What does Empowerment Look Like?

Listen to this blog in podcast form! Plus hear a bonus conversation between Jill and Brianne C. Martin as they discuss what empowerment looks like and their empowerment journeys.

I remember when I was in elementary school being assigned to do a report on a role model. I was 10 years old, I think, and my mind blanked. I knew what a role model was, and I felt pressured to have one by my parents and teachers, but I did not have any. There are presidents, astronauts, movie stars, and other celebrities, yet never felt like I wanted to be them, or follow in their footsteps. (I ended up doing my report on Sally Ride because of parental pressure.)

To this day I struggle with finding a true role model who I aspire to be like, and instead have settled for admiring different traits of different people I learn exist on this planet. All of the people I look up to have one thing in common: empowerment. From a young age I always wanted to be one of those empowered people, and now I have the self awareness to know that the reason why is because I want to be significant and loved for who I am.

Empowerment is a word I hear thrown around a lot by people, communities, and organizations that call themselves feminist. There was even an Empowering Women series of lectures at my alma mater; I attended the lectures but did not feel particularly empowered afterward. In some contexts I see, like on social media, empowerment is promoted by showing “boss babes” flaunting their luxury items, dressing in designer clothes, and sharing how they made 6 or 7-figure businesses. In other advertisements on shoes, makeup, toys, soap, and even telecom service, women’s empowerment is promoted along with the product. But are these REALLY empowering?

What is empowerment?

According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, yes I’m stating the dictionary definition, to be empowered means having the knowledge, confidence, means, or ability to do things or make decisions for oneself.

Psychological empowerment is composed of four cognitions: meaning, self-determination, competence, and impact. Empowerment manifests self-confidence and renews your sense of purpose. When you act on your ability to do things and make decisions for yourself, you grow self-confidence and can follow your purpose.

Reflecting back on those advertisements, by nature purchasing something advertised will not necessarily lead to empowerment. You are making that decision to purchase the good or service, but that product in and of its self may not empower you. And let’s take this a step further to look at your purchase through a wider lens:

We live in a capitalist society. Not only that, but it’s patriarchal, heteronormative, cis-normative, imperialist, and white supremacist. This means that most of the images we see in media of what “empowerment” means and what a person who is empowered looks like is a straight, cis, white male from the upper class of society, with a well-paying job and property (including but not limited to a house, expensive car, wife, and children), AKA the oppressor.

When we see advertisements to “empower women”, what are the women doing? In a Verizon commercial, there is a girl working with power tools in a garage. Others have women wearing suits in minimalist corporate offices (the origin of minimalism is fascist and focused on erasure of culture, by the way). Some advertisements have women dressed in provocative clothing (for the male gaze), supporting men as gatekeepers to women’s power. Nearly every advertisement I have seen that purports to empower women, does so by portraying women in a “masculine” context, succeeding while being more masculine, or by promoting the message that a woman’s level of empowerment is measured by her proximity to and/or support from a man.

This is just one example of the false narrative of empowerment and how it can be sexist. Messages about empowerment can also be racist, classist, and ablest (and other -ists) as well. For example, media messages portray that to be empowered for black people means to be more like white people, for poor people to be more like rich people, and for people with disabilities to overcome their disability and achieve more than even an able-bodied person.

The underlying message by mainstream media is that to be empowered means that you think, look, and act like the oppressor.

Is true empowerment to be like the oppressor? No. Like I said earlier, it means having the knowledge, confidence, means, or ability to do things or make decisions for oneself. You don’t have to be a white male in order to do things or make decisions for yourself. Oh wait… People who are oppressed are treated cruelly or are prevented from having the same opportunities, freedom, and benefits as others. This means that they are prevented from (in certain situations) exercising their will and ability to make decisions for themself because of authority, the oppressor.

So, in a way you do have to be like the oppressor, a straight, white, cis, wealthy male, to have true empowerment and be able to follow through completely with your decisions (and this is true even for straight, white, cis, wealthy men).

Now that we understand what empowerment does not look like, what does empowerment look like?

When I was listening to the podcast Equivalence by EVE List with Sophie Leray: S1 E1, I had this moment where I thought, “wow, so this is what it’s like to listen to empowered women!” The podcast Equivalence explores what is equivalence in corporate and other places, and many episodes explore gender equity in the Middle East. It’s great!

The guest on the episode I listened to is Hermoine, a TV reporter and activist and advocate for women. She is originally from Australia, but works in the Middle East. In her role as a TV reporter and advocate, she feels like she’s constantly working against sexism.

As I listened to this episode, I felt in my soul that I needed to make this blog post about empowerment because I felt I found a role model of empowerment in Hermione (and the show host Sophie)! I want to share what qualities this woman has, as she self-describes in the episode, to provide this example of an empowered person.

Qualities of an Empowered Person:

1. Dedicates themself to Personal Development

Hermione spoke fondly of the years she dedicated to her own personal develop, getting to know herself and develop her self-awareness. She said how you see yourself is indicative of your self esteem.

2. Advocates for themself from a place of self-love and self-awareness.

My ears perked up when Hermione said that she fought every sexual harassment case in her career. As someone who struggled a lot with navigating and reporting harassment, especially in my early career, I was impressed. I know the courage and self-assurance required to stand up for yourself, and this woman sure has quite a bit of that! It really excites me to hear from a woman with that kind of strength and courage.

Hermione credits her mother and father for raising her to be confident and strong, and feels like this kept people from harassing her as much as other women. She says she “didn’t fit into their box of what would be a victim”. The ones who did harass anyway, she prosecuted.

“You have to know yourself, love yourself, and stand up for yourself as a woman.”

– Hermione

3. Grounds themself in Core Values that Gives Resilience

Hermione states that her values from family and identity and faith in God, her spirituality, helped her develop her resilience because she knows she was made in the image of God. Even though she missed opportunities because of harassment, she kept going.

“The people who don’t give up are the ones that win.”

– Hermione

I included this key to resilience in The STEM Thrive Guides courses, which teach how to navigate difficult situations involving inappropriate behavior like microaggressions at work and school. In the courses, I share the resilience mindset, which are a set of 5 truths, or values, that I use to empower myself when deciding what actions to take to resolve a situation and reach justice. Grounding to your core values and acting from that place allows you to keep going and live with purpose despite uncertainty or setbacks.

4. Learning About and Growing Awareness of their Societal Context

Throughout the episode, it was evident that Hermione was well aware of issues in society, oppression, and how she is directly affected. She shared deep wisdom that she has grown through her learning and awareness. She feels like women have self-hatred and self-deprecation. Women tend to put themselves down while men build themselves up. We have to look at our identities as women and question why we do that. She knew that sexual harassment is usually subtle comments (also called microaggressions), and can be hard to identify.

She pointed out how in our culture, women are oversexualized; there’s pressure to look a certain way in her industry (news, TV) and many women have had procedures like plastic surgeries to stay working. She says she thinks the world has a long way to go to reach equity.

Growing this awareness of society, why you’re treated certain ways, helps one distinguish what they can’t control from what they can control. Since empowerment comes from a place of making decisions and choices, knowing what you can actually affect is important so that you don’t feel defeated. For instance, if you change how you dress to prevent harassment, you can feel defeated over and over again because how you dress has no control over how people treat you. Realizing that you have no control over preventing harassment allows you to focus on what you can control, which includes advocating for yourself as well as documenting and reporting harassment.

Once you realize what you do have control over, you can act on that while knowing what is outside of your control. Empowerment is action-based, and confidence grows when your actions produce the results you desire.

5. They Lift Others Up.

Hermione talked about how when you’re empowered you want to lift others, not tear them down. She said how it’s about relationship building, and it’s a mutual benefit in the long run; she believes what you sow is what you reap and that success is saving lives. This demonstrates how she has a growth and abundance mindset, not needing to compete but to collaborate with others to solve issues. She’s focused less on how others see her, and more on what is within her control: her thoughts and actions.

This is, by nature, the opposite of being an oppressor. Lifting other people is love. Loving is the willingness to extend oneself for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s growth, as Erich Fromm says.

6. They Combine all the Above Traits to Pursue their Purpose

Hermione notes that the role of Hollywood is to please men not women, and, because of this, has been up against sexism to pursue her career in film and TV. She advocates for more women directors and writers and producers in the film industry, and has been director of the World of Women Film Fair Middle East. Despite setbacks, she is now the CEO of Straight Street Media, a global media consulting business. She continues her advocacy work as well with the House of Rest, a privately funded, non-political and non-governmental resource center run by women for women survivors of sex slavery, war, violence and oppression.

