Over the past year, I have deep-dived into developing techniques to support and retain women in technical fields, specifically law and policy. I want to share my experience as I continue to cultivate strategies and methods for supporting women in their careers—but first, who the heck am I to write on these issues? I am an attorney and a law college administrator, with a background in computer programming and website development. While working as a web developer, I realized I could marry my geeky passions with my love of policy, and I started seeking other scholarly pursuits beyond my computer (which, let’s be real, I also still spend a lot of time on). I found myself in a relatively niche field of the law: the intersection of law and technology, and often even more specifically, aerospace.
My research into retaining and supporting women in technology and aerospace is far from scientific. I’m not a social scientist (I just play one in magazines). I am simply trying to figure out how to use my place in the universe to support the women who love the same fields I do. I hope that my journey provides some inspiration, perhaps a few helpful tips, and gets employers and educators thinking about career-driven skill building.
Noticing the Problem in My Own Backyard
A little over a year ago, I attended a “Women’s Conference” that shall remain unnamed. You know the type I’m referring to. There was ample discussion of leave policies, work-life balance, the battle cry for wage equality, and so on. I understand I sound callous. To be clear, these types of events can truly inspire and empower people. I believe strongly in the power of discussion and visibility, and I certainly don’t aim to disparage that here. My frustration as I walked out the door was that I still didn’t feel like I knew what to do about any of it. I felt cynical and frustrated. I felt like I needed data-driven action steps (told you I’m a geek).
As the executive director of the Space, Cyber, and Telecommunications Law program at the University of Nebraska College of Law, I realized that I have a unique opportunity to enact change—and I have data. I started by looking at our LL.M. program. Since 2008, Nebraska Law has been the only law school in the nation to offer an LL.M. degree in space, cyber, and telecommunications law. We are an intentionally small program, with class sizes between 5-10 people each year. As of December 2017, 53 individuals have received their LL.M. degree from the program. Eighteen of them are women. Ouch. Not horrible, but not even half. Furthermore, I think it is important to acknowledge we have a greater diversity issue overall. Looking at national averages, this clearly is not news, but excuses are just that: excuses. I can do better for my program and my community.
(As an aside, you probably thought to yourself, “Why is there a space, cyber, and telecommunications law program in Nebraska of all places?” There are several reasons really, but I’ll be brief: we are 50 minutes away from U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base, which wanted such a program to train judge advocate generals and help develop legal expertise in this area generally. Meanwhile, we had the support and expertise of forward-thinking faculty and administrators at the helm at Nebraska Law. It was a match made in space law heaven.)
Overall, law school application and enrollment numbers are pretty even between men and women, which is a major accomplishment. In fact, in 2016 The New York Times reported that women made up a majority of law students, holding just over 50% of the seats at accredited law schools in the United States for the first time. In LL.M. and J.S.D. programs, those numbers begin to skew. By the time women are five years into practice, our numbers have dropped substantially. I’m sure this isn’t news to anyone reading this article, but these trends, along with my own program data, got me moving. I know that government and standard corporate policy challenges are part of this equation. That’s an important battle and we can all impact the individuals who set policy today and in years to come—but I wanted concrete and specific action steps I could implement today. I had no idea where to start.
A New Hope: The Research Begins
One of the best pieces of advice I have ever received on getting past a mental roadblock is “shut up and stop over-thinking.” I couldn’t think or talk my way out of this alone. My first step was to figure out who I should listen to. I started with a group of women I really admire—our LL.M. alumni and women on our program’s advisory board. I focused on women who have been practicing in the tech or aerospace fields for five or more years. I identified seven women who fit the bill, and most importantly, responded to my emails. They ranged from women I knew very well, including personal friends, to women I only knew professionally. I also reached beyond law and policy and into science and engineering more generally. I am a host and speaker for the U.S. State Department Leadership Program, discussing national space and cyber policy. The visitors that semester happened to be female scientists, here to explore ways to increase the participation of women and girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, examine how women contribute to economic growth, and engage with scientists and engineers around the United States who support and mentor women in STEM. I joined this group of scientists from Curacao, Indonesia, Mongolia, Trinidad & Tobago, and the United Kingdom to talk about their experiences and insight.
