“It is a myth that it’s harder to be a woman in STEM; some things are easier” with Penny Bauder & Sonia Rief

The myth is that it’s harder to be a woman in STEM. There are things that are harder, yes. But there are also things that are easier. Men face the same tradeoff of challenges and rewards, just not in the same areas. It’s not harder, it’s just different. As a part of my series about […]

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The myth is that it’s harder to be a woman in STEM. There are things that are harder, yes. But there are also things that are easier. Men face the same tradeoff of challenges and rewards, just not in the same areas. It’s not harder, it’s just different.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sonia Rief.

Sonia Rief is currently Vice President, Vehicle Connected Services and Program Management Office for Nissan North America, Inc., a position to which she was appointed in 2019. In this role, Rief is responsible for managing vehicle line profitability in North America and accelerating Nissan’s connected services business.

Previously, Rief was director, Program Management Office at the Nissan Technical Center North America (NTCNA) in Farmington Hills, Michigan, and was responsible for vehicle line profitability of mid-size sedans, and compact and mid-size SUVs.

Rief joined Nissan in 2001, progressing through roles of increasing responsibility within the Research and Development function, including a one-year assignment in Japan supporting the Renault-Nissan Alliance.

Rief holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from North Carolina State University and a master’s in business administration from the University of Michigan. An avid outdoor athlete, Sonia now lives in Franklin, Tennessee with her husband and two children.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Racing! In college, I majored in mechanical engineering and got involved with our engineering school’s Legends racing team (5/8 scale replicas of cars from the 1930s/40s powered by motorcycle engines). That experience led me into autocross and road track events with my personal car. So, when it came time to graduate and I saw a major automaker on the campus interview list, it was top of my list. Haven’t looked back since.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

But working for a Japanese company with a very culturally diverse population, my most interesting stories are usually about places I’ve been and people I’ve met. Going to Japan for the first time almost 20 years ago stands out in my mind. I had a hand drawn map from a colleague showing how to get from the airport to my hotel and then to the office, a trip that required all modes of transportation with no communication (I didn’t speak or read any Japanese at that point and my phone certainly wasn’t set up for international calling). I can remember being a young engineer standing alone in the middle of Shinjuku station in rush hour with my huge suitcase looking at my “map” and wishing I had asked more questions beforehand. The discomfort of that moment was the first of many similar experiences over those next two weeks….and for many years after. In hindsight, that first trip to Japan built up my confidence for taking on new challenges and trying new things. If you can navigate rush hour in Shinjuku and the public bus system, you can do anything!

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Innovation in product, design and process makes Nissan stand out. From unique products to intelligent mobility and our approach to problem solving, innovation is at the heart of this company. This was highlighted for me working in Japan during the financial crisis in 2009. One of the focal points for Nissan was maximizing the benefits of our Alliance with Renault. My role at that time was supporting cross company teams in the generation and realization of synergies from back office functions to product development and platforms. Teams had to overcome sizable differences in technologies, capabilities and cultures to deliver tangible savings benefitting both companies. Success required a new level of innovative thinking and working that ultimately resulted in billion dollar benefits across the companies.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

So many exciting projects. What stands out most for me today is connected services. Like every automaker, we are trying to re-define our processes and services to exceed customer expectations of technology in an increasingly connected world. We are currently developing an eco-system of which the vehicle itself is just one part of a broader experience. Our customers will benefit from a seamless, reliable transition between all the aspects of their daily life. The vehicle becomes a trusted, integrated part of their experience, no longer just point to point transportation. The challenge to change our business, our capabilities and our products is by far the most difficult and exciting transformation experience of my career.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

Of course not — I don’t think any woman is satisfied with the status quo. I see two distinct opportunity areas — the number of women entering STEM programs and the number of women leading in STEM fields. Increasing the number of women entering STEM is a societal responsibility, from the toys and games adults give children to exploration of technology in school, interest and encouragement starts early. Keeping women in STEM is a corporate responsibility. I read a statistic recently that women are 45% more likely to leave the technology field than men — my own experience is certainly that female representation decreases as responsibility levels increase. Some of this decrease comes from intentional “opting out” as women make choices between professional and personal responsibilities. And I have to believe that another portion comes from gender bias, even if unintended, by those responsible for career development. Change is driven by formal acknowledgement of the gap and having specific people and actions assigned to address it. I don’t believe in quotas but am a strong advocate for ownership of diversity, sponsorship of individuals and executive level oversight and reporting not just numbers but issues, actions and results.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

I think the difference in male and female experiences is decreasing as gender expectations are equalizing. However, in fields still overwhelmingly male, the biggest challenge for women is probably in getting sufficient emotional and professional support. This deficiency may also be one reason for the decrease in female representation as professional levels rise. At a minimum, addressing this challenge requires those of us in the field to reach up, down and across levels and companies to make strong networks and connections. Ideally, in companies with significant gender gaps, more formal programs are put in place specifically to support personal and professional development needs.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

The myth is that it’s harder to be a woman in STEM. There are things that are harder, yes. But there are also things that are easier. Men face the same tradeoff of challenges and rewards, just not in the same areas. It’s not harder, it’s just different.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

The 5 lessons I share in every presentation about myself:

  1. Respect, Accountability, Clarity, Initiative. The critical factors for professional success: respect the input, experience and positions of others. Own your work, wins and losses. Communicate clearly and succinctly. Do what needs to be done or what can be done, don’t wait for someone to tell you.
  2. Say “yes” to new challenges. Just do it. Don’t try to pick and choose because you never know what you’ll learn or who you’ll meet. Some of the best connections I’ve made that had huge influences later in my career came from working on projects or in teams that I didn’t particularly enjoy.
  3. Nobody gets it right every time. Making mistakes might feel like the end of the world but it happens to everyone. Own it, learn from it and don’t do it twice.
  4. Know and accept your priorities. Spend time to think about the order of importance of priorities in your life. Where are the boundaries? What tradeoffs are you willing to make? Be open about the priorities and boundaries. Accept the tradeoffs.
  5. Do Unto Others. Every time, all the time.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

A thriving team rallies around their purpose and trusts in their leaders. A strong leader continually articulates the purpose and works visibly to guide and support and the team in achieving that purpose.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Be accessible and visible, fair and consistent. Delegate wisely.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’ve been lucky to have the support and guidance of many people along the way. Particularly, early in my career I worked for a Chief Engineer who was also my functional VP. He definitely started me on the path to where I am now. He supported job rotations, nominated me for unique opportunities, made it possible for me to work part time (completely unheard of in the company at that time) when my first child was born and continued to guide and support me as I moved in and out of his direct influence. Without his sponsorship, it’s hard to know what might be different today.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Who is going to hold your hand in the end?” I mentioned a key sponsor in my career in the previous question. This quote came out in a discussion with him about an opportunity for overseas assignment. I had just returned from a year in Japan with my family when I was offered another assignment. The role was exciting and challenging and would clearly be an acceleration move. But, it would also mean moving the family again and little opportunity for my husband to keep pursuing his own career interests. My sponsor was reminding me to check back in on my priorities. Were the tradeoffs aligned with the priorities I had set and the life I was building? This lesson goes through my head any time I’m balancing personal and professional choices. If a choice or a collection of choices has the potential to change the answer, the decision is simple.

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