You can see that her entire journey, from Australia to the Middle East, from navigating sexism in her industry to promoting women in her industry, and then to building businesses and organizations around lifting others… her entire journey combines everything she has learned to act with purpose. She not only serves her higher good, but also those around her.

She may be oppressed, but she minimizes and counteracts oppression. She has not become the oppressor.

7. They Know They Can’t Do It All Alone.

Empowered people know that asking for help is not a sign of weakness, and surround themselves with people who love and support them. Hermione emphasized that she married someone with a similar vision as her, to help lift communities. Throughout the episode she discussed the support of her family throughout her life. And here she was on a podcast sharing her story, connecting with the host of the show.

From her business, to her work as a film festival director, to her new initiative The House of Rest, you can see through her actions that she is all about building communities that lift their members and others. She knows that she can’t make the big, positive changes in the world by herself.

The image of empowerment as one who conquers solo is simply false and, honestly, probably improbable. True empowerment incorporates community because the decisions that stem from the empowered person are enacted to love and respect themself and others.

I had Brianne listen to this podcast and wanted to hear her opinion since she is an empowered person. …

These are just 7 qualities of someone who is empowered, and, to summarize, they are:

  1. Dedicates themself to personal development
  2. Advocates for themself from a place of self-love and self-awareness
  3. Grounds themself in core values that gives resilience
  4. Learning about and growing awareness of their social context
  5. They lift others up
  6. They combine all of these traits to pursue their purpose
  7. They know they can’t do it alone

There may be other traits and qualities of an empowered person that I did not mention here. If you think of more, DM @stemthriveguides on Instagram with any additional qualities you think an empowered person has.

The image of empowerment as similar to an oppressor is so toxic and does not match reality. You can be oppressed and still be empowered, and simply acting like an oppressor does not make you empowered (it gives away your personal power and freedom).

Lately I have been reading the book Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paolo Freire, which provides amazing insight arguing that education is freedom. Originally when I was planning this blog post and podcast episode, I was not thinking of including this text; however, I happened to start reading it and it COMPLETELY coincided with this reflection on what empowerment looks like. I seriously wish I could just quote the whole book here, but that would take too much time and probably be Copywrite infringement, so go ahead and please read this book but keep in mind it can be a little sexist (which the book Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks discusses).

In this reflection of empowerment, I’ve been sharing how simply the oppressed becoming the oppressor, or acting like the oppressor, is not empowerment. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire discusses how the oppressed are yearning for freedom and justice and struggling to recover their lost humanity. He explains how the oppressor loses their humanity by stealing the humanity from the oppressed. So, in our society, both oppressor and the oppressed are dehumanized. He writes, “…sooner or later being less human leads to the oppressed to struggle against those who made them so. In order for this struggle to have meaning, the oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity (which is a way to create it), become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both. This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well.”

There are a few stages to liberating yourself as an oppressed person, and I won’t cover them all here, but I do want to speak about the ones that relate to becoming empowered. Essentially, empowerment is liberation, right?

Freire states that the initial stage of the struggle of the oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, they tend to become oppressors, or sub-oppressors. This is exactly following how media messages are shaped: the oppressed struggle but see that a product or service can make them more like the oppressor, and so they purchase the product consciously or subconsciously fighting against their own oppression. But by putting money in the pockets of their oppressors, they are fulfilling status quo in the end, and not liberating themselves at all.

Looking back at when I first entered the field of physics as a college student, which is a very male-dominant field, I even remember feeling like I needed to assimilate and be like my straight, white male colleagues. I was already white, but I tended to dress in khaki pants and polo shirts, which were very uncomfortable for me but I thought it would save me from my oppression, the harassment I faced. I talk about this in episode 5 of the Resilient in STEM podcast, all about embracing femininity in the workplace. By changing how I dressed, and even how I acted, I was essentially trying to become the oppressor. I thought this would make me feel empowered, but, it did not. My choices were not coming from a place of love, but, rather, a place of fear.

Another example that is less obvious of a time when I became the oppressor to try to counter my oppression, was when doing science outreach to children. Instead of recognizing their humanity, I approached teaching science as if I held all the keys to knowledge, which I was then bestowing upon them. It was like a performative savior type of dynamic that made me feel good because of false generosity, yet did probably more bad than good. I was not really teaching them anything because I was not speaking to their identity, while simultaneously upholding status quo dynamic of teacher-student, which is very hierarchal and dominating. I want to speak more about the pitfalls of science outreach and how it perpetuates inequity and oppression, but I’ll save that for another post.

That first stage was essential to me in order to become more empowered. I had to try and fail to empower myself by trying to become the oppressor. I’m not proud of it, but it seems like the normal path so I forgive myself and try to do better moving forward.

The next stage to empowerment, and liberation, is reflection. And this is where I want to leave you today. I feel like this post may be enough to open your eyes or validate feelings you already had but maybe did not know how to put in words. By researching and reflecting for this post myself, I learned a lot about myself and oppression. Reflection is the next step, growing awareness of yourself and society in general (which is the 1st and 4th trait I listed of an empowered person!).

And, now that I’ve written this whole post, I now see that perhaps we use the word “empowerment” to mean “liberation” interchangeably. At nearly any point during this I could have replaced “empowered” with “liberated” and it would have meant the same. Wow. Perhaps women empowerment is simply a term gaslighting women because empowerment stems from the individual but the connotation of liberation stems from society or government, and those in power put the onus on women to change (and empower themselves) rather than change the systems that are keeping them oppressed.

Well, I’ll just leave you with that!

If you want to continue this discussion, join the Resilient in STEM Facebook community, which is a private community there to support you on your career journey! Everyone is welcome!

Also, I want to invite you to follow The STEM Thrive Guides on Instagram (@stemthriveguides) or Twitter (@stemthriveguide), and subscribe the The Resilient in STEM podcast! Leave a review if you liked this episode!

If you would like to learn how to navigate bias, harassment, and discrimination at work and/or school, you will want to check out The STEM Thrive Guides online courses, which provide information on how to document and report harassment. I also have a FREE Guide to Internship Success that shares essential information for getting mentors and sponsors, as well as job opportunities!


Embracing Femininity in the STEM Workplace

When I entered the world of physics and engineering, what I saw were men wearing khaki pants and collared polo shirts, or t-shirts and jeans. Sitting in classrooms as one of only a few women, I stood out, and felt like I had no clue what I was supposed to be doing in order to become a physicist and engineer. The way some of my professors and colleagues treated me made me feel like I didn’t belong and that I needed to prove that I could fit in, so what did I do? I decided to dress and act like them.

I hated wearing khaki pants and polo shirts. It felt frumpy and unflattering on me, and I did not feel comfortable or beautiful wearing that outfit. I wore minimal makeup and did not style my hair. I just wanted to blend in to be treated with respect, like “one of the guys”, but the harassment and microaggressions continued.

I’m sure the way I speak changed to fit into this culture. Even today when I speak to people who are not in science or engineering, they tell me I come off as blunt or rude. I’ve been trained to write emails and messages that are to the point so as to be efficient, not recognizing the humanity of the person on the other side. When I would write “how is your day?” or “I hope you’re doing well,” I felt like I may come across as being too flowery with my language and not taken seriously.

And more recently as I was promoted to a senior scientist role, in my performance review I received criticism that I was not dominant enough. I shared credit and collaborated more than I took ownership over my achievements, which made my managers feel like I was not contributing as much even though I achieved all of my goals successfully on time.

I’m not the only one who has felt pressure to shift my behavior and appearance from more feminine to masculine. All people feel this within male-dominant fields, especially when femininity is perceived as weakness or frivolous.