Most interviews turned into natural conversations, but I usually started with a set list of interview questions, such as, “Did your higher-ed experiences prepare you for varied communication styles and other workplace realities?” or “During your education—at any institution—did you receive mentoring or workshops on dealing with perceived or actual inequality in the workplace?”
I had no idea what to expect from these conversations. I did not even know what I was leading up to. I just knew my singular perspective wasn’t enough to enact effective change. This is where things got personal for me.
I have spent over 26 hours talking to women about their stories, their love of science and technology, their successes, their failures, and so much more. I cried and laughed with these women. Before I even reviewed the interviews, I was changed by this process.
After completing my initial interviews, I started the review process listening to interview recording and comparing my notes. I identified recurring problematic experiences and advice and ideas. This, quite clearly, boiled down to three main issue sets: 1) Crisis of Confidence, a.k.a. The Imposter Syndrome, 2) Lack of Field-Specific Mentorship from Either Gender), and 3) A Lack of “Self-Promotional” Skill Building.
Crisis of Confidence, a.k.a. The Imposter Syndrome
Have you ever said the following to yourself: “At any moment they’ll figure out I don’t know what I’m talking about,” or “Am I just pretending to be good at this?” Author fun fact: I say these things to myself all the time, including the moment I agreed to write this article. Every single woman I’ve talked to identified “The Imposter Syndrome” as a hurdle in their careers. The imposter syndrome is generally defined as a professional feeling like an imposter in their position or profession, despite being qualified.
I asked women to identify where they thought this insecurity came from and considered how educators could respond.
Many women reported being devastated by some kind of failure which killed their confidence for years. We need to teach our students how to be resilient to failure, got it.
I also heard about constant mental negative self-talk. OK, curriculum on squashing negative self-talk, super.
These women told me that they realized they had inherited and internalized harmful stereotypes they didn’t even believe. We have to un-teach years of inherited mental baggage… that should be easy…
By the way, in addition to these soft skills, we also have to teach students all the substantive law and research skills they need to feel like competent attorneys and professionals. As my grandmother would say, “Uffda.”
How do we teach career and life skills while we also teach the necessary content in our classrooms (or in the workplace setting, how do we help employees learn these skills while still being productive)? How do people learn resilience or grit?
Feeling overwhelmed, I turned to an academic journal on the subject, the September 2013 issue of Educational Leadership, “Resilience and Learning” (Volume 71, Issue 1). As I read, it started to become clear. When emphasis is placed on process and effort, individuals begin to value their skills over their output. All humans will fail at something, but the more we focus on the skills we have developed over the successful or failed outcome, the more resilient we become, and the more likely we are to try again.
One of the best ways to practice resiliency is to fail a lot (easy!) and then talk about it until it’s no big deal (embarrassing, but still easy). It is vital to give employees or students multiple, low-risk opportunities to fail and then assess that failure, rather than try to hide it or shame them for it. Another way leaders and educators can do this is to share our own failures and inadequacies. This does not cut down our authority or prestige; rather, it humanizes us and shows others that failure isn’t final.
In-Depth Feedback is an Investment
One easy way to implement this is to stop giving critiques, grades, and feedback in writing only. This is standard practice at most law schools and many firms, but I’ve been suggesting changes. I want leaders, be they bosses or professors, to take time to talk through feedback. This process makes it clear that the individual is not criticized, but rather that it is about skill building. Further, this is not just about being more supportive. Students and employees perform better when given one-on-one guidance. I recognize that time is money, but I believe in-person feedback is a worthy investment.
Talk It Out
I am a huge believer in the power of roleplay. I know, I know. I hated it too. Roleplay exercises are awkward and embarrassing, but so important to actual success. Push through the awkward and it’s worth it. A great place to turn for some roleplay exercises and discussion prompts on building grit and resiliency strategies is the ABA Grit Project. The Grit Project aims to educate women lawyers about the science behind grit and growth mindset. The project’s toolkit provides discussion scenarios such as how to handle speaking up in class, the job search, and a bad grade on a midterm paper. Thinking through how to respond to these sorts of scenarios takes the edge off when the real thing happens.
Lack of Field-Specific Mentorship
Almost none of the women I’ve interviewed care about what gender their career mentors are. What they sought was someone with field- and specialty-specific guidance as to the most important events, journals, certifications, etc. In tech and aerospace law and policy, this can be hard to come by. Many of the women I spoke to faced rejection from men and women in terms of guidance when beginning their career.
