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Women, STEM, and the Pandemic

A global pandemic and a lurch into remote work mean new challenges and new opportunities for women in the technology sector.

For women in STEM careers, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been especially powerful. Though the pandemic response has inspired more students to pursue STEM careers, job openings at U.S. academic institutions are down 70 percent, and women are publishing less due to the unique pressures that lockdown and remote work have placed on them.

These challenges aren’t new. “There’s been progress over the years,” says René Redwood, CEO of Redwood Enterprise. “But barriers still exist.” However, Redwood, an expert on diversity who served on The Oversight Task Force for Coca-Cola North America and was the Executive Director of the Presidential Glass Ceiling Commission, also sees opportunities during a pandemic. René is part of WITI (Women in Technology International), an organization committed to empowering innovators, inspiring future generations and building inclusive cultures, worldwide. WITI is redefining the way women and men collaborate to drive innovation and business growth and is helping corporate partners create and foster gender inclusive cultures. To learn more, please visit https://witi.com/about/

Crisis opportunity

“One of the things we’re seeing is an increasing entrepreneurial opportunity for women with a background in STEM,” Redwood notes. “We see more women moving out of traditional institutions into their own enterprise or into collaboratives and networks, where they’re able to have better control over their time and how they use their talent.”

As Redwood notes, some of this entrepreneurial impetus comes from women who have seen their STEM jobs disappear as a result of pandemic lockdowns. “A body at rest will remain at rest until disturbed by an opposite force,” she notes. “Women, in particular, have recognized that if their opportunities are going to be somewhat limited, now is the time to do something different.”

Remote life

Remote work has come to define the pandemic career. For women in STEM careers, remote work can be especially challenging, but also offers unique opportunities. One example is the chance to reexamine work/life balance and the Caring Economy. “This really is an opportunity for women to really lift their voice on critical policies for workspace requirements and needs,” says Redwood. “COVID-19 is forcing the conversation. Care decisions are still made disproportionately primarily by women — and care isn’t just for children. It’s also for aging parents and individuals with disabilities.”

At the same time, remote work has created new barriers, especially when it comes to a traditionally crucial aspect of women’s professional experience: mentoring and networking.

“We will have to find other ways for those connections to be made,” Redwood says. “For example, now that we’re not in person, ask as many people as possible to come on video so that we can be present, because the more the more ways in which we can engage one another, the more senses we can stimulate, that’s how we can create connectivity.”

Mentoring is key

In terms of mentoring, Redwood sees opportunity for women there. “A mentorship program doesn’t happen just because we happen to be in the workplace together. For years, women were in the workplace with men and they still weren’t in the networks. You can mentor more people as a group mentor online — something we put in place when I was overseeing Coca-Cola.”

Redwood also sees a chance to take a fresh look at racial and economic disparities through the post-pandemic lens, noting that women of color are “two-fers”: both minority and female. “It’s important as we think about the future of STEM to consider the real opportunities to address the racial concerns: this confluence of crisis, the ongoing questions around systems and systemic racism, the ongoing questions around the role of privilege relative to opportunities, the ongoing disparities, and marginalized communities,” she notes.

There are two sides to every crisis, Redwood points out. “Wherever there was marginalization, COVID-19 has exacerbated it,” she notes. “But wherever there’s challenge, there’s opportunity.”

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