In a Clubhouse room that discussed this topic of femininity in the workplace, many women spoke up about their experiences, many of which mirrored mine:

  1. One graduate student researching at an R1 institution found a theme regarding how people respond when she shares her career aspiration to be a professor. She said she gets a sense of pushback from male colleagues as they inform her that there’s the option of working at a predominantly undergraduate research institution (or PUI). Every time she expresses her desires for her career path she gets that feedback. Males likely don’t get that opinion pushed on them as much. Women are pushed toward these “less desirable” opportunities.
  2. Myself and others found throughout our education that professors pushed us to do more education and outreach related activities even though we wanted to be research scientists and had no formal training in pedagogy. I felt like this was because I was a woman, and, thus, perceived to be more nurturing a suitable for a teacher. Professors also saw my great communication and leadership skills, but saw that useful in teaching rather than in a research environment (but, trust me, communication and leadership skills are very important in a research environment!).
  3. There’s also the question of ownership over shared space; how much responsibility do we have over our space and how much are we expected to be training and advising colleagues versus our goals. Women may more often be put in the position to do more lab cleaning, secretarial work, and mentoring that can take time away from research and goals.
  4. Another woman shared that in an internship her employer told her that she was not allowed to work in the engine room. He thought he was doing her a favor, and that it was the right thing to do. However, she went ahead against his guidance and did the work and did receive a great letter of recommendation from him. This incident reflects how people are often brought up certain ways culturally and don’t know how to work with women.
  5. One person shared that when their university hosts female speakers in their department, fewer people attend lectures, and the questions focus on their identity as a female researcher rather than their research topic.
  6. Some women even experienced push back and mean looks from other women when they showed up at work authentically, dressing more feminine. And many felt that when they display emotions of joy or excitement at work, others view them as less credible and serious about the work.

All of these experiences contained similar themes:

  1. Expressing femininity in any way is seen as less professional, which is sexist and racist.
  2. Both women and men can perpetuate sexism and racism.
  3. All women who spoke about their experiences had negative emotional reactions, and felt like this was an added barrier to their career progression.

Embracing femininity in this context, simply means to show up authentically as yourself in your school or workplace. Both men and women ns non-binary people can be feminine and masculine; it’s actually healthy and normal to be both!

How I Embrace my Femininity at Work

As a cis woman, there are several ways that I embrace and express my femininity at work.

  • Wear what makes me confident and happy!

I dress in ways that make me happy and confident, and for me that means wearing makeup and dresses!

  • Leverage strengths in collaboration and inclusivity to reach work goals.

I also have an inclusive and collaborative work style where I take initiative on important projects by pulling together teams of people to find solutions. While I could work on tasks independently, I believe that teamwork is often the best way to share knowledge and find the best solution. It also helps improve the culture of the company, breaking down hierarchies and shifting power dynamics. When you have the least experienced collaborating as much as the most experienced, and everyone shares credit, nobody has a chance to dominate. Everyone is focused more on reaching a solution than worried about getting credit.

  • Create space for others to be authentic too.

Another way I embrace my own femininity at work is by giving others space to be themselves, and respecting them. By being authentic myself, I create a safe climate for others to be themselves as well. We all like that person on our team who brings up humor to break tension at the perfect moment, or tells us that they are happy we are their coworker, this increases psychological safety and belonging in our workplaces. By being myself, I hope to contribute toward the psychological safety of others in my workplace. This, in turn, lets me be myself too!

  • Set and enforce boundaries.

Finally, I embrace my femininity by setting boundaries. I do not have tolerance of any harassing behavior, which includes comments about my appearance. “I like your dress” is totally ok with the right tone and intention, but when they say things like “You look good today,” or “Why do you always dress up?” or make me feel like I should dress differently, I trust my intuition, and if they make me uncomfortable, I take action. If someone oversteps my boundary I will either talk to them or report them for harassment. No matter how I dress, I deserve to feel safe and comfortable at work, and I have the right to feel safe and comfortable at work. I do not treat others that way, and do not tolerate that kind of treatment from others.

I recognize that I have a lot of privilege as a white, cis female though, and that not everyone at all points of their career can reinforce their boundaries without serious retaliation. For instance, up until recently, it was legal to fire someone because their hair was deemed “unprofessional”, and the people who were targeted the most for this are black women. “Professional” is often used to reinforce white supremacy and patriarchal dominance. For instance, the descriptions of “business casual” wardrobes are modeled after the attire men would wear to a frat party; khaki pants and a collared shirt or suit. The narrow definition of “professional” attire excludes non-white and non-male people and, thus, perpetuates racism and sexism.

But wait! There’s so much more!

There is such a deep-rooted history of devaluing the body in education and the workplace. Teaching to Transgress, a book about education as a form of liberation written by bell hooks, discusses this in depth. bell hooks writes that in a classroom minds are valued over bodies, spirit, and soul. She sites a simple example about being uncertain if she was allowed to take a bathroom break during class as a professor.

In society, our schools and workplaces often try to ignore the fact that we have bodies that have needs. Ergonomics, paternity and maternity leave, and sick leave are a few examples of times when our bodies are given “accommodations”, yet there is so many more ways our bodies need respect and love.

The first thing that comes to my mind is the extra care I need during my period every month. I’ve found ways to work while on my period, like using a combination of pain-killers and electric heating pad I keep at my work desk for cramps. I also try to not schedule too many tasks on those first couple days of my cycle. While I try to be as gentle to myself as possible, I would rather power through the pain than take one of my precious sick days every month. You may recognize other ways schools and workplaces fall short of providing space for care of our bodies, especially if you are not cis-male, and/or white.

Embracing my femininity is so important for me because it is part of who I am, and when I don’t act authentically it requires emotional labor. Emotional labor can be tolling, leading to extra stress and exhaustion. It can also lead to serious mental and physical health issues like depression, PTSD, nausea, fatigue, and more.

When we are focusing our energy on consciously acting inauthentically, we are also taking energy and focus away from our work, decreasing our productivity.

It’s best not just for you, but also for your company or organization, for you to act authentically.

When you respect yourself, others will respect you. You teach others how to treat you, and when you show up as yourself you give others permission to show up as themself too. What makes you unique is your biggest strength!

There will always be people who will not respect you no matter what, and it’s important to recognize that you do not have control over how they treat you; no matter what you wear or how you act, they will not respect you. It’s best to set boundaries and distance yourself from these unloving people, and recognize that the reason they treat you this way is not because of you, it is because of their own issues.

Now, I want to end with some advice and resources if you find yourself in a situation where you are being bullied or harassed at work or school. First you should check out this article where I detail some steps to take if you are being harassed. It’s important to know your legal rights so that you know the types of harassment and bullying you are protected from.

Also, I just stared a new podcast called Resilient in STEM that offers more discussions on topics related to thriving in your career! If you liked this article on embracing femininity, I recommend you check out a previous blog post and podcast episode I created on how self-love is revolutionary where I share different ways you can integrate self-love into your lifestyle.

If you would like to join a supportive community to help you on your career journey, you are invited to join Resilient in STEM!

Best wishes to you on your career journey!

-Jill


5 Ways to Support Survivors of Sexual Assault

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. I knew this since April 1st, yet hesitated to create any content around this topic because it is triggering for me. As I proceed in writing this, I am being hyper aware that I should step away if it is too much. And, if this topic triggers you, know it’s okay to stop listening and self care at any time.

I want to start with that only way I’ve been sexually assaulted is that one time I was kissed against my will. I did not sustain long-term trauma from this, but because so many of my loved ones are survivors of sexual assault, the offenses of sexual assault of my community have still left me with trauma. I’ve learned this is called secondary PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), and this is what I mean by saying I get triggered from this topic. Sexual assault, like any trauma, doesn’t just affect the survivor, it affects the whole community.

A few years ago I was the caretaker for a sexual assault survivor, and it was the hardest year of my life. I learned so much about psychology, therapy methods, what flashbacks were, learning to identify and cope with triggers and much more. While a survivor of sexual assault may walk away with no physical injuries, the mental injuries can be so deep and profound that they literally change the person. And, in truth, it’s terrifying.

Like I said, I want to keep myself from being triggered so much, so I want to just convey what I think is incredibly important for everyone to know, which is how to support a survivor of sexual assault. This is from my own personal experiences; I’m not going to list anything I found online just in 10 minutes of searching, so this is REAL and I’m not sure if you’ll find this information in many other places.

Ways to Support Survivors of Sexual Assault

  1. Never victim blame.

Victim blaming is when someone says it’s the victim’s fault for the assault directly or indirectly. When it comes to sexual assault I’ve heard “well, you shouldn’t take drinks from strangers”, “you should have worn something less provocative”, or “what do you expect going to a bar alone?”. All of these are unhelpful at best and incredibly triggering, shaming, and unloving responses.

When someone experiences sexual assault, there is already a layer of shame and regret often involved. They question themself and how if they changed their actions the situation could have been avoided. However, they were never to blame. EVER. The person who assaulted is ALWAYS AT FAULT.

INSTEAD:

  • Validate the survivor’s experience and emphasize that they were not at fault.
  • Do not focus your conversation on what happened and how the person can make different decisions in the future, focus the conversation on what the survivor needs now to heal.
  • Do not ask questions about the incident in order to judge who was at fault, instead listen to what the survivor wants to share with empathy.
  • Don’t pressure the survivor to share everything; trust that they will share what they feel comfortable sharing with you when the time is right for them.