Social Media Stalking Allowed
In discussing this with my one of my mentors, Nebraska Law Assistant Dean Molly Brummond, she shared some great advice: bypassing the “IRL” (in real life) relationship. Identify professionals in your field that you respect and want to emulate. Follow them online and on social media. Read what they read, look at who they interact with, take note of what conferences they’re tweeting from. You will begin to get the lay of the land on your own. I encourage taking it a step further and to reach out to them informally—a quick note thanking them for posting a book you found helpful or an article you enjoyed.
In establishing more formal mentorship relationships, everyone agreed that recognized, preexisting mentorship programs are worth a shot. Many state bar associations or college alumni groups offer mentorship programs. While often these relationships feel forced or fall through, it is always an opportunity for networking even if a mentorship relationship doesn’t flourish.
Self-Promotional Skill Building
Specific skills enable young people to advocate for themselves and further their professional achievement, and many of these circle back to combating imposter syndrome. I asked my alumni and the state department visiting scientists what skills they would have practiced in retrospect. We identified a variety of skills, but they focused predominantly on salary and benefit negotiations, networking skills, and public speaking.
Salary and Benefits Negotiation
It is no secret that many people, particularly women, find negotiating for wages and benefits intimidating. More than half of the women I spoke with had never asked for a raise in their entire career. I have worked with my colleagues to create multiple roleplay scenarios and scripts for students to practice these conversations, but there any many ways to find these on your own. Many professional associations offer roleplay exercises specific to salary; in fact, the ABA has a robust library of exercises and an entire workbook dedicated to the topic (again, head over to www.americanbar.org to search).
Networking is a dirty word for many professionals. In fact, many of our students tell me that networking is awful and feels “fake” or uncomfortable. I get where they’re coming from, but I challenge them to take another approach. If you approach networking solely focused on what you need, it can feel just plain gross or like a waste of time. I have yet to hear of someone landing a job by simply handing out their resume or business card to a room full of professionals. Rather, if you approach networking from the perspective of how you may be able to help others, it is so rewarding.
I suggest nervous networkers do two things. First, prepare a few things to say about yourself and your career interests. Second, and more importantly, practice engaged listening and come prepared to ask people questions about their careers. Go into networking events looking for ways to connect other people and build relationships with others by helping them reach their goals. This sort of relationship building is meaningful, reflects positively on everyone involved, and often pays off in unexpected ways. Students sometimes tell me, “These are accomplished attorneys, how could I possibly be helpful to them?” Never forget: you may know their next big client, you may give them advice on their next vacation, or you may refer them to their kid’s new favorite summer camp. Everyone has the capacity and connections to help another person.
Every woman I talked to mentioned the importance of public speaking. Getting up and sharing expertise is one of the strongest ways to cement your expertise to yourself. I believe very strongly that public speaking is one of the best ways to develop as a professional.
Before I started this project, I challenged myself to speak publicly at least once per month. I’m currently on month 26. This has ranged from a TedX style event of over 1,000 people to volunteering to lecture for a retirement facility continuing education group (which was remarkably rewarding). This has transformed both my career confidence and my scholarly work.
Putting It All Together
These skills benefit every student or employee, not just women. The message I have received, loud and clear, is that these ideas are useful to every single student that comes through our halls. I encourage you to highlight public speaking, practice networking, provide in-person one-on-one feedback, and practice difficult conversations with your colleagues or employees. I have continued to find women in careers I find interesting and have taken time to sit down with them. This project is not over; in fact, it continues to grow and I with it. Many stories and excellent pieces of advice come out of these interviews. It is impossible to share all of them here. Consequently, what I really want to leave you with is this: sit down and talk to your peers. Share your office battle stories, your failures, your achievements, and your goals. I discovered the immense power in cultivating these relationships.
I’ve gained something I cannot quantify—a deep sense of connection and common worth with a league of diverse, intelligent, and incredibly strong women. That, conceivably, is the greatest retention tip of all: create community.
About the Author
Elsbeth Magilton is the executive director of the Space, Cyber, and Telecommunications Law Program at the University of Nebraska College of Law. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 402.472.1662