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Seize the Opportunity to Conquer Your Fear of STEM

I travel around the world talking to people about women’s advancement and the challenges women face in today’s workplace, and there’s one thing I hear over and over again that drives me crazy.  Women often say to me, “I’m just no good in math.”  To this I respond unequivocally: RUBBISH!

Women are just as capable as men at learning math.  The world has changed, and if we don’t shed this pervasive attitude that we just can’t do math (or more broadly, science, technology, engineering and math, or “STEM”), we will fail to reach our rightful place as future business leaders.

Undoubtedly, there is not a level playing field for women in the workplace today.  And in many ways, changing this paradigm will require other people to change.  All people have biases, and senior leaders – both male and female – will need to recognize and overcome biases in themselves and in their organizations if they are to succeed in moving more women into top positions and keeping them there.

But we also know there are dimensions of this issue that require us to change, for women to help ourselves.  For example, we must learn to negotiate for higher pay and more perks, to actively promote ourselves and our accomplishments, and to more assertively seek high-risk/high-reward assignments.

But we have to stop hiding behind “the math card.”

Quite simply, there is no definitive evidence that the female brain is less capable than the male brain at learning STEM.  Which is not to say that there aren’t differences between men and women in brain function; indeed, there are differences.  But these differences do not preclude women’s success in learning and mastering STEM at the college or even post-graduate levels.

An excellent article summarizing some of the key research in this area is “Sex, Math and Scientific Achievement,” by Diane F. Halpern, Camilla P. Benbow, Morton Ann Gernsbacher, Ruben C. Gur, Janet Shibley Hyde and David C. Geary, published in the December 2007 issue of Scientific American.  This article finds not only that women can do just as well at STEM as men, but also that both men and women can be taught techniques to improve their ability to learn these and other complex subjects.

Conversely, as also pointed out in the Scientific American article and elsewhere, there is evidence that individual perception of one’s own ability, or lack of ability, in STEM can and does shape one’s expectations for success in these fields, and this may be especially true for women.

Stereotypes of STEM as “masculine” subjects may affect the way teachers interact with female students, sometimes leading teachers to discourage girls, consciously or unconsciously, from pursuing STEM and diminishing girls’ expectations of their own ability to learn and master these subjects.

Like no other time in history, we are living in what is without a doubt THE BEST time to be a woman entering the business world.  Leaders and organizations are vigorously embracing the call for diversity and inclusion, as they look to the coming decades and must position themselves to compete in a global economy with fast-changing demographics.

However, women ignore at our own peril another, larger paradigm shift – the pervasive impact of technology, data and innovation on the way we do business, and the absolute imperative for companies to harness this wave in order to remain relevant and succeed.  All leaders, no matter their function, must understand the promise of technology and innovation for their organizations, and the threat to their organizations if that promise is realized by their competitors first.

GE’s CEO Jeff Immelt threw down the tech gauntlet in a LinkedIn post 2016:  “If you are joining [GE] in your 20s, unlike when I joined, you’re going to learn to code.  It doesn’t matter whether you are in sales, finance or operations. You may not end up being a programmer, but you will know how to code.”

Simply put, there is no longer a place in the business world for leaders who are non-tech savvy math phobes.  If women don’t embrace these disciplines, we will continue to be left behind!

The good news is there is help for women (and men) who find math and science difficult to learn.  Research on brain function, learning and memory has identified the different processes that take place when we learn new things, especially complex, abstract subjects such as math and science.

New techniques for buttressing and reinforcing the stages of these learning processes can help anyone become a better learner, mastering subjects they previously thought were beyond their mental reach.  Check out Learning How to Learn, one of the most popular online courses in the world, created by Dr. Barbara Oakley, Professor of Engineering, Industrial & Systems Engineering at Oakland University, and Dr. Terry Sejnowski of the Computational Neurobiology Laboratory.  This course leverages leading-edge research and provides invaluable techniques to improve your ability to learn and master difficult subjects.

I strongly encourage you all to take this wonderful course, which is available for free.  Other course resources include Michael Friedman’s Note-taking tools and tips, (also free) and Barbara Oakley’s great book, A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra), available from Amazon for about $10.

The world is changing in wonderful ways that hold unprecedented promise for women entering the workforce.  Paradigm shifts in diversity and inclusion are opening doors that many never thought possible.  But technology and innovation will be the watchwords for all disciplines going forward, and they will wait for no man, or woman.

If you’ve ever found yourself saying, “I’m no good at math,” take control of your future with the amazing new tools that are available to help you.  Seize the opportunity to conquer your fear of STEM.  Don’t let the future pass you by!

Amelia Anderson is Managing Director, Assistant Treasurer of American Airlines. Amelia holds a BS degree in Finance and Economics and an MBA in Corporate Finance from Georgia State University in Atlanta.

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