2. Never question whether it happened or whether it was sexual assault.

When a survivor experiences sexual assault, there is typically a period of shock that follows. They wonder if they just dreamed it happened, or even maybe if they did want it to happen. Especially when survivor does not have a clear memory of the event due to drinking, drugs, or a black-out from fear, the survivor could feel like they’re losing touch with reality if someone asks “are you SURE that happened to you?”. The survivor could be questioning if it even happened to them, and questioning why they feel so “crazy” or traumatized.

INSTEAD:

  • If the survivor asks if the incident actually happened, kindly let them know that their recollection of the events is valid, and that you believe them.
  • Always listen more than you speak when the survivor is discussing the incident. Let the survivor lead the conversation.
  • When you feel the urge to question whether an incident of sexual assault was actually consensual, DO NOT AT ALL question this. If the survivor says it was sexual assault, believe them the first time.

3. Offer resources to help them if they ask for some, but don’t be pushy.

There are many resources for sexual assault survivors out there. I won’t list them all here, but RAINN is an organization with many resources and a hotline to help. The important thing to remember when providing resources is that the survivor must be open to these resources. After sexual assault, a survivor can sometimes feel so much shame that even seeking help is out of reach (this is especially what I’ve observed male survivors of sexual assault). This feeling of shame is normal, unfortunately, and it’s important that the survivor know that the feeling is normal and valid, but that healing is possible; they won’t feel this way forever.

The healing journey for sexual assault survivors is very personal. Therefore, certain resources aren’t for everyone. While a group therapy session may be great for one person, for another that can have the opposite effect, for instance. Also, a survivor could need different resources at different points in their healing journey. At first they may need therapy, and then down the line join a support group. It all depends on the person. Listening to what the survivor wants is most important, and helping them work through bureaucracy to reach resources can be very helpful for them. Let them heal at their own pace.

4. Understand what a trigger is, what a flashback is, and how to encourage them to perform coping skills when necessary.

Triggers and flashbacks are wild. When I was caretaking for a sexual assault survivor, I witnessed first-hand someone learning what their triggers were, and it’s not a fun process at all. Picture this, the survivor has some mundane, everyday experience and as a result plunges into a state of panic and anxiety where they don’t even seem like they are in the same room as you even though they are right next to you. You try to communicate with them, ask them what’s wrong, and all they can respond with are cries, panicked sounds, and flailing gestures. Their face could go pale with fright, or they could just get supremely sad, or they could just get really angry and start cursing. It’s unpredictable, and can happen hourly, daily, weekly… you never know.

Flashbacks happen when the mind basically takes the person back to the original experience of trauma. The person can dissociate from the present reality and feel like they are back being assaulted. It’s terrifying. And triggers can cause a flashbacks. A trigger can be as simple as a phrase, smell, location, thought,.. anything really.

After sexual assault, a survivor has to go through the process of learning what their triggers are in order to heal from the incident. This is best done with a licensed therapist, so don’t take on this work. It takes time to learn what one’s triggers are, so being patient and supportive of the survivor is key. When they do have a flashback or panic attack, recognize that in that moment you may not be able to really help them. When the survivor is more conscious of the present, you can direct them in performing coping skills like grounding techniques and rhythmic breathing exercises as long as the survivor is open to it.

Overall, be empathetic toward someone who experiences these triggers, and know that they are not being overly sensitive. They don’t have control over this. This is normal for a trauma survivor. The best thing you can do is just be there to offer love and support, and reassure them that they are safe.

5. (Especially for partners of sexual assault survivors) Understand that your relationship with the survivor will change, and don’t forget to take care of yourself too.

When someone experiences sexual assault, they are injured mentally and perhaps even physically. Just like any injury, there needs to be healing before they can be “themselves” again. However, traumatic experiences have the ability to completely alter a person’s personality. Before the incident, they may have been a “go with the flow” type of person who loved large social events, but after they may develop agoraphobia and never want to leave the safety of their home. Fear may now rule their every decision, and there is no quick fix to get them to be who they were before the assault.

In the world of “parters of survivors with PTSD”, most of the resources are for military wives; I’m sure you can see why. PTSD is so commonly associated with the effects of war; however, people can get PTSD from any source of trauma, even workplace harassment and abuse! When your partner has experienced trauma and has PTSD, they may no longer be able to offer the same level of love and support as they did before the incident because they are in a state of survival and fear. They are the one who needs help. What can happen is the partner of the survivor either falls into a caretaking role; the relationship dynamic is altered.

When one is a caretaker, it can be emotionally draining, overwhelming, and traumatizing itself as you witness the unfolding of the symptoms of your partner, as well as deal with the grief and cognitive dissonance that your partner has changed and your relationship has changed. Online I found many resources that described symptoms military wives face: emotional outbursts like crying fits, extreme fatigue and exhaustion, as well as secondary PTSD or complex PTSD (c-PTSD). The same thing can happen to anyone close to a person with PTSD, including a sexual assault survivor.

While you may not be the survivor of sexual assault, know that you are also a victim in this and allowed to feel all the feels you may have by witnessing the resulting trauma. Seek your own supportive community and resources to help you in your caretaking role. Be sure to fill your own cup, feed your own soul, and take care of yourself, or else you may end up needing more help than the survivor.

Well, I made it through writing all that and I am proud that I was able to because I seriously hope this helps someone. While there are so many resources on sexual assault out there, there is so much lacking for support at the same time: the inability of law enforcement to catch criminals, the high cost of hiring lawyers, the lack of affordable and quality therapy, the limited resources and information for partners and loved ones of survivors, the absence of discussions of male rape which contributes toward shaming male survivors, the taboo nature of sexual assault in society in general, and much more.

I want to end with:

Believe survivors, and be aware that if you don’t know of a single person who has been sexually assaulted, you may need to be concerned as to why people don’t feel comfortable coming to you for love and support. You likely know at least one survivor of sexual assault, even if they have not shared that with you.

And to survivors:

You did not deserve what happened to you, and you are worthy of joy, healing, and love.


How Practicing Self-Love is Revolutionary

Listen to this blog article on the Resilient in STEM podcast!

Self-love is revolutionary.

If you’re someone who is oppressed by society, your practice of self-love is revolutionary. Social oppression refers to oppression that is achieved through social means and that is social in scope—it affects whole categories of people. This kind of oppression includes the systematic mistreatment, exploitation, and abuse of a group (or groups) of people by another group (or groups). That being said, with self-love being the opposite of mistreatment, abuse, and exploitation, by performing self-love you are countering the effects of your oppression. When you are oppressed, society does not want you to be fully human and thrive; you are simply a commodity to be exploited for their gain. Reclaiming self-love is an act of revolution as it challenges status-quo; it challenges the current definition of “normal” accepted by society.

That being said, when you are oppressed, the way society says you should self-care is another violation of your own autonomy. The same society that mistreats you cannot also offer you relief from your suffering. It is not easy to recognize gaslighting in messages you get in the media, unlearn what society has taught you about self-love, and relearn what is actually good for you, but it is possible. This is why self reflection as a means to grow your self-awareness and emotional intelligence are so important. With emotional intelligence and self awareness you can better recognize gaslighting, and learn what feels good to you, and grow your self-love practice.

Growing self awareness and emotional intelligence is so important in not only developing your self-love practice, but also in navigating difficult situations involving bias, harassment, and discrimination at work or school. I actually have a whole chapter dedicated to this in the STEM Thrive Guides courses. In the courses I provide methods for growing your self-awareness and emotional intelligence, and teach processes for using self awareness to resolve uncomfortable situations at work.

I’m really excited to share with you about my annual self-love tradition I started practicing back in 2018. At that point in time I was healing from PTSD from a toxic workplace as well as a personal event, and had the realization that I needed to reconstruct my life so that it positively served my happiness, health, and overall wellbeing. I was learning a lot about psychology, and experimenting with different methods to heal from trauma.

Today I want to share how I use the month of May as a moment to reaffirm, adjust, and expand on my self-love practice. Doing this every year has seriously changed my life for the better and healed me in many ways. It has also strengthened my relationships, and deepened my connection with the world around me. I used to put up with disrespect and abuse because I didn’t want to be problematic in my workplace or not be liked, and this caused so many issues for me throughout my education and career. I was miserable and feeling hopeless, but when I centered my own wellbeing everything changed and now I’m more confident, happy, healthy, and more myself than ever! And I want to share one of my most important practices that has transformed my life right now! Now you can probably see why I’m so excited to share this! This is literally life changing!!

