I remember the first pair of work boots I wore almost 30 years ago. They were brown and rubber, came up to my hips, and more often than not, were covered in muck. I was a recent geology grad and my first job out of school dropped me into the field of environmental science, wearing waders in Minnesota rivers collecting water samples.
At the time, I had no concept of where my career was going, but I knew I loved every minute sloshing through rocks and mud. I loved the opportunity to make a difference in the environment. Ultimately, this experience profoundly shaped the arc of my professional life by sending me in a direction that led to environmental policy and leadership roles.
In recent years, we’ve seen a phenomenal — and much needed — effort in America to encourage young women to pursue their interests in STEM. As a result, women are filling the gender gap in these fields. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women are now just as likely as men to be biological scientists, medical scientists and chemists..
Amid the change, I see many women struggling to navigate careers in traditionally male-dominated work environments. When I’m asked for guidance by female colleagues and mentees, I give the best advice I have: work hard, do what you love and overcome your gender-based blind spots.
I call them blind spots for a reason. They are hidden in our habits and predispositions. Despite any good intent behind them, I still see certain gender-based biases inhibiting professional growth every day.
By giving this advice, I’m challenging both women and men to examine their own psyches for lingering, deep-seated stereotypes they hold about women. Perhaps it was something planted by a teacher, relative or the media that says women should act or speak a certain way.
From my own experience and observation, I know this can be hard work. Here are some tips on overcoming constraining beliefs and examples of what working beyond gender-based blind spots looks like in practice:
- Roll up your sleeves (and strap on your boots). With just over 20 percent of senior roles in U.S. mid-sized companies held by females, many women are hyper-focused on demonstrating their strategic and leadership abilities. As a result, many overlook opportunities to prove that they are nimble, team players hungry to learn and grow. As a young scientist, I quickly learned that taking ownership of jobs others didn’t find attractive — because they were viewed as too small, or not providing visibility — gave me much needed experience and credibility in the eyes of my boss, who came to trust me with projects of increasing importance.
- Seek out your people, both women and men. Before I had a strong career vision of my own, I developed solid relationships with a number of mentors — women and men — who identified projects and opportunities that would give me invaluable foundational experience. Their collective guidance put me on a path that culminated in working with the governor of Minnesota, who — though he knew I had no political background or relationships to leverage —appointed me commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. I’m quite proud to say our administration led, and helped pass, groundbreaking legislation to provide stable, long-term funding for water quality protection and improvement. Without supportive relationships built on respect, this meaningful change may not have come to fruition.
- Bet on yourself and your vision. More important than having someone take a chance on you is having the courage to take a chance on yourself. At certain points in my career, I made lateral moves — and even took a pay cut — in order to bank experience I knew was essential to achieving my long-term goals. As a parent and breadwinner, those decisions were tough. But I had a strong vision for the positive effect I believed I could have on the environment and those around me through my work. That vision emboldened me every day, and a principled approach to pursuing it guided me through risky decisions that have paid off in a big way.
- Ask questions and listen to answers. Fear of appearing weak — another antiquated stereotype — keeps many women from asking questions or asking for help. Many driven individuals are so hyper-focused on their vision that they don’t listen to advice or answers. Whether its fear or a set of sturdy blinders, learning and progress are inhibited. Bold vulnerability and respect for others’ expertise — especially in STEM, when specialties can be extremely nuanced — have been essential to growth and successful collaboration throughout my career.
For women seeking not just a job, but a successful career, rooting out inhibiting stereotypes we may unknowingly hold about our own abilities or workplace expectations is crucial. By removing these mental barriers, all women will be ready to strap on their mucky boots and get down to work.
Sheryl Corrigan leads environmental, health and safety efforts for Koch industries. She was previously commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. More on Sheryl’s story and those of her colleagues working as women in STEM can be found at kochstories.com/articles/building-steam.
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