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Brigid Moynahan On Closing the Diversity Gap in STEM

Date: 13 May 2016

Brigid Moynahan
CEO of The Next Level, Inc. 

1. What do you do and what is your background in STEM?

I began working on women’s leadership in STEM and Diversity at Bell Laboratories back in the late 80’s. It was the women who came to me for support; they needed help ‘breaking in’ with their male colleagues. Together we created a pioneering women’s leadership program that recognized the gifts women bring, rather than trying to ‘fix’ women. At the time this was a breakthrough approach. Today, it is gratifying how our strengths based training is being validated by research into what really works to advance women.

Since then, we’ve brought our leadership programs into many organizations, leading over 800 programs world-wide, helping thousands of women advance beyond the cliff that exists between middle management and senior levels. A recent study of our Executive Leadership Program at Rutgers University found that 57% of our alumnae have achieved promotion into significant leadership roles, and 100% define themselves as leaders. Further to that, our graduates pass the work forward and 100% are mentors to others. The desire to ‘lift as they climb’ is one of the reasons I love working with women, and gives me great hope for the future.

This year we offered a pilot program for senior female STEM faculty at Rutgers University– ‘Changing the World for Women in Science and Engineering’. Our next step is to help them teach what they’ve learned to the next generation, working to change the future for their female students, as well as transform the culture of the university to embrace diversity. They’d like to see a female university president.

My interest now is in democratizing access to our training through a virtual, global platform that gives STEM women access to successful strategies and communities from wherever they sit in organizations, professions, and the world. For many years it’s only been women at higher levels in organizations who could achieve funding for our training. We are looking right now for partners in building a virtual platform that retains the high touch feel and connections we’ve been building with our residential trainings. It’s an ambitious project, and an incredible opportunity. 

2. Why do you believe in supporting diverse STEM talent?

Exclusion of women in STEM translates to missed opportunities for organizations and for the world – opportunities we cannot afford to miss considering the enormous challenges we face. Today, US women make up almost half the workforce, hold more college & graduate degrees, and outscore men on the majority of leadership competencies. Just one example: a March study from the Hay Group found that women outscore men on emotional intelligence, a greater predictor of success than IQ. As far as teams, those with more women score more highly on group intelligence. Yet women make up only about 25% of STEM roles, nearly half of their representation in the overall workforce.

Past mistakes are tomorrow’s opportunities. We have the opportunity now to promote the advancement of women into STEM roles and bring forth the next great innovations for the betterment of our world. 

Working to advance women is particularly satisfying because of the positive difference our graduates are making. Just one example: Christi Shaw, a Director who came through our program years ago, is now head of Novartis North American – rated number 1 last year, and number 2 this year by Diversity Inc.

Speaking of diversity more broadly, diverse teams outperform conformist ones, and they are more innovative. Diverse candidates bring extra gifts because of the challenges they’ve overcome just to get to the starting gate. 

3. What is the biggest challenge in achieving STEM diversity?

Human beings have a tendency to reject difference and prefer people like themselves. This is a major problem when it comes to diverse hiring and promotion decisions. It creates a chilly climate for diversity that causes retention problems as well. This translates to less progress, less evolution, and less innovation.

We train our candidates to frame their achievement so that others can see them. Women specifically need to learn to market themselves, to ask, and ask again for opportunities. We’re changing ‘Women Don't Ask’ to ‘Women Offer…’teaching them to lead boldly with their contribution. Women need to negotiate from the start, but do it with grace. Assertion is still a minefield for women and we do not downplay how difficult this walk can be.

The other human challenge with diversity is the way excluded members can internalize their experience. This inhibits them from forming the alliances they need, and asking for the opportunities they deserve. For this reason, a fundamental aspect of our training is building confidence and courage. 

4. What inclusive hiring strategies do you see as key for closing the STEM diversity gap?

We need more inclusive leadership willing to hire, mentor, and encourage diverse talent. Until that is our reality, our strategies empower individuals to empower themselves.

Our primary strategy is quite simple – we bring women together. They realize their shared challenges are not personal, but systemic, and learn to strategize and help each other overcome them. From here, women make great strides in their confidence, presence, courage, and subsequently – their careers.

We start by placing women into peer mentoring ‘Success Circles®.’ From there, we train women to connect beyond the peer group to map out and leverage their strategic web of allies, mentors, and sponsors.  As they build key relationships by leading with the value they offer, they start to see how every interaction is an opportunity to influence. They learn the power of connected leadership. We help women build confidence from the inside out, through in depth coaching, but also from the outside in – through action.

Lack of presence is one of the main reasons given for failing to hire or promote women. Yet it is by far the most misunderstood leadership attribute. Presence is not the ‘born with it… or not’ quality it’s made out to be. It can be taught and these are skills that have a huge impact on being seen as a leader. We offer vocal and physical exercises, tools from acting and improvisation, storytelling techniques, and a host of other tools to serve women in demystifying and embodying leadership presence.

In recent years, new findings from the field of positive psychology have had a big impact on our training. Success and happiness are correlated with cultivating positive thinking. When in a positive mind-set we are 33% more productive and 3x better at sales. Our thought patterns are not hard wired. Positivity practices help train women to notice the positive, seeing and acting on opportunities.

New research has found this training particularly important for women, as women tend to ruminate more than men—and ruminating is the worst source of sustained unhappiness, as well as hindering productivity. Add to this that STEM women have lifetimes of practice with problem analysis, noticing the negative can become a habitual way of thinking. When it comes to leadership advancement, focusing on what we want rather than what we don’t want is a crucial shift.

We train women to connect with people in power—and to be brilliant about enabling them to see their potential.

So much of diversity work today is making people aware of unconscious bias. This is an important first step, but what happens next? We are empowering women with actions they can take to help move the dial forward. 

5. What is your advice to diverse talent looking to join or progress within the STEM sector?

Find what helps you feel confident and make it part of your daily practice. Expand your courage by taking more risks, speak up more. If you are experiencing being overlooked, devalued, or excluded, keep moving forward. If someone puts you down, don’t internalize it. Instead, say something valuing to the person and something valuing about yourself, and lead with the positive. Every interaction is an opportunity to express your unique Leadership Presence. Lead with your essential contribution, and if that doesn’t work where you are, build that web, find a better spot, and keep on moving.

Make your own networks of men and women who you resonate with, build a supportive group of peers that encourages you, support one other, advocate for one another, and ask for what you want. Be nicer to yourself – as a friend’s husband once said to her, ‘You need to be a burning log, not a burnt out log.’