First, I want to define self-love for you since I feel like this REALLY matters, especially if you’re someone who is oppressed in society.

Self-love means loving yourself and caring for yourself. I like the definition of love written by Erich Fromm and repeated by bell hooks in her book “All About Love”, which is an amazing read by the way. It is:

Love is the willingness to extend oneself for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.

– Erich Fromm

I like this definition of love because it is so expansive and allows room for each person to have their own unique needs for love, as in needs for spiritual growth.

When it comes to spiritual growth, it is very personal. Often when I have been told how to care for and love myself, I get a step-by-step list or a set of instructions. The problem with this is that while those things may have helped someone else, they may not necessarily help me. I have my own past, ailments, struggles, and lifestyle that certain methods of self-care may not be suitable for relieving. For instance, someone who needs to stress-relieve after a busy day of running errands may need a bubble bath with some scented candles to unwind. However, when I was suffering from the affects of abuse in my workplace, a bubble bath would not be conducive to helping me; I needed a different set of self-love actions to take care of myself. In the age of capitalism, you’ll hear a lot of different tips and tricks for self-care, but it’s important to be skeptical as most of this is just marketing; it’s intended to sell you something, not necessarily help YOU.

That being said, while I’m sharing a self-love tradition I do annually, this may not be suitable for you and your self-love practice. I’m simply providing this as an example that may perhaps open your mind to exploring what works for you to deepen your love of yourself and grow.

First, I’ll give some background of my self-love practice, then I’ll share the self-reflection questions I use to assess my current state and where I’d like to grow, and I’ll finish with my favorite practices for May, my month of self-love!

Background

This time of year, May or late Spring/early Summer, is a very special time of year for me. It is my favorite part of the year for many reasons! First, my birthday is in May, and I have many amazing memories of celebrating with friends and family. Also, it’s the time of the year where I live where the weather gets warm, flowers are blooming, and I can resume all the outdoor activities. I can also wear summer dresses without needing a sweater, and walk around with bare feet if I choose to do so!

I feel naturally excited, adventurous, and my heart feels full of love at this time of year, and I don’t think this is a coincidence.

In many traditions and religions around the world, the beginning of May and end of April is celebrated as a time of the year where the world is coming to life! Historically, people use this time of the year to welcome the summer by having bonfires, May Day festivals with flower crowns and dancing, picnics in parks, maypoles, decorating with greenery and flowers, choosing a Lei Queen, and more! The name of the celebrations varies (May Day, Irminden, Calendimaggio, Walpurgisnacht, Lei Day, Vappu, Valborg, and Youth Day), but the sentiment and traditions remain similar. Even Mother’s Day and celebrations of Mary in Christianity are celebrated in May (following the symbolism that the Earth is coming back to life after the Winter, at least in the Northern Hemisphere).

I’m not a religious person, but I do like to use the different energies I feel throughout the year to amplify my health and wellbeing. May is a time when I take advantage of that energy I feel of love, new life, and creativity to nurture myself. For me, May is the time of year I reflect on and reaffirm my commitment to love myself.

To me, all that I do stems from self love. If I am trying to help others or contribute to society in a positive way, I need to center my wellbeing and, therefore, love myself too. Years ago, I fell into the trap that I think many women are socially conditioned to do, which is to put others ahead of their own wellbeing. I sacrificed my own wellbeing to help others, and as a result, lost track of who I was and suffered from different ailments including depression and anxiety. When I am in that state of emotional exhaustion from spending all of my energy caring for others, not only do I suffer but the help I give falls short of truly being great help. I end up helping nobody, and feeling depleted, exhausted, and hopeless.

By centering my own self-love, I fill my own cup until it overflows and, by extension, helps others. Even as I write my blog posts or record my podcasts, I am mindful of the energy I am giving versus receiving from these activities.

Now, I do want to be clear on one thing before I go through the self-reflections I use and my self-love practices for May. Just because I use May to refocus on self-love does not mean I abandon any effort for the rest of the year. I simply use this time to really focus and reset my habits so that they are positively serving me. I technically do this throughout the year, but May is an especially powerful time to reaffirm my vows of self-love. Self love is not simply a to-do list; it is a mentality and a practice that I embed in my lifestyle so that no matter what I am doing I am loving and caring for myself.

Self Reflection

The first thing I plan to do this May is a deep self-reflection. I journal about the following:

  1. What are your ailments and where are they coming from?
  2. Take note of harmful habits
    1. Create a plan to maintain awareness of bad habits
  3. Reflect on your relationships
    1. Which have progressed in healthy ways?
    2. Which are more negative and draining, and how can you set boundaries with those people?
  4. Recognize what you love about yourself and how much you have grown.
  5. What is fun for you and brings you joy?
    1. Integrate those into your lifestyle so that they are part of your daily habits!

Practices

  1. Journal about reasons you love yourself
  2. Remind yourself that you are worthy of love, respect, and happiness
  3. Nature Walks – smell flowers, sage, plants. Observe seasonal changes and new life.
  4. Wear clothes that feel good to you, and make you feel beautiful. (I like wearing more feminine outfits and dresses, as well as rose quartz jewelry to amplify my self love practice.
  5. Grow awareness of cycles in nature: moon phases, your menstrual cycle, etc.

Now that I’ve shared all these amazing revelations and practices around self-love, my hope is that this inspired you or reaffirmed to you the importance of self-love. This practice of annually celebrating May and this time of year in this way has made me more grateful for my life and relationships, and aware of all the beauty of this world, even the beauty in suffering. I’d love to hear if you have your own self-love practice, and maybe we can exchange wisdom! If you’d like to start your own self-love annual tradition, I have a treat for you! I made a self-love month-long challenge that you can complete at the time of year that resonates with you! Simply follow the link here.

And on that note, I want to share a few opportunities with you!

I started an online community called Resilient in STEM on Facebook to provide support and resources for people navigating difficult situations in their career. No community out there is like this one, which focuses on learning from and resolving issues related to taboo topics like bias, harassment, microaggressions, and discrimination. We would love to have you be a part of that community!

If you ever find yourself struggling, feel free to reach out for help. You are not alone, and you deserve to feel safe and comfortable in your workplace or school environment!


Help! I’m being harassed and don’t know what to do.

Hello friend,

First, I’m sorry to hear you’re experiencing a difficult situation at work or school involving bias, harassment, or discrimination. You do not deserve this kind of treatment; you deserve to feel safe and comfortable in your environment. 

I wrote out this message to help guide you in your journey to navigate this difficult situation. Since you’re already in the midst of a crisis or emergency situation, there is a lot of information that may be unhelpful at this point (for instance, how to develop supportive professional relationships. It’s likely too late to start developing those relationships in order to improve your situation.) Despite this, I want you to know that it was a good idea to reach out for help, and you are definitely making the right decision by reading this now! There is still a lot you can do to make the most of this situation. Please keep reading. 

The first thing I want you to take notice of is your mental, physical, and emotional state. If you have any health issues or illnesses, or if you feel scared and overwhelmed, know that this is normal for someone who is experiencing what you are going though. As an example, when I was at the height of being harassed in a particularly toxic situation, my symptoms were depression, fatigue, disordered eating, anxiety, panic attacks, stomach aches, food sensitivities, fear, frustration, confusion, and anger (to name a few). 

From this point forward, your prioritized focus should be your own self care as much as possible. Say “no” more often to things that do not positively serve you, take time off work or school if you need it, and ask yourself “what would someone who loves themself do?” when in doubt about what to do next or if you’re feeling particularly awful. Do something every day that brings you joy or makes you belly-laugh! (Regular meditation also helps me, and I like using guided meditations on YouTube or on the apps Insight Timer or Headspace.)

You need to prioritize self care for your own well being and because navigating harassment can be very emotionally and mentally draining. You need to maintain your wellness through whatever your course of actions may be. Focus on what you can control. An exercise to grow your self awareness so that you can self care is available in Part 4 of the Mini-course: Tips for Addressing Harassment during the Pandemic. 

