunn Alice Torgrimsen

Many women in STEM face several challenges every day. Motivation, confidence, family issues, implicit bias and a general underrepresentation of women in leadership positions and higher education remain systematic problems. Although it’s more and more common to hear about successful women in STEM and 2018 Nobel Prize winners (Frances Arnold (Chemistry) and Donna Strickland (Physics)) are great examples of success stories, there’s still a long way to go.

There are some common factors of women who have succeeded in STEM, and this article will take a closer look at them.

Positive trend

Global data from the Catalyst Knowledge Center shows that in June 2018, more women globally are likely to pursue science through higher education. Although the gender gap starts to widen among Ph.D. graduates, there is a rise in women studying STEM fields for an undergraduate degree. The number of female doctors is also increasing in OECD Countries.

A woman of color is on her way to university, a woman in STEM

Role Models

One obstacle in encouraging the next generation of women to work in STEM is not having enough female role models. It’s much easier for girls to imagine a career in STEM if they see successful examples they can relate to. Having teachers who mentor and encourage girls in these subjects can have an even greater impact than encouragement from their parents, especially if the teacher is female.

Microsoft has found that girls are more likely to pursue a STEM career if they think men and women are treated equally in the workforce. Their report says that perceived inequality leads to them avoiding STEM studies and careers. Six in 10 girls admitted they would feel more confident pursuing a STEM career if they knew men and women were already equally employed in these fields.

Offering hands-on STEM exercises

Practical experiences, both inside and outside the classroom, can bring STEM subjects to life. About four in 10 girls say they don’t get enough practical experience. Microsoft’s research highlights the importance of showing girls how the material can be applied in real-life situations, giving the topics more relevance in their lives.


RightsTech Women has also recognized that early exposure is important, so in October 2018 we co-organized a workshop on robotics and programming for girls in Geneva, Switzerland. The workshop was a cooperation between HEPIA, Cern MicroClub, Fab Lab On’l’fait and RightsTech Women. It offered a chance for 50 girls, ages10 to 18, learn how to program the robot, Poppy Ergo, Jr., and the hepiaLight programmable touchscreen, as well as to learn about their human rights related to education.

Common factors behind success stories of women in STEM

The importance of confidence

Confidence and the belief in one’s own abilities is one of the most important keys to success. Among women who have achieved success in STEM, 39% report being extremely confident in their own abilities. The interest in STEM subjects is often high among girls in elementary and middle school. In addition, they possess the creativity, communication and problem-solving skills required to excel in computer science, electrical engineering or similar fields. To keep this interest, it is key for teachers to continually share STEM resources and tasks with all students in the classroom, in addition to encouraging girls to explore the subjects.

In order to succeed, women must have enough confidence to be able to stand up for themselves in a professional setting. They must also understand the value they bring to the company and be unafraid to take calculated risks in order to stand out and move up

If you believe in what you do and you have put in a great deal of effort you will make a breakthrough at some stage.

Many women are too hard on themselves, and although a healthy dose of self-criticism can help one grow, recognizing their own potential is key to building confidence and achieve success.

Claiming credit for ideas

In STEM fields, the ideas that spark innovation can be used as currency and markers of exceptional colleagues. Unfortunately, though, 82% of women in STEM say their contributions are ignored. In interviews and focus groups, a common complaint is that women are consistently spoken over and even robbed of their ideas. The response to this is often to let the incident pass without comment. Nearly three in 10 women who have experienced this say the last time it happened to them, they said nothing. The same focus groups have found that successful women in STEM are more likely to speak up and confront the situation when they’re overlooked.

Woman scientist (woman in STEM) working in a lab

Investing in peer networks and finding a support system

Half of the successful women in STEM say peers connected them to senior leaders (compared with 36% of other women). Having female peers, even just a few, can increase a woman’s odds of making it through the Ph.D. program in the natural sciences, technology, engineering or math, says a new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Becoming a sponsor to others

In addition to helping keep their own skills current and sharp, building a reputation as leaders who groom great talent is an advantage. A woman who has achieved success in STEM is also more likely to bring her authentic self to work and have a tendency to go beyond their job title or description. It is vital to not shy away from owning how important their contributions are, which is also essential to personal branding and reputation.

Woman standing at the airport

Expanding focus

Organizations and universities worldwide are now focusing on gender equality in STEM. An example is Microsoft, which is conducting research and developing action guides in order to recruit and inspire girls to go into STEM. The University of Waterloo is also one of ten universities around the world committing to taking bold, game-changing action to achieve gender equality within and beyond their institutions in the HeForShe IMPACT initiative.
RightsTech Women aims to help battle challenges for women in STEM fields. We are a Swiss-based, global non-profit association dedicated to advancing the human rights of women and girls in STEM. Our vision is a world in which there is greater awareness of international human rights standards, and where STEM and human rights fields work together to ensure that women and girls can equally be part of the solutions to today’s global challenges. RightsTech Women also promotes women in STEM by sharing their stories. We’ve asked several successful women about their jobs, successes, challenges and advice they would like to give to the novices in their fields. Read more success stories from women in STEM.

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