Why Women Must Overcome the What-If Abyss

Tech needs more women. Don’t let one bad episode derail your career.

Published on Dec. 28, 2022
Why Women Must Overcome the What-If Abyss
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In the wake of the pandemic, one in three women are considering leaving the workforce or making a significant change toward a less challenging or time-consuming position. Given those statistics, the importance of looking forward and supporting the future workforce has never been greater. 

What Is the What-if Abyss?

The what-if abyss appears when employees, particularly rising women leaders, let a single instance, for example a blunder, missed promotion or negative feedback, derail their careers.

We’re observing a trend we call the what-if abyss, and we talked about it in a recent episode of the Breaking Glass podcast. It’s occurring primarily among women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. The what-if abyss looms when employees question themselves and allow that questioning to become a chasm that they can’t overcome to move their careers forward. 

This trend is most prevalent among rising women leaders who, at key points in their careers, stumble on scenarios that lead to the edge of the what-if abyss. They allow a single instance, for example a blunder, missed promotion or negative feedback, to derail their career. Rather than applying the insight and forging ahead, they get stuck looking back. 

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Why Overcoming the Abyss Matters

Women in STEM are significantly outnumbered and the burnout rate is increasing. Women represent only about 34 percent of all STEM workers, according to the 2022 Science and Engineering Indicators report. Across all industries and roles, women are promoted at a slower rate than men with 86 women promoted to manager for every 100 men at the same level. The gender gap is even more pronounced for women in technical roles, with only 52 women being promoted to manager for every 100 men, according to McKinsey research.

This means that a large portion of the population, with its diversity of ideas, experiences, knowledge and potential contributions, is greatly underutilized. Industry needs could be fulfilled. Solutions could be found. STEM fields could flourish with a more diverse talent pool. The need is greater now than ever before for women, the companies they work for and the tech industry at large to focus on the future.

Throughout the Breaking Glass podcast, women in prominent tech roles share ideas about what STEM workers, employers and industry leaders can do to nurture and grow the STEM workforce and make it a career with staying power. Here are some ways to get more women into STEM careers.


Invest in Mentorship and Advocacy

Across nearly all levels of the recruitment funnel, women are underrepresented in STEM. Young people, especially young women, are taking inventory when evaluating future employers, seeking representation, women leaders and cultural diversity. When it comes to progress for women in tech, support from their employers as well as from mentors within their companies isn’t a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have. Fostering mentor relationships is critical for employers.

For senior leaders in STEM, commit to opening up and sharing experiences. Become a sponsor and provide meaningful advocacy to young women in STEM. Advocate for that first and critical promotion to manager, coach colleagues through their first career failure and make sure they put their name back in the hat afterward. In turn, sponsoring others helps build your reputation as a leader who grooms great talent. That exchange of ideas and information can also help keep your skills current and sharp.


Focus on Advice More Than Feedback

Learning from mistakes is an essential part of growing and maturing in any career. Especially in the early stages of a career, regular feedback on performance is crucial for understanding specific areas that can be improved. It’s crucial for leaders to address how to improve rather than focusing on what went wrong. Feedback focuses on the past, which sometimes makes it less actionable. Advice, however, looks forward. It allows a mentor, boss, or co-worker to provide input on specific actions that can be taken in the future to make a meaningful impact.

Good advice can be transformative. Encourage junior staffers to seek it from a variety of sources. They should go beyond the comfort zone of asking a peer for help and seek advice from trusted experts in the particular area in which they want to grow.


Take Advantage of Growth Momentum

Continued progress in expanding the pool of STEM personnel will benefit from taking advantage of growth momentum in tech industries. For the data center industry, now’s a good time to capitalize on the spotlight our industry is under during this period of rapid expansion. 

From growth has come recognition of the diversity of thought, gender, culture, ethnicities, industries and experiences represented. Let’s take advantage of this momentum to make the space enticing to young professionals and then provide the mentorship, advocacy and growth opportunities to make it easy to stay.   

More Reading on Women in Tech Trying to Diversify Your Tech Team? Start by Supporting Moms.


In DEI, Small Actions Matter

Women in STEM have faced an incredible amount of pressure in the last few years. Despite this, women leaders continue to find more ways to support their teams and advance diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. Every small action can create a ripple effect. 

Today, there are more college-educated women than men in the workforce, according to Pew Research Center data. Women’s educational gains have occurred alongside growing labo- force participation and needs for more highly skilled workers in the American workplace, which has helped to narrow gender disparities in the labor market at large, a step in the right direction.

We encourage women to not hold back, not focus on worst-case scenarios or to cross hypothetical bridges before getting to them. Focus energies on the here and now. You’ll adapt as life sends you in different directions. Stand firm in career choices. Don’t let the winds of change blow you over. Have confidence and look forward, not back.

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