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Women in STEM: Advance your career through mentorship and saying yes to new opportunities

Tonia Dudley, senior solutions advisor at Cofense, reflects on her journey working in the technology field and shares some tips for how others may break into tech or STEM roles.

At work. (Photo by CoWomen from Pexels)

This guest post is a part of Technical.ly's Gender Equity in Tech Month of our editorial calendar.

This is a guest post by Tonia Dudley, senior solutions advisor at Cofense.

Throughout Women’s History Month, I have reflected on my journey in the field of technology. I am optimistic about how far we’ve come in shrinking disparities for women in tech and STEM. Gaps still exist, but there are a growing number of initiatives and champions working to improve and increase access for women. Based on my journey, I wanted to share some tips for how others may break into tech or STEM roles.

My personal experience navigating a career in STEM has been filled with opportunity, which I believe to be the biggest challenge facing women in tech. Were it not for leaders who were open and willing to offer me my first cybersecurity roles, I may never have found my passion for security awareness; and certainly would not have managed cybersecurity incident response, security awareness programs, and IT compliance programs for large global organizations.

I know many women who have had to fight for similar breaks to join projects or take on new roles, and I believe the lack of women in tech can be remediated with opportunities. I am encouraged by the number of organizations and programs — such as Women in Cyber Security — that have formed in recent years, presenting new opportunities that first raise awareness and serve to spark a young girl’s initial interest in technology, or support a young professional establishing her career.

Below are a few tips for anyone starting out in STEM — with hopes that they will be equipped to pay it forward for the next generation of women.

Sparking an interest

When it comes to sparking an interest in STEM, I believe the earlier a person is exposed, the better — particularly if we want to break the notion that “girls don’t like math and science.” In early childhood, girls may benefit from parents and educators incorporating themes of science, technology, engineering, and math into everything from fundamental lessons, to toys and books.

Today, between new products on the market and DIY activities online, there are many affordable options to choose from for every age and interest. A toddler, for instance, may be captivated by “engineering” ramps if you set them up with cardboard and toy cars. A kindergartener may find that a picture book illustrating the lifecycle of a butterfly is their new favorite. Once an interest is sparked, it can be nurtured and sustained by getting involved with the programs like Girls Who Code, Girlstart or even Girl Scouts.

Finding a mentor

If a young woman has an established interest in STEM — whether they are still exploring what they wish to pursue or are set on what they’ll study — I strongly recommend finding a mentor. While some suggest it’s better to seek out a mentor who is also a woman, I believe young women can benefit from mentoring regardless of gender, so long as they connect with a person they want to learn from who aligns with their interests. I have been lucky to have great male mentors.

Not long after I started in my first cybersecurity role, my mentor pulled me onto a project where I learned a great deal about the space — and I was able to use that knowledge to advance to a leadership position. I find it encouraging that a recent global survey of women in cybersecurity indicates that three out of four respondents have been mentored.

For young women without a local network to pull from, groups including Million Women Mentors and Association for Women in Mathematics Mentor Network are available to help.

Seeking opportunity

My biggest piece of advice for fellow women in STEM — one that I aim to follow myself — is to never turn down an opportunity because they are our chances to grow. Throughout my career, I have learned to accept opportunities with open arms — even lateral moves within my organization — because there is no telling where it could lead.

In some instances, saying yes to a project has allowed me to progress from one organization to another. But even when this isn’t the case, seizing these chances builds good will as you mature in your organization, and if you are to move on to a new opportunity. Personally, I have found that making a career transition is easiest when it’s with an organization you’ve been a part of for some time. In this environment, others can vouch for your work ethic and ability to learn something new. 

Series: Gender Equity in Tech Month 2020

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