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5 Ways Women PhDs Can Achieve Success In Leadership Opportunities

Ways for women to move into management roles
Written by: Jeanette McConnell, Ph.D.

I was at a conference, determined to apply the networking tips for PhDs I had learned and land some great industry connections.

I engaged three representatives from a company I was interested in.

We were chatting, and soon a man joined our group.

As he introduced himself, he shook hands with the other industry professionals in the group, but he did not shake my hand.

Instead, this newcomer glanced at me briefly and gave me a strange nod.

It felt awkward and dismissive.

I was angry. How did this guy think treating me differently was okay?

I spoke up and added my opinion to the conversation, but my comment was brushed aside.

As the conversation became more animated, the space where I was standing became smaller and smaller.

The men’s shoulders pushed further into my personal space, physically excluding me from the conversation.

I was excluded from the clique and I didn’t know what to do… so I left.

I walked away, feeling completely defeated.

I questioned myself… was I overreacting? Did they realize what had just happened? Was this my fault?

All I knew was that the experience made me feel awful and I didn’t want it to happen again.

I went into problem-solving mode, wondering what I could have done differently.

What would have given me more confidence to hold my ground?

I knew I wanted to secure an industry position, but what did I need to do to make this a reality?

I decided I needed some support, so at the next conference I attended, I organized a women’s event.

I knew I was not the only one experiencing these uncomfortable encounters.

The women’s event confirmed this — the auditorium was nearly full.

In a room full of women scientists, we discussed our shared challenges and outlined ways that women can excel in fields dominated by men.

It was inspiring and an instant confidence-builder.

This confidence helped my job search soar as well.

I felt more comfortable reaching out for informational interviews and attending networking events.

I knew the value I could offer a company and had the poise to deliver my newfound confidence in any arena.

More women are needed for CEO positions in industry

Why Women PhDs Must Be Assertive To Achieve Leadership Roles

According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, only 22% of professors across all disciplines are women.

This number drops even lower in the sciences.

An OXIDE survey by the National Science Foundation reported that only 19% of professors in Chemistry are women.

Academia has typically been a male-dominated environment.

But, it’s not just academia.

In a survey of the 500 largest companies in the US, only 4.2% of these companies had a woman CEO.

That means 95.8% of CEOs at the biggest companies are men.

To top it all off, according to the Pew Research Center, as a woman you will make 17 cents per dollar less than a man with the same job as you.

But, don’t be discouraged.

By leveraging your transferable skills and knowing your value as a PhD, you can successfully transition into the industry position of your dreams.

Women can change the corporate environment by becoming leaders and moving into management jobs

5 Ways For Women To Thrive In Male-Dominated Environments

It would be easy to ignore the above statistics.

Carry on, work hard, leverage your skills, and most likely reach a comfortable and well-paid industry position.

You would be surviving in a male-dominated industry, but would you be thriving?

As long as men control the majority of leadership positions, women will continue to face a glass ceiling and a wage gap.

The challenge is to break into industry and land a management-level position as a woman, in a male-dominated environment.

You have an opportunity to contribute to creating an environment where women and men share equally in leadership positions by becoming a leader yourself.

Here are 5 ways to overcome adversity and thrive in industry…

1. Find and support other women.

If you’re lucky, you had a supervisor during your PhD studies who actively supported other women scientists.

If you weren’t, creating a group of other like-minded women to connect with will be even more important.

Having a group of supportive women alongside you is an essential piece to thriving in a male-dominated workplace.

Specifically, having a good mentor can make your career.

As a PhD, you may be all too familiar with academic advisors who will ruin your PhD career, so don’t let a bad mentor ruin your industry career as well.

Approach finding a mentor as you would approach any networking opportunity.

Only after consistently adding value is it okay to make the ‘ask’ that someone be your mentor.

Conduct informational interviews with women industry professionals in your field.

Learn about what they do, and figure out how you can add value.

Watch your network of successful and powerful industry professionals grow.

Knowing there is a mighty group of women who have your back will help propel you forward.

Women can improve their chances of transitioning into management be getting a referral

2. Don’t only network with other women.

While having a strong network of women is empowering, remember that nearly 96% of fortune 500 CEOs are men.

In order to network with people in the top leadership positions, your network needs to include lots of men.

According to a study by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company, 27% of women have networks made mostly of women.

By limiting your network to mostly women, you are missing out on access to people with the most senior positions.