The second thing to focus on is your documentation of all of the bias, microaggressions, harassment, and discrimination you have experienced. Keep all your records of this harassment in a safe, accessible place. Your records can include your own notes as well as emails, online chat messages, and whatever evidence you may have. For more information on how to document harassment and for the STEM Thrive Guides Harassment Documentation Checklist, check out Part 2 of the Mini-Course: How to Document Harassment

When documenting and proceeding to report harassment, it’s important to know your legal protections. Your school or workplace has its own policies, and your local government also has its own policies. Harassment, sexual harassment, hostile workplace, and discrimination are a few legal terms to know and understand very well. When documenting harassment or looking over your documentation, keep your legal protections in mind. Note that your legal protections may not protect you from all forms of harassment. To learn more about how to learn your legal protections, you can take Part 1 of the Mini-Course: What are bias, microaggressions, harassment, and discrimination? Also, consider contacting a lawyer to ask them questions as they would be more familiar with all of the legal protections. 

If you want to reach a resolution or justice from the situation you’re experiencing (which, I’m guessing you do because you’re reading this), then it’s important to know your desired resolution. 

In the full versions of the STEM Thrive Guides Courses I teach 2 processes I’ve developed to navigate these situations: The Resilience Mindset and The Reporting Framework. The Resilience Mindset is a set of 5 truths that one needs to fully understand in order feel confident, comfortable, and unashamed when reporting harassment or seeking a resolution. The Reporting Framework is 5 questions one needs to answer to determine the best way to resolve an issue. Since you’re in an urgent situation and don’t have time to practice and implement these tools, for now:

  • First try to resolve the issue through your workplace/school’s procedure (usually written in an employee handbook or student handbook).
  • Second, if that doesn’t work or if your workplace or school is retaliating against you, seek help and advice from a lawyer unaffiliated with your organization, or another organization like a union. For more information on how to report harassment and develop supportive professional relationships, see Part 3 of the Mini-Course: How to Report Harassment.

Note that if you try to work within a company or school’s system to reach a resolution, the people you’ll work with in Human Resources (HR) or in an office of equal opportunity and diversity or an ombudsman office are not necessarily there to help you. They are there to protect the company/school from lawsuits. Therefore, always seek other unbiased opinions if they tell you that you don’t have enough evidence to file a lawsuit. 

Also, even if you file a formal report, the repercussions to the harasser may be just a “slap on the wrist” (no actual punishment or restrictions). Reporting my not lead to the resolution you want. (My personal opinion is that reporting is the right thing to do for your own wellness and confidence whether it gets you justice or not.) An environment that is not supportive of you is an environment that you do not want to stay in for long. Don’t waste your time somewhere that’s not helping you grow in your career! 

Overall, know that what you are going through is a normal part of a successful career. Unfortunately, at some point we all experience some from of harassment at work or school. It’s a professional skill to know how to navigate these situations. Take this experience as an opportunity to learn and grow both personally and professionally. This is an opportunity for you to advocate for yourself, grow your confidence, grow relationships with supporters and allies, and see what career opportunities may be a better fit for you! While right now may be very difficult, trust me, it gets better! 

Thanks again for reaching out for help! I want to reiterate that you do deserve to and have the right to feel safe and comfortable in your work or school environment. Please feel free to reach out to me either on social media or by emailing stemthriveguides@gmail.com. I’m happy to answer any questions you may have on which resources are best for you and your specific situation.

All of the courses that provide in-depth lessons on navigating difficult situations at work and school are available at www.stemthriveguides.com, and there are more resources at jillpestana.com


Your friend & ally,

Jill

Resilient in STEM Facebook Community: Here!

Instagram: @stemthriveguides

Twitter: @stemthriveguide

More Links: Here!


Ideas for Relationship Building with Mentors and Sponsors

What is the difference between a mentor and sponsor?
  • Mentors advise their mentees.
  • Sponsors advocate for their proteges.

How do you get a mentor?

  1. Don’t ask someone to be your mentor explicitly.
  2. Do ask someone for advice, help, or feedback.
  3. Then, follow up every few months to let your mentor know how their advice helped you achieve x, y, and z. Develop the relationship by touching base and meeting with them periodically over time.

How do you get a sponsor?

  1. Do develop mutually beneficial, professional relationships with people inside and outside of your field (networking).
  2. Sponsor people in your own network by advocating for them when they are not present.
  3. Deepen mentor-mentee relationships with those present in the spaces where you aspire to be. Those are the people you want as sponsors.

Ask your mentors for support on goals, and follow through with achieving those goals! Demonstrate your excellence, and share your success.

Where to Find Potential Mentors and Sponsors

  • Your university: Professors, staff, students
  • Your company: coworkers, management, etc.
  • Social Media: Experts in your industry, visionaries in your field.
    • Twitter
    • LinkedIn
    • Facebook
    • Instagram
    • TikTok
  • Conferences
  • Organizations and Professional Societies
    • Toastmasters
    • Rotary Club
    • Public services like libraries

The best way to find mentors who can become sponsors is to do the following:

  1. Start a project, enter a competition, or work toward a goal that excites you.
  2. When you get stuck or need help, ask people (experts) for help!
  3. Build relationships with those who offer you help and support.

Remember that building relationships takes time and communication. Mutually beneficial relationships will be more authentic and valuable in the long-term. Treat everyone with kindness and respect. Everyone has different experiences, both personal and professional, that they’re navigating. If they say “no” to helping you, do not make assumptions and take it personally. Shift focus toward someone else who can offer help.

If you are a minority in your field, it can often be difficult to identifying mentors or sponsors who have a similar background or qualities as yourself. Professional societies that cater toward certain demographics, like Society of Women Engineers (SWE), can be a great places to find mentors. If there is not an organization in your field that includes people like you, this may be an opportunity to create that space or organization yourself! It’s fairly simple to start a student organization, group on Facebook or LinkedIn, or chapter of an existing organization, though it does take time and energy. Having someone with a similar background as yourself as a mentor can be incredibly helpful, especially when navigating difficult situations unique to you including racism, sexism, homophobia, and ablism.

As a minority in your field, it is also important to be mindful of finding the right supportive mentors and sponsors. Sometimes, people can have good intentions, but may not treat or value you in a way comparable to the members of the majority group. For instance, I have had mentors who encouraged me to do more education and outreach-related activities even though I wanted to go into scientific research, not education. These mentors failed to truly understand my career goals, and, instead, placed me into a stereotypical role for a woman in my field. Having a mentor that listens to your needs and goals, and guides you in a way most beneficial for you, regardless of your immutable characteristics, is key to avoid wasting time and energy toward a path not suitable for you. It is important to take all advice with a grain of salt, and seek opinions and feedback from multiple people while always valuing your own intuition and desires.

When pursuing a mentor or sponsor, it is always important to keep an open mind and take advantage of opportunities as they come. A mentor or sponsor can be in your field, outside of your field, older than you, or younger than you. They can be the same nationality, race, sex, or creed, or different. They can help you over the whole course of your career, or only for 1 day. They can help you more than you help them, or you can help them more than they help you. You can meet them at a conference, classroom, networking app, or even a bar. Communication, respect, and mutual support and encouragement are the foundation of any professional relationship and are what really matter.


5 Tips for Developing Leadership Skills as a College Student

The sooner you can begin practicing leadership, the better, especially if you aspire to be a leader. Leadership skills require practice to develop, and book-learning alone cannot instill the same lessons as real-life experience.

Even though I was shy and introverted as a teen, I gravitated toward leadership roles. I always seemed to be the group project leader, captain of a sports team, or camp councilor, and I thrived in those roles. While I did not always want to be the leader, people saw me as such and followed my leadership. When I entered the [male-dominant] field of physics, things changed.

As a woman in a male-dominant field, I discovered that there were only a few avenues to practice leadership as a college student.

In college, I decided to establish a chapter of Society of Physics Students at my university since I had no clue what I was supposed to do to join the field of physics. I felt like starting this organization would benefit both me and my colleagues, and help us find the opportunities we needed to become full-fledged physicists (like scholarships, REUs, internships, conferences, and more). When I think back to our first meetings, I remember the feeling of apathy or indifference lingering in the air. The graduate students would come by for a moment to grab free pizza and almost gloat (we were just the lowly undergraduates). And if a physics faculty member passed by me in the hall or the department office, I felt this air of condescension yet curiosity as if they were saying “oh you’re the little girl who is trying to lead this organization”. I did not feel taken seriously as a leader of this organization by most of those I looked up to for support in the physics department.

At the same time, as an undergraduate student and officer of Society of Physics Students, I was singled out for opportunities in education and outreach initiatives. When there was an open-house, I was asked to volunteer and lead educational workshops. When a month-long college preparatory program for high school students, called Upward Bound: Math and Science, needed a councilor/tutor who was a physicist, I was asked to fill the role. At these education and outreach events, I felt positive energy as I was grated leader-level status. My professors and fellow students encouraged me in this path, and I felt like I was fulfilling my moral imperative of sharing my love and wonder of science with others.

