Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg *** Local Caption *** Carly Fiorina
By Katie Elizabeth
When it comes to the ways that women navigate the current business landscape, there are a wide variety of styles that can be used to achieve success and overcome the inherent obstacles of being female in largely male-centric economies. Particularly when it comes to industries where the vast majority of the current workforce (and more so, leadership positions) are held by men and given to men, by men. In sectors like STEM, the path forward for women often appears murkier than for other industries. This is due to several contributing factors (such as education differences, inherent biases in hiring, societal pressures and norms, etc.) that make it that much more difficult for women.
The path ahead may be faint and not yet well-travelled, but trailblazing women are showing that it can be done. More importantly, they are sharing their knowledge with the female business and technology leaders of tomorrow, openly and honestly, in hopes of inspiring change. One woman who is successful in a traditionally male industry, Azita Martin, CMO of Maana.io, spoke with me to share her advice on what it takes to succeed in STEM fields.
Azita had a childhood that one wouldn’t exactly call ‘normal’. When she was a 16-year-old student in Spain, her skills and determination provided her the opportunity to graduate early. She was good at math and science, and wanted to apply those talents, so she joined the Aerospace Engineering program at USC. She was 1 of 4 women in her graduating class of 40. After graduating, she worked as an aerospace engineer for a short while but was ineligible for government jobs as a foreign worker. Azita switched gears, joining Silicon Graphics’ product marketing team. While going from aerospace engineering to product marketing may seem like quite a leap, it ended up being a good use of her skills, as 70% of the company’s revenues came from engineer clients and she knew how to speak their language. Since then, she has worked at several firms, from startups to major corporations, until she settled on Maana.io, joining as the organization’s Chief Marketing Officer.
In high tech fields, Azita tells me, there is quite a bit of inherent, gender-based bias. Larger companies, especially those with sophisticated HR organizations, never made her feel discriminated against. Startups, however, are a different story entirely. She has, on multiple occasions, had to remind male co-workers or business colleagues that she has a degree in aerospace engineering, as they would doubt her experience or qualifications. Another key issue: young, male founders of these STEM startups were often looking to hire young, male workers. Often hidden under the guise of hiring for “cultural fit”, this phenomenon is prevalent across startups in the US, but it is rampant in STEM fields. Azita was always the only women on any of the executive teams she worked on for startup companies. These biases, whether intentional or subconscious, present unique challenges for women. For Azita, that meant getting into a deliberate head space that would work to her benefit.
Her first piece of advice is one that many business women have heard before but carries added weight in STEM fields: speak up. She is known for speaking up and expressing her opinion, bucking the idea of “bossy versus assertive” and instead simply owning the concept of “being the boss”. This means not only speaking up, but also doing her homework before hand, and accepting it when she was wrong. The key to this is understanding that, even when you speak up, you won’t always be heard. With one organization she worked with, Azita attempted numerous times to express opinion about the direction the company was headed. They ignored her, she walked, they failed.
That is also the second piece of advice she has for girls and women: confidence. Do the things that you want to do, that you were born to do, regardless of what others say. “If you enjoy math and science, go study math and science. Don’t listen to people who insist that one thing or another is ‘only for boys.’ If you’re a girl, and you want to do it, then it’s for girls too.” And if people try to stand in your way or impede your path, have the confidence in yourself and your own abilities to walk away.
Confidence, and the belief in one’s own abilities, is by far one of the most important keys to success not just women, but for all entrepreneurs. When I was starting my career as an entrepreneur, I chose a hybrid of strategy, marketing and sales for my entry point because it seemed fun, mission critical for any startup to succeed, and like something I could excel at. That said, having come from first the financial industry, then an international nonprofit, I had very, very little experience, and no formal training. So, I asked to volunteer for an entrepreneur focused organization, offering to do any work they needed. Their first need was for a press release to be written. I didn’t even know what a press release was at the time, so googled it, learned how to put one together, and made it happen. Moving forward, I would self-learn by night, and execute by day with a fierce desire to succeed. This approach helped me win a Chief Marketing role with a hot early stage startup, and later a Chief Strategy role with another awesome startup. When I was getting started, the only tool I had to work with was confidence.
It is absolutely clear that women in STEM fields, and business in general, still experience bias and gender-specific issues that need to be addressed. The good news is, the more we talk about it, the more we are confident and speak up and include men as team members in these issues, the better the business environment will be for everybody. By continuously listening and learning, building networks of people interested in our success, and throwing away outdated concepts of “bossy versus assertive”, we can change the world, one company at a time.