By Sarah Stawiski, Kelly Simmons, Rosemarie Gadea
Understanding specific leader populations ensures development programs are tailored to their needs, setting the stage for better impact. In this blog, we will share insights from interviews about Latin American women’s development needs and challenges, specifically in STEM fields. The findings can be applied to refine and customize programs to get the best possible results for these leaders.
A team at CCL conducted ten interviews of leaders in STEM in Latin America. All but one of the interviews were conducted with women leaders, and nearly all had graduate degrees. Additional interviews were planned, but data collection came to a halt with the COVID-19 pandemic. However, some clear themes about development needs and challenges faced by women in STEM started to emerge from the interviews conducted.
Development Needs of Latina Leaders in STEM
The team asked the interviewees, “Based on your experience, what are the most important leadership skills that women in Latin America need to develop to be successful in the area of science, technology, engineering, or mathematics?” In summary, when we analyzed responses to this question, we found:
- The interviewees listed several skills repeatedly including: effective communication, teamwork, and tenacity.
- Interviewees also repeatedly mentioned influence as a critical skill for this population, some explaining that women might need to work harder than men in STEM to sell their ideas and to gain credibility.
- Half of the interviewees mentioned the need to develop self-confidence or belief in self.
- Half of the interviewees mentioned the need to develop empathy.
Challenges faced by Latina Leaders in STEM
Additionally, the team asked, “what are the most important challenges that women in Latin America have to overcome to be successful today?” The responses to the question were consistent. Highlights from analyzing the results are summarized here:
- Nearly all interviewees referenced the need for women to prove themselves more than men need to prove themselves. As one person described that as a woman in STEM you are “constantly proving that you are capable.”
- Multiple interviewees described the social and cultural beliefs that certain jobs are for men. One person commented that there is a belief that women, “do not belong in certain industries,” particularly those that may have higher risks to safety such as mining and metallurgy. In fact, one interviewee even commented that, “women are afraid of careers that involve mathematics,” which demonstrates enduring stereotypes regarding careers to which women are suited and drawn. She explained that in some Latin American households and schools girls are still discouraged from seeking degrees in mathematics.
- Multiple interviewees described other “machismo” beliefs and behaviors (a strong sense of masculine pride; demanding subservience from anyone perceived to be of lower status). One example provided was that women are judged negatively if they network with male colleagues after hours. While not a prevalent theme, one person even noted an example of sexual harassment that resulted in losing her job.
Proposed Initiatives for Advancing Women in STEM
In addition to identifying development needs and challenges faced by STEM Leaders, the interviewees were asked, “What initiatives do you propose to promote and retain women in the STEM area?” The responses are summarized here:
- The most common proposed idea was to provide exposure to STEM careers and role models to young women and girls. One respondent indicated it would be the best way to “fill the pipeline,” while another stated that it would be helpful to send the message to, “not be afraid to go into a quantitative career.” One of the interviewees stated, “Young women are losing their fear of STEM careers because they see more successful women in these areas, we need more role models.”
- Several ideas were related to creating work environments that support women more, such as flexible working hours, childcare assistance, and addressing misogyny in the organization.
- About half of the interviewees mentioned providing development opportunities to women already in STEM careers. Within this category, for instance, three people mentioned developing emotional intelligence to learn how to manage some of the cultural barriers. Another person suggested developing skills for navigating career goals and trajectory, and another mentioned providing mentoring.
Increasing the Impact of Development for Latina STEM Leaders
The purpose of conducting these interviews was to ensure that development programs in place for this population of leaders would align with their needs and challenges. The challenges faced by women leaders in Latin America in STEM fields bare some resemblance to challenges faced by women across the globe. For example, in the CCL publication Beating the Odds: Winning Strategies of Women in STEM1, the authors describe women STEM leaders resenting having to reiterate, explain, and rationalize their decisions, an example of women having to prove themselves as capable more so than men.
Based on these findings, some key elements of leadership solutions for Latina women in STEM should include:
- Creating space for shared discussions around social identity and culture. This ensures that women have enough time to both understand their core values and what might conflict with the immediate culture in which they find themselves. Shared dialogue with other women leaders creates a safe space for processing and working toward more productive approaches to grow tenacity and perseverance.
- Practicing communication, increasing their ability to confidently explain their team’s and their own achievements, and emphasizing their leadership value to the organization.
- Cultivating a supportive network with a specific emphasis on sponsorship and mentorship with participation across genders.
We know from our own previous research and evaluation studies that development programs can help women advance in a wide range of ways. Here are a few examples:
- 92% of women who attended a development program for women in STEM (mostly US-based leaders) felt better equipped to advance their career, as a result of the program.
- We also see evidence that the above referenced development program inspired women to help other women. As one program participant stated, “After the training I started sharing what I learned and have become known as a strong advocate and mentor for women in organization.”
In addition to developing women leaders in these areas, organizations can bolster development efforts in ways that go beyond programmatic solutions by more systematically addressing career advancement barriers for women. For example:
- Encouraging advocacy groups to support women in STEM. The increase in leadership roles for women in STEM in Latin America will require a collective effort from HR, executives, and passionate advocates. Being part of building that support system may be a key part of STEM women advancing in their own careers as well.
- Organizations that undertake greater emphasis on the diversity and inclusion programs will create more space for progress. Complimentary to this is cross organizational training in conversation skills, which engenders more empathy and increases trust and collaboration across genders.
A lot of progress has been made; more women are entering the field of STEM in Latin America, but they are still very under-represented in leadership roles. As the interviewees’ responses spell out, this is a result of multiple social and cultural factors. Development programs will not completely address the issue of underrepresentation, but those that are tailored to the specific needs of Lat Am women leaders in STEM will be better positioned to make an impact.
1Simmons, K. & Burke, P. (2020). Beating the Odds: Winning Strategies of Women in STEM. Center for Creative Leadership.