At the time I was not aware of this double-standard:

In the physics community, I was not granted leader-status in physics or in the physics community, but I was granted leader-status in physics education and outreach.

Despite the fact that I was learning physics, and not teaching skills, and growing my expertise in physics, not pedagogy, I was granted a higher level of leader-status in pedagogy than in physics. Why? I am fairly sure it is because I am a woman, and women are stereotyped as naturally nurturing and as educators. My colleagues were comfortable with granting me leader-status when it came to education, but not much else in the physics community.

Throughout my career, I have seen this pattern emerge for myself and others. Stereotypes play into the type of spaces where each of us are granted leader-status or benefit-of-the-doubt in general. As a college student seeking leadership opportunities, it is important to recognize that in certain spaces it will be tougher to lead than others simply because of your immutable characteristics and stereotypes. For instance, from what I hear, people who are black or LGBTQ+ are often asked to lead diversity initiatives and programs. This is because this is the space where they are granted authority. Women tend to be asked to do more education and outreach (in my experience).

While I feel like it is a shame how strongly stereotypes dictate where someone is granted authority, as a college student you must make the most of the opportunities you have to learn and practice skills, including leadership. Even if you have minority-status in your field and are, therefore, not given leader-status like your majority peers, there are ways to leverage what you can control to practice leadership.

As a senior scientist, entrepreneur, and leader of multiple organizations, these are my tips for developing leadership skills early in your career:

Tip #1: Consider leading in the spaces where you are granted authority, but be mindful of your own interests

  • Recognize that while this space may not be where your passion is, the leadership skills you will practice here will still benefit you.
  • For Beginning Leaders: I recommend to start growing your leadership skills in a space where you are granted authority because you will be going with the grain of society (and if you have self-doubt, it can be incredibly discouraging to start in a space where you are looked down on).
  • Word of Caution: While you are granted authority in this space, it is important to realize whether or not you actually want to spend time growing in that space. For example, I spent a lot of time as an undergraduate doing education and outreach because I was given authority in that space; however, I did not want to become an educator. I wanted to become a research scientist. Spending time doing education took away time that I could have spent honing my research skills, entering technical competitions, etc. While those spaces were great for growing my leadership skills, I could have grown leadership skills in other spaces as well, even if I had faced more resistance.

Tip #2: Take initiative

  • Start a student organization related to a topic that you want to learn more about and recruit members
  • Run for election at an existing student organization
  • Enter a competition as a team lead and recruit teammates
  • Plan an event to host a speaker you admire
  • Ask to join a professor’s research group

Tip #3: Seek leadership opportunities outside your university

  • While your university may lack diversity and you may feel like an outsider, recognize that there is a big world beyond that ivory tower. Any hostilities or indifference you face may just be the culture of your university and not the field as a whole.
  • Are there leadership opportunities in your city?
  • Join a professional society (at the student discount rate) and ask for opportunities to get involved
  • Establish a chapter of a national society or organization at your university
  • Join a leadership-specific organization, or an organization that will help you practice leadership skills (like Toastmasters)
  • Join an online community or group (Linked In and Facebook have industry-specific groups that can help you connect with people with similar interests and career trajectories)
  • Volunteer for an organization
  • Start an organization or group outside your university, even if it’s just a running group or bar trivia team (if you’re 21+).

Tip #4: Use every experience as a moment to practice leadership

  • Is there a class project? Volunteer to be team lead.
  • Does your dormitory floor have a bad-smell that needs to be addressed with the housing office? Be the person to organize and file the work-order.
  • Step up when a leader is needed for any and all opportunities.
  • Take advantage of EVERY public speaking opportunity you can get.
  • Own the moments when you are a leader, and add them to your resume! Keep track so that you can describe your abilities during job or internship interviews.
  • If you have an internship, initiate or lead a project. (In one of my internships, there were several interns who had very little to do, so I started assigning them work from a project I initiated, which they were happy to do and learn more from me!)

Tip #5: Dedicate yourself to being a life-long learner

  • Read books and attend seminars, classes, trainings, and more about leadership
  • Understand that there is always more to learn and ways to grow as a leader
  • As a leader, remember that LISTENING to those you are leading is vital; you can learn so much from others
  • Take leadership courses at your university

While in academia, students are often made to feel insignificant or infantilized because of the power structures of that system. Remember that this feeling of powerlessness is only an illusion. You have control over how you take initiative to seek opportunities for your own growth and success. Remember that just because you are, perhaps, young or new in your field, you do bring value!

As a minority in your field or classes, it can be hard to be seen and treated as a leader, but know that the struggles you overcome will help you be even stronger as a leader later in your career. Focus on what you can control, and work within that space. If you do experience any kind of harassment or microaggressions as you lead, know that you do have rights and do not deserve to be treated that way. The world needs your skills and talents, and growing leadership skills early-on in your career makes your path to sharing your strengths much easier.

Me giving a speech during opening of the Sally Ride Center for Environmental Science as a college senior!
The NASA administrators selected me for this opportunity because they knew me through my internships with the NASA SOFIA Program and NASA Jet Propulsion Lab.

How to Self Promote without Apology

Self promotion… my favorite thing. (Sarcasm) I prefer getting to know other people, not telling other people things I already know about myself. Where’s the fun in hearing yourself speak? (…said the introvert)

Simply doing the base-line level of self-promotion feels like I’m bragging and annoying, even though it’s necessary in order to reach my goals. One thing is for certain: I was not meant to blend in and be invisible. You should see the way I stand out at a conference or meeting for simply being female; I’m sure you know the feeling.

Since I was groomed since birth to be humble and modest to the point of invisibility, I definitely have to teach myself and practice how to self promote in ways that feel genuine. Below are some of the lessons I have learned about self-promotion from reading about it, as well as learning from those around me who are experts in it.

  1. Reframe how you think about self-promotion.
    • You’re sharing the truth of what you’ve accomplished.
  2. Acknowledge your own biases.
    • Do you judge others when they promote themselves? Aim to keep a neutral stance or even cheer them on!
  3. Practice saying the things you’re proud of out loud.
    • Rehearse your elevator pitch. Practice makes perfect.
    • Meet with friends weekly to talk about your latest wins.
    • Ask yourself questions: What are things I’m good at? What have I accomplished?
  4. Keep track of your achievements.
    • Having achievements listed and on-hand is great for performance reviews, raise negotiations, and job interviews!
    • Format does not matter. The point is to keep a running list of things you’ve achieved and are proud of!
  5. Learn to accept, not deflect, compliments
    • Do not minimize your accomplishments by saying it was not a big deal. Reply instead with:
      • “Yes, it was quite a challenge.”
      • “I’m excited to have accomplished that.”
      • “Thank you!”
  6. Build a culture at work that celebrates self-promotion
    • Find a self-promotion role model and ask how they have learned self-promotion.
    • If you are a manager, ask your direct reports how they would like their work to be recognized.
    • Encourage others to self-promote by leading by example.

Gender and racial stereotypes can impact our perception about a person’s competence and ability. If you identify with a demographic that is underrepresented in your field, you may face underestimation by colleagues, coworkers, and bosses as a result of conscious and unconscious bias. People on the receiving end of biases are less likely to get credit for their ideas, are more interrupted in meetings, and have less influence on their teams.

Self promotion becomes so much more important (and taxing) when you are underestimated. You must expend energy to counter the stereotypes people have of you, perhaps going against societal expectations in order for people to become aware of your knowledge, skills, and accomplishments.

Standing out for successes can bring additional challenges. For instance, cultural expectations for women to be modest are often more heavily defended by women than men, which brings rise to issues like Tall Poppy Syndrome.

Because self promotion, when applied correctly, helps organizations function more efficiently through increased transparency and communication, organizations should facilitate a culture celebrating self-promotion that has a particular focus on supporting those affected by negative stereotyping (who must navigate bias and cope with self-doubt from exposure to bias). Consulting a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) expert would be the first step to determine how to create that healthy culture where all employees are seen and feel valued for their contributions.


Skills Needed for the Future of Work

Information from Future of Jobs Report 2018, World Economic Forum.

As we begin 2021, we are nearing the end of the period of time covered by this report by the World Economic Forum detailing the future of jobs. What trends were correctly predicted, and what fell short?

With the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic in 2020, we saw huge shifts. For instance, more people are now permanently working from home, and a substantial number of women left the workforce.

