An Astronaut, a Scientist, and a Coach Walk Into Business

Illustration by Abigail Pope

Illustration by Abigail Pope

I am both proud of and annoyed with the #MeToo movement. Women are voicing their hurt and struggles in the face of violent men. Men in positions of power are being held accountable for their actions, and it is a great thing to see. It has fostered a culture where women have the confidence to speak out against sexual harassment. Not only this, women feel more comfortable speaking up to other issues with female equality. However, with all the shouting, men who for years have quietly endorsed women without asking for sexual favors are pushed to the side.

Both men and women flood the internet with indignation. “I stand with women,” they cry. “My heart breaks for the victims of Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby.” But no real solutions are ever posed. There is passion but no planing. We’re all outraged, but how do we actually help?

Women are seeking to climb male dominated mountains in business. Hopefully, to finally reach the corner office at its peak. In order to tackle the rocky climb, women need sherpas, and those sherpas are mentors. Mentoring and sponsorship are essential for any new member of a field. Of course, in majority male industries, that means men will need to take on female mentees. If we are going to see any real change for equality in business, male mentors need to buckle up their snow boots and take on the climb.

This may seem radical but it has been practiced all throughout history. As a physicist myself, I have experienced male-female mentoring.  Men and women have always worked together in STEM. That relationship was essential for the blossoming of women’s equality in the workforce. You don’t have enough time to listen to my 20 hour podcast detailing only half of their stories, so here is a list of just three extraordinary woman who broke through.

Indulge me for a moment while I take you back nearly 150 years ago. I’m a scientist myself! How could I not include Marie Curie’s story? Let’s start with her husband Pierre- a true frenchman from his name to his goatee. He convinced Marie to continue her studies after she was denied a place at Kraków University for being a woman. Thanks to his persistence, together her and him went on to win the Nobel Prize for physics. Originally, Marie was not part of the nomination on account of her being female. Pierre, however, insisted she be included. Sure, he probably had different motives for helping Marie than mentors should have nowadays (They got married in lab coats. I’m dead serious). But his dogged insistence that women belonged in the laboratory was revolutionary for his time. He knew his wife had merit, but not because she was a woman. It was because she was a scientist just like he was. That is why he mentored her.

Another example is Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. As a young physics student at Stanford University, she was hesitant to answer a NASA ad in the student newspaper which was seeking applicants for the space program. If not for Professor Arthur Walker’s mentoring she never would have even filed for consideration. As a minority in a collegiate setting, he understood her struggles. He was a black professor, living in America in the 1960s afterall. Using his own experience in paving a path for black Americans, he taught her how to do the same for women. She later recalled his guidance saying, “He instilled confidence and made me believe that I could accomplish what I set out to accomplish.” Her journey to become the first woman in space inspired a generation who saw everything from the launch to the television interviews. She boldly shot down sexist and dehumanizing comments about women in scientific fields. Once when asked if she would wear a bra in orbit by a reporter she replied, “There’s no sag in zero-g.”

I’m also a big sports fan (I play tennis). And, yes, male-female work relationships exist with the best athletes in the world. We can look to the example of Gregg Popovich and Becky Hammon, two big names in NBA. The pair met after the London 2012 Olympics, and clicked through their mutual love of basketball. Hammon was an accomplished point guard for the San Antonio Stars at the time. During their conversation, she asked to sit in a Spurs practice, a rare honor. Popovich agreed. Shortly after, she was awarded the position of assistant coach working under his tutelage. She was the first woman in the NBA to ever hold an assistant coach position. When asked if this was a political statement, Popovich replied to a NYTimes reporter,  “It has nothing to do with her being a woman. She happens to be a woman.” Because of his sponsorship and her own prowess, Hammon is now interviewing for head coach positions in the NBA.

Lastly let me share my own story with Geoffrey Frost, the former VP of Motorola. He took me under his wing to show me how marketing is done in the modern world. Back then, Motorola was a total underdog. That meant we were too. Geoffrey pushed me again and again to outsmart bigger and better funded companies. At that time, the big bad corporation was Nokia. He showed me that great ideas and radical solutions are what it takes to break into these fields. It didn’t matter that I was a woman or that I came from a cost disadvantage. Under his guidance we created RAZR and completely changed the company’s trajectory.

I know that I’m not the only one who is dissatisfied with the status quo. Stop talking. More doing. That is what it is going to take if you truly want to help women. Pick one talented woman and give her a chance. Radical shifts can happen without any shouting. Becky Hammon put it best, “If you don’t want a female [in the workplace], don’t hire one! If you want to hire somebody who's qualified and will do a good job, then maybe you should consider me.”

By: Oksana Malysheva, Managing Partner at Sputnik ATX