To expand your network to include more men, it may mean placing yourself in informal networking situations that women may not traditionally participate in.

Do it anyway.

Be creative and do some research so that you are placed in the right environments to start to be seen as part of the culture.

If you’re an introvert, challenge yourself to attend social events and organized events where you can network with men in your fields of interest.

Making the right connections is the key to getting the industry position you want.

After all, according to a study by Lever Inc., a job candidate with an internal referral is 9.5 times more likely to get hired than a candidate without a referral.

3. Don’t apologize.

Women have been socialized to be much more apologetic than men.

To thrive in a male-dominated environment and get ahead in your career, you are going to need to shake this habit — and fast.

In a survey of fortune 500 top executives by the Harvard Business Review, half of the male respondents said that in meetings, women allow themselves to be interrupted and apologize often.

Moreover, a study published in Psychological Science demonstrated that this problem goes beyond women merely apologizing more often than men: women think they make more mistakes than men.

Women do not actually make more mistakes than men.

Women just think they make more mistakes.

This is imposter syndrome: constantly doubting yourself and thinking that you are not good enough.

Recognize this imposter voice inside yourself, familiarize yourself with the many tips to help women overcome imposter syndrome, and fight against your self-doubt.

As a woman with a PhD, or about to have a PhD, you are formidable.

Recognize your value and own it.

Don’t apologize for mistakes that you did not make.

Don’t apologize for mistakes that you do make — just let them make you better.

You don’t need to be perfect — nobody is — stop apologizing for being human, and instead keep focused on honing your skills and working your network.

Women have to speak up and ask for what they deserve in order to move into management jobs

4. Don’t be afraid to speak up.

You won’t get what you deserve if you don’t ask for it.

Once you have put your imposter syndrome to rest and realize the advantages PhDs have over other job candidates, you may also realize that you deserve a higher starting salary or a promotion.

It is not only beneficial to speak up and ask for what you deserve, but also essential, as most PhDs don’t, and end up missing out and short-changed.

In fact, according to the Harvard Business Review, only 7% of highly educated women try to negotiate a higher salary.

Only 7%.

Women have been socialized to accept what they are given, not to demand more.

Break out of this limiting pattern and demand the position and the salary that your skill set deserves.

Carry this voice throughout all of your business and networking interactions.

Even at the highest level, women struggle to make their voices heard.

Practice speaking up unapologetically, because practicing is the only way you are going to overcome your current habit of accepting less than you deserve and allowing others to ignore and interrupt you.

5. Stand up to sexism.

Many women are still given the advice that in order to succeed in a male-dominated setting, they should grow a thick skin and put up with mild sexism.

I disagree.

First of all, blatant harassment is always unacceptable and should be reported, but the more insidious forms of sexism are harder to combat.

For example, assertive women who speak up in meetings and ask for the respect they deserve are often labeled as pushy or bitchy while men — with the same characteristics — are called assertive and powerful.

And, in a survey by The Independent, more than 50% of respondents reported they had heard their female boss described as ‘bitchy’ and ‘emotional’.

This inappropriate name-calling is used to dismiss the power of women leaders.

Calling out sexist remarks and behavior is the only way to change the discriminatory climate that is far too common in male-dominated fields.

However, fighting sexist discrimination is different in every case.

It may be as simple as not laughing at a sexist joke a colleague makes or as complex as pitching a workplace diversity plan to your supervisor.

Taking steps to combat the sexism you or your colleagues experience, in whatever way you feel comfortable, will create a better environment for everyone.

As a woman with a PhD who knows her value, you have the ability to move into high industry leadership positions. To ensure your success in these male-dominated environments, seek out the support of other women, but know the value of having men in your network. Build enough confidence to speak up and be heard, recognize your value, and break the habit of over-apologizing. As a woman with a PhD, or about to have a PhD, you are formidable. Recognize the value you can offer to your potential industry employer and own it.

To learn more about 5 ways women PhDs can achieve success in leadership opportunities, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the wait list for the Cheeky Scientist Association.

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Jeanette McConnell, PhD

Jeanette is a chemistry PhD turned science communication enthusiast. During her PhD she realized that her favorite part about research wasn’t actually doing research, but rather talking and writing about it. So, she has channeled her passion for discovery into teaching and writing about science. When she isn’t talking someone’s ear off about her latest scientific obsession, you’ll find her on the soccer field or reading a good sci-fi novel.
Jeanette McConnell, PhD


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