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Building a Culture that Keeps Women in STEM

When my pair partner and I were asked by one of Menlo’s founders to write a blog post on what it is like for women in STEM at Menlo, we looked at each other, puzzled. Neither of us had really thought about it. It isn’t because we were turning a blind eye to institutional bias, or willfully dismissing the daily struggle, we both knew from previous experience how challenging these issues and biases made the industry for women. It’s just that everything about Menlo’s culture had made this a non-issue in our daily work lives. So, we set out to articulate what it is about Menlo’s culture that felt so different. We did some digging and came across this article by Joan Williams for the Harvard Business Review where she lays out the 5 biases pushing women out of STEM. Here are Joan’s 5 Biases and Menlo’s counter measures:  


Bias 1: “Prove it again”

The constant pressure to prove your knowledge, value, and understanding. This manifests as being constantly questioned on your credentials or real understanding of a topic whenever you present an idea or contribute to a conversation.  

Why this isn’t an issue at Menlo: The value of “I don’t know”

The sooner we can say “I don’t know,” the quicker we can learn. At Menlo, we feel safe enough to be vulnerable and ask the “dumb questions” because it means that we value the team’s success more than we value looking like the hero or having to prove our intelligence. We are valued as a team and we fail or succeed together. There is enough trust on the team so that when you share your areas for growth, you will be met with empathy, encouragement, and support rather than scrutiny. At Menlo, the competitiveness to be the “hero” is systematically weeded out, while your knowledge of a subject is trusted and shared.

Bias 2: The tight-rope 

If you act in a traditionally feminine way you aren’t viewed as competent, but if you act in a traditionally masculine way you will be viewed as bossy and unlikeable; either way you won’t fit into the group, and the line between being friendly and nurturing while also being confident and assertive is razor thin.

Why this isn’t an issue at Menlo: The flat organization

We are team members, regardless of gender or role. Everyone is on the same compensation scale and is promoted by the team for how their skills progress: and not just in a specific career field, but also for how they bring value to the team and uphold the values of the company. 

Those values are genderless: how you communicate with your pair partner and team, how you give and receive mentorship, your personal growth, and the role you play in others’ growth. This also means that regardless of the breakdown of genders across roles, everyone is striving towards the same stated values, bringing the best version of those values to the greater team. Working at Menlo challenges us to be better communicators, mentors, and human beings while emphatically encouraging individuality and expression.

Bias 3: The Maternal wall

When professional women decide to have children, their commitment and competence are questioned, and opportunities to progress or “move up the ladder” start to disappear. 

Why this isn’t an issue at Menlo: Babies at Work 

Having children is celebrated and supported by all team members! Babies are welcome at work and even encouraged, as it builds our connection as a community. Babies become part of the extended Menlo family and team members build relationships with the families of our team members. This means when the inevitable illness, doctors check-up or broken bone occurs, our team rallies to provide support, because they know and care about the little individual the parent is racing to care for! 

Bias 4: The Tug of War

There is a hazing phenomenon that can happen between generations of women. A kind of “I had to crawl through the mud so you should too” or as a fellow Menlonian was told by a previous mentor “you have to grow a tougher skin if you want to survive in this industry; so toughen up or get out” 

Why this isn’t an issue at Menlo: Make your Partner look good

One of the first things that you hear in our interview process is that the goal of the interview is to get your partner the job. Pairing is the first skill you learn, and the one you continue to grow in as years go by. It is a constant flowing circuit of information and knowledge. A skilled pair partner holds none of their knowledge back, sharing every detail to ensure should they fall ill or move off the project, the project will continue as if nothing had happened. Instead of treating newer Menlonians as if they must earn the right to their place, they are often paired with the senior members of the team to learn from them. This process, combined with our culture of mentorship and learning at all levels, creates a culture in which members are valued no matter their length of time in the industry.

Bias 5: Isolation

The belief that if women socialize at work that they will lose their authority or professional reputation resulting in an isolated and unsupportive work environment.

Why this isn’t an issue at Menlo: Stand up and Share 

At Menlo, we want everyone to be balanced, fully-realized human beings. One of the processes that encourages team members to share news about themselves and their personal achievements is our daily stand up meetings. It is a way to pass on knowledge about projects, clients, tours, and business updates. But an added benefit is that it is a place for us to share our personal accomplishments, reach out to the group for help, and connect with each other. This daily practice builds trust, communication, and understanding across our team in a way that is truly impactful on the joy of our culture without sacrificing one’s professionalism or authority.

After this reflection, we realized that biases are best addressed by embedding the solutions into a company’s culture. Although training sessions and company policies might do a good job of identifying implicit biases and providing guidelines to address them, building a culture with core values that acknowledge the range of employees’ needs ingrains unbiased thinking in the workplace. The added benefit of such a culture is the safe space it provides to be deliberate to voice any other unspoken biases one might experience.