Leading with confidence: Female trailblazers in STEM

“Lead by example” is a saying that does the rounds so often it’s become a cliché, and yet it remains a truism to keep in mind. After all, real leaders are those that forge their own path and inspire others to follow, instead of expecting unconditional support.

But to lead like this, you need a strong sense of self conviction.

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To help you along, we’ve taken inspiration from women in STEM fields (that’s science, technology, engineering and maths to anyone who’s acronym averse) who have overcome the odds and blazed a trail in male-dominated industries. If they can do it, we all can, and their lives give us invaluable lessons to keep in mind going forward.

Be brave

Even the most empowered person suffers moments of self-doubt. But when you feel this doubt take root, remember that the brave are the ones that change the world.

Two-hundred years ago, Ada Lovelace worked out how to improve the Analytical Engine, an advanced calculator her mentor Charles Babbage had devised. She would have been forgiven for never publishing her thoughts at all, as Babbage, much her senior, was a respected force within the scientific community. But Lovelace was fearless. And in the process, gave us the blueprint for what many consider to be the world’s first computer programme.

Be heard

Voices matter, and just as Lovelace put her weight behind her ideas back in the 1840s, female leaders are navigating the workplace and driving the conversation. Do you suffer from the inability to speak up during meetings? It’s an instinctive reaction, says leadership coach LaKisha Greenwade. But as Greenwade notes, this safety mechanism actually inhibits us more than it protects us. Because in the end, “respect comes when one’s voice is heard.”

Tackle challenges head on

Marie Van Brittan Brown worked as a nurse in Queens, New York in the 1960s. Her odd hours often meant she was home alone, so to overcome her fear, she devised a home security system that she could operate remotely from her bedroom.

Now, we’re not saying that you should use engineering ingenuity to overcome every one of your problems, but you should be honest about what’s bothering you, and be prepared to tackle it in the here and now. Or as TEDx speaker Karima Mariama-Arthur puts it beautifully, “equivocation will always be your worst enemy.”

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Exemplify excellence

Quality is everything and it never goes out of style. There’s a reason Émilie du Châtelet’s translation of Newton’s Principia is still the preferred French-language version today, despite her work dating back to the 1700s.

That being said, there’s a difference between championing excellence and wanting perfection. Always guard against the paralysing effect of “perfectionist tendencies”, says Jill Hauwiller of Leadership Refinery. If you’re waging this mental battle, take a few deep breaths or go for a walk to clear your head. The idea is to produce work that sees you excel, not get so caught up in being the best that you can’t produce that work in the first place.

Be passionate

Katsuko Saruhashi was a passionate eco scientist who risked the wrath of the United States government when she spoke out about weapons testing on islands in the Pacific. Saruhashi’s passion shone through, and she was not only believed, she helped change the laws governing nuclear weapons testing.

Whatever your passion is, make sure you explore it in full, and are absolutely confident in yourself. Women can sometimes feel the need to “shrink themselves to seem non-intimidating,” says Niya Allen-Vatel, a life coach and leadership consultant. But in reality, “shrinking does nothing but delay your voice from being heard and taken seriously.”

When you’re committed and inspired by something, you’ve got every reason to share your beliefs.

Beat your expectations

Typecast as a Hollywood starlet, Hedy Lamar was seen as the Angelina Jolie of ‘40s cinema, but unbeknownst to the public, she had a secret passion for inventing. During World War 2, she devised a system to help Allied torpedoes hit their target, courtesy of a signal that hopped frequencies, meaning it couldn’t be intercepted by enemy ships. Though her work was never used during the war effort, her blueprint for frequency hopping would later be used as one of the grounding principles in the invention of Bluetooth, validating Lamar all along.

Hedy Lamar reminds us that typecasting people is folly, and that no one should live by others’ expectations. People who are not easily categorised often leave the biggest legacy on the world.

Feeling inspired, or have daughters or nieces who would love to know more about these women and many others? To learn more about Lamar and the women outlined in this article, head over to the STEM Superheroines campaign, a joint effort between Currys PC World and the Microsoft Surface, where you’ll find yet more amazing inventors and yet more inspirational life stories.