Your gifted daughter probably won’t end up in STEM. Here’s why.

Sheryl Sandberg put it perfectly when she said: “We cannot change what we are not aware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change.”

Catherine Blake, CEO of Sales Protocol. Photo from salesprotocol.com

Catherine Blake, CEO of Sales Protocol. Photo from salesprotocol.com

While at IBM, Catherine Blake, now the CEO of Sales Protocol, tells me she hadn’t thought about inequality in the work place. It was only after she left this international company that she felt it. Nowadays, she chooses to ignore insulting behavior and support young women and girls go into STEM.

About Catherine’s first job with IBM and why persistence pays off.

My first job in tech was with IBM Corporation. I knew from the very beginning that I wanted to work for an international company and that I also want to be in front of people. I love connecting with people and I’m enthusiastic about technology. The only job that I could get as a recent college graduate was with the accounting department, so I took it to get my foot in the door and I kept hanging around with Senior Managers and kept bothering them saying how much I wanted to work for them.

They told me at that time they were hiring top graduates out of MIT for sales jobs, and that it was so highly competitive there was no way I was going to be able to compete. So I decided to show them I was serious by enrolling in a rigorous Harvard University Extension School Graduate Certificate Program. Went on the management track with a focus in IT. What kept me going was wanting that credential, and I also wanted to show how serious I was by being willing to put myself through school for several years at night.

Catherine ended up taking a technical field role at IBM, which involved working with customers, going to trade shows, but was also expected to know more about the technology. It wasn’t until she left IBM that she landed a truly sales role.

Almost half of women software engineers are expected to leave the field in the next 10 years. Yes, there’s an issue.

We know from the data that only 7% of VC funding goes to female-owned businesses. Google workforce, 30% female. Yahoo 37% women. I’m sure that’s going to change, but slow.

The reason, in my opinion, is that there is the culture, particularly in the Silicon Valley, that is very male dominated. There’s certain aggression in certain groups towards women. Women engineers felt it and a lot of them decide to drop out of engineering field, they feel almost bullied. 15% of Silicon Valley’s software engineers are women. It is estimated that 41% will leave the field within the next 10 years.

What was it like at IBM?

I never thought about it very much. I was fortunate to have landed at a multinational company, a multicultural company – there were men and women at every level. We were truly an international company. It was much more focused on your performance metrics than they were on gender. I rubbed elbows with women executives that were great role models for me and again, people of different genders, color, nationalities and I didn’t think much about it. If I wasn’t moving up from promotions standpoint or performance standpoint, it probably had something to do with me. I never felt like anyone was pulling me back.

Have you felt it later on?

Yes, I definitely did, and I choose to ignore it. I have earned the right to be at the table, I have earned the right to be in the room and at the meeting. Intimidation shows a lack of leadership. A really strong leader at the core is going to recognize other leaders, support other leaders. Intimidation and aggression to me are not signs of the kind of core values that I want to be much affiliated with.

Catherine is a doer. Here’s how she decided to deal with discrimination.

I sit on the Board of Directors for New Hampshire High Tech Council and I’ve been involved with the organization as a volunteer for almost ten years. I had enough women approach me to say I watch these events happen and I’m not seeing women on stage, and judging competitions. What is going on? 

Truthfully, this organization that’s been around for 25 years was pretty much a boy’s club for a long time. Women are starting to get on board in greater number now. I pitched to the BoD and I said Hey, I would like to start a program for women and for girls. They unanimously supported and gave me seed money to launch this year Tech Women / Tech Girls.

The first meeting we had just to talk about new concept drew 40 people, the second drew almost 70 people from government, education, business. I was astonished. I was contacted by someone in the Governor’s office who said We want you to succeed, because we think this is really important to our state. 

Under me is a leadership team of women – we have six committees and around 70 volunteers. This is what I’m doing. I saw the problem in my own background and I felt I needed to act. The beauty of what’s happening is that the men are realizing that this is important.

What would you say to those people who don’t see the problem with a lack of women in STEM, business or politics?

I think that women have to draw the fine line between sounding like we’re whining about something vs. presenting the data and saying here’s the reality, this is a real issue and by the way, your daughters and your children are going to have this issue. If you have a daughter who is particularly gifted in the STEM field, she’s probably not going to end up in STEM career based on the data. So, the data tells us that we need to mentor them and encourage them at the critical age, of 12, 13, 14 years old.  That’s what we’re doing through our program.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: MARIJA GAVRILOV

Born and grew up in Serbia, but in the last three years spent the majority time in the U.S. As the U.S. State Dep’t UGRAD Program alumna, I studied sociology, Arab studies and social research methods at American University in D.C. in 2012/2013. My engagement with entrepreneurship and tech began two years ago, when I attended Entrepreneurship Program at Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth as one of 10 selected young people from the Balkans. Ever since, I’ve been in love with the drive, intelligence and creativity of people I meet in this field, all over the world. This year, I administered the same program at Dartmouth for six talented entrepreneurs from Kosovo. I currently work with Startit, most relevant IT blog (www.startit.rs) and movement towards stronger IT eco-system in Serbia. As a regular author, I mostly write about mobile, cloud, machine learning and IT education. On the side, I lead Braver – bilingual blog (www.braver.in.rs) about entrepreneurship. Even though I spend majority of my time writing, I’m looking for ways out of this role and into sales and business development.

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