Below I review some highlights some highlights from the report.

Skills in Decline:

  1. Manual dexterity, endurance, and precision
  2. Memory, verbal, auditory, and spatial abilities
  3. Management of financial and material resources
  4. Technology installation and maintenance
  5. Reading, writing, math, and active listening
  6. Management of personnel
  7. Quality control and safety awareness
  8. Coordination and time management
  9. Visual, auditory, and speech abilities
  10. Technology use, monitoring and control

Needed Skills:

  1. Analytical thinking and innovation
  2. Active learning and learning strategies
  3. Creativity, originality, and initiative
  4. Technology design and programming
  5. Critical thinking and analysis
  6. Leadership and social influence
  7. Emotional intelligence
  8. Reasoning, problem-solving, and ideation
  9. Systems analysis and evaluation
  10. Complex problem-solving

The 4th Industrial Revolution is interacting with other socio-economic and demographic factors to create a perfect storm of business model change in all industries, resulting in major disruptions to labor markets. New categories of jobs will emerge, partly or wholly displacing others. The skill sets required in both old and new occupations will change in most industries and transform how and where people work. It may also affect female and male workers differently and transform the dynamics of the industry gender gap.

Drivers of Change

Four specific technological advances…

  1. Ubiquitous high-speed mobile internet
  2. Artificial Intelligence
  3. Widespread adoption of big data analytics
  4. Cloud technology

…are set to dominate the 2018-2022 period as drivers positively affecting business growth.

They are flanked by a range of socio-economic trends driving business opportunities in tandem with the spread of new technologies, such as national economic growth trajectories, expansion of education and the middle class, in particular in developing economies, and the move toward a greener global economy through advances in new energy technologies.

Lifelong Learning is Key

Workers will need to have the appropriate skills enabling them to thrive in the workplace of the future and the ability to continue to retrain throughout their lives. Crafting a sound in-company lifelong learning system, investing in human capital and collaborating with other stakeholders on workforce strategy should thus be key business imperatives, critical to companies’ medium to long-term growth, as well as an important contribution to society and social stability.

Skills for Success

An education and career in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) positions enables you to thrive across a variety of workplaces; however, technical skills are not the only skills needed for future jobs. The STEM Thrive Guides online courses fill the gap in STEM education and training by teaching how to navigate difficult workplace situations like bias, harassment, and discrimination. Lessons include how to develop emotional intelligence and self-care practices so that you can be your most creative self and thrive at work!


How to Boost Your Self-Efficacy and Achieve Your Goals

Selfefficacy refers to an individual’s belief in his or her capacity to execute behaviors necessary to produce specific performance attainments.1 It reflects confidence in the ability to exert control over one’s own motivation, behavior, and social environment.1

Studies by American Association of University Women3 and others reveal that girls’ confidence in their ability to do math and science drops from age 12 onward through 18 as compared to their male peers. For those of us women who persist in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, it is often blatantly apparent that we are one of the few that remain in the “leaky pipeline”.

From my own experience, I know that my social environment has played a large role in my self-efficacy, especially around my perceived abilities as a scientist. I have had the fortune of community and family support from the beginning of my college education in physics to this day as I work as a Senior Scientist developing lithium ion batteries. Talking to my peers, other women in STEM, I find that many are first-generation engineers and scientists, and even first-generation college students. Many faced greater barriers and less social support, but managed to persist in STEM. No matter how different our background, we all seem to struggle with indicators of low self-efficacy, including the notorious imposter’s syndrome.

While outside of the classroom and my workplaces, I had full support of loved ones, inside academia and industry is a different story. As a white woman, sexist attitudes, slights, and comments have followed me throughout my entire career in physics and engineering. It is obvious to me that these microaggressions and harassment take a toll on my self-confidence and health. Despite my many privileges and accomplishments in my career, that voice that tells me I’ll never be smart enough continues to show up, especially during moments when my colleagues or bosses demonstrate their conscious or unconscious biases. Imagining what it must be like to experience not just sexism, but also perhaps racism, homophobia, and other prejudices in addition, I see why many people leave the field. There’s a point when career success is not worth compromising one’s wellbeing and health.

The nature of my work, scientific research, consistently puts me in the position of asking big questions that nobody knows the answer to. I joke with my friends saying “I feel dumb most of the time” because a primary focus of my work is to understand and interpret data to verify hypotheses. There is a lot of uncertainty, many theories, and often more questions than answers at the conclusion of an experiment. I love the research process, but with few achievements over a long period of time, the process can be taxing. The seeds of self doubt when I can’t seem to come up with a logical explanation for a data set can sprout into worse problems if I forget to remind myself that my work is challenging for anyone! There’s a reason electric vehicles are not the mainstream vehicle choice yet, and a large part of that is the advances in battery technology that are needed (which is what I’m working on along with MANY others).

Science is challenging. Engineering is hard work. Combine what is necessary to advance technology plus the emotional labor of dealing with bias, harassment, and discrimination, and it’s no wonder we all feel so full of self-doubt sometimes! When we think of it from that perspective, it becomes reasonable to have low confidence.

Indicators of Low Self-Efficacy

  1. Shy away from, or put off taking on tasks that they view as threatening or potentially damaging to their self-esteem.
  2. Have low aspirations and commitment to goals that they say on the on hand they want to pursue
  3. Focus on their deficiencies, obstacles, and adverse outcomes, rather than concentrating on how to perform a new task successfully.
  4. Slacken their efforts and give up quickly in the face of difficult challenges.
  5. Slow to recover their sense of confidence following failure or setbacks.

If you ever exhibit any of the above, it’s important to recognize what may be contributing toward your low self-efficacy and self-care so that you avoid burn-out and other health consequences. Operating at a state of high self-efficacy has many benefits:

Benefits of High Self-Efficacy

  1. Intentionally approach difficult tasks and treat them as challenges to be mastered and overcome.
  2. Set challenging goals and maintain a strong commitment to completing them, no matter how long it takes.
  3. Heightened or sustained efforts in the face of setbacks or failure.
  4. Attribute failures to reach goals to a lack of effort, insufficient knowledge or skills on their part, which are acquirable.
  5. Won’t take failure personally.
  6. Bravery in the face of challenges.

Now, to increase your self-efficacy there are several areas to focus on. According to the theory of self-efficacy, there are 4 sources from which you can gain self-efficacy.

4 Sources of Self-Efficacy

  1. Mastery – Experiencing success in smaller related tasks helps build confidence.
  2. Observation – If our peers are succeeding, then it may be likely we will succeed too.
  3. Persuasion – Positive and supportive group dynamics aid success.
  4. Emotion – How we perceive and interpret emotions. Mindset is what matters.

Tips for Boosting Self-Efficacy

  1. Join a small cooperative
  2. Select small, related goals
  3. Set a roadmap
  4. Avoid comparison
  5. Write self-affirming statements
  6. Support your contemporaries
  7. Collaborate with colleagues
  8. Avoid detractors or critics
  9. Find a coach or mentor
  10. Dedicate yourself to a daily practice
  11. Reframe the activities you dislike
  12. Change up your workplace environment
  13. Take time to analyze your emotions
  14. Accept feedback
  15. Watch your self talk
  16. Gather evidence of your success everyday
  17. Acknowledge success in others
  18. Embrace failures as part of the process
  19. Persevere
  20. Avoid familiar stressful situations
  21. Realize failures are due to insufficient knowledge

“Perceived self-efficacy is concerned with people’s beliefs in their capabilities to exercise control over their own functioning and over events that affect their lives. Beliefs in personal efficacy affect life choices, level of motivation, quality of functioning, resilience to adversity and vulnerability to stress and depression.”

– Albert Bandura

Our degree of self efficacy around our ability to achieve goals in work and life are primarily shaped by our early years. Consistently applying some of the listed thoughts and behaviors can eventually change those beliefs.

Paying attention to our behaviors and motivations, improving self-regulation and perceived ability to achieve small wins can help us move towards what we want and reach our goals.

If you’re struggling with difficult situations involving bias, harassment, and discrimination as well as seeking a coach or mentor, check out The STEM Thrive Guides. The resources and online courses there provide what you need to navigate difficult situations at work and school, and once you complete the course you will have access to a list of verified mentors and coaches who want to support you!

Additional Resources:

  1. https://www.apa.org/pi/aids/resources/education/self-efficacy
  2. https://journals.iupui.edu/index.php/muj/article/download/20487/20087/
  3. http://aweonline.org/arp_selfefficacy_overview_122208_003.pdf