My Advice to Women Pursuing a STEM Career in 2018

Key pointers—from someone who’s been there—on how to thrive in the next era of tech.

GUEST COLUMN | by Minette Norman

CREDIT Autodesk Girls Who Code Minette Norman.jpgAs a female VP of Engineering, I’m used to working with mostly men. While the number of women in STEM has slowly increased in recent years— with 29 percent of women representing the science and engineering workforce in 2016 compared to 26 percent in 2015— women are still only a small percentage of the tech workforce.

In order to continue our work in closing this gap in 2018, it’s critical that we get girls interested in technical careers early, and teach them the necessary skills to be successful in this industry.

A Firsthand Look

After sponsoring the Girls Who Code classes of 2016 and 2017, I experienced firsthand how the program provides girls with the technical prowess they need to thrive in the next era of tech, such as complex problem solving, critical thinking and cognitive flexibility—all of which are attributes the World Economic Forum found individuals will need by 2020 for the jobs brought on by the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

“I always ask the question of ‘why?’ What’s the context? Why are we doing something?”

The WEF highlighted one skill set as the most important: social skills, as the report read:

“Overall, social skills—such as persuasion, emotional intelligence and teaching others—will be in higher demand across industries than narrow technical skills, such as programming or equipment operation and control. In essence, technical skills will need to be supplemented with strong social and collaboration skills.”

Some Background Notes

Perhaps the emphasis on social skills spoke to me given my background, as I was always on the liberal arts path. In high school, I acted in many plays and aspired to be a famous actor. In acting, so much of the work we do is collaborative, working in an ensemble, playing off one another.

When I went to college, I double majored in Drama and French. While I didn’t plan for a career in technology, I found my way into it by discovering I was skilled at taking complex technical information and communicating it in a simple, digestible way.

My first job in the industry was as a technical writer at Adobe, where I wrote the tutorial for Photoshop version 1.0. Fast forward to today, and this Drama-French major is a VP of Engineering at Autodesk.

My background in the liberal arts wasn’t the only reason the emphasis on social skills spoke to me. After working in tech for almost 30 years, I’ve learned that the most challenging problems we face are with our human interactions in the workplace.

The Greater Challenge

Workers at every level face this challenge, as I found with one of the girls I encountered at Girls Who Code, who found dealing with people was harder than learning to code.

The ability to work well with others is increasingly important in today’s tech world, as no one works alone and the skills of communication, listening, leadership, and empathy will take someone to the next level in their career.

I’ve found success in STEM by combining my liberal arts background with my technical know-how. My acting training makes me comfortable speaking in public, improvising and thinking on my feet.

My language training gives me a global view, with interest in and knowledge of other cultures. And my emotional intelligence makes me an insightful manager and colleague, as I can connect with others, even when they are very different from me.

Needed and Wanted

Many CEOs in the technology industry believe employees trained in the liberal arts add value to their companies— as a survey conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that 74 percent of CEOs would recommend a 21st-century liberal education in order to prepare for success.

Consider the perspective of Michael Vitt, CEO of the online video marketing company Vidyard, outlined in his article called “Why This Tech CEO Keeps Hiring Humanities Majors.”

Vitt says that one of the things he’s observed about humanities majors is that they “regularly show they’re willing to learn new skills and try new things.” He highlights how successful companies make things that people want, and figuring that out “requires instinct, critical thinking, and a deeply contextual understanding of human nature.”

The key takeaway here is the following: “The truly irreplaceable jobs—not just of the future but of the present—are the roles that intermingle arts and science.”

Embrace the Liberal Arts

In my job, I always ask the question of “why?” What’s the context? Why are we doing something? I truly feel that comes from having a liberal arts education. You have to think critically about things in order to explain the big picture perspective instead of just the narrow, technical focus. I think it can be dangerous to have a myopic focus on STEM skills, and not focus on having a well-rounded education.

Now, don’t get me wrong.

I desperately want more women to study computer science and enter the technical workforce in highly technical roles— we need them!

However, my advice to women this year, is not to focus too narrowly on technology alone. Find opportunities to combine the arts, social sciences, and creativity with technical skills. The broad combination of those skills will give women the potential to change the workforce and change the world.

Minette Norman is VP of Engineering Practice at Autodesk where she leads a global team of nearly 1000 people. Minette, pictured above (second from left) with Girls Who Code graduates at Autodesk.


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