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‘Why we need to change the conversation from “encouraging” or “mentoring” women in STEM to “sponsoring” them’ with Penny Bauder & Carrie Rogers-Whitehead

I feel we need to change the conversation from “encouraging” or “mentoring” women in STEM to “sponsoring” them. Women are over-mentored and under sponsored. There’s a big difference between mentoring and sponsoring. When you mentor someone you bring them up to your level, but when you sponsor someone you put them above you. To put […]

I feel we need to change the conversation from “encouraging” or “mentoring” women in STEM to “sponsoring” them. Women are over-mentored and under sponsored. There’s a big difference between mentoring and sponsoring. When you mentor someone you bring them up to your level, but when you sponsor someone you put them above you. To put someone above you, you need to have a close affinity to them. People are more likely to sponsor someone like themselves, someone that reminds them of who they were in their young years, someone they really admire. In addition, if you are to sponsor someone, you already need to be in a position of authority. When there are less women in positions of authority, there are less women to sponsor others. And men don’t always sponsor women because they may not feel similar to them. Women need more sponsors, people to pull them up from middle management to the C suite. But in order to get more sponsors, we need more women in the C suite. It is a bit of a Catch-22 but something that we can do something about.


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

Carrie is the founder of Digital Respons-Ability, the state sponsored provider of digital citizenship education. Her company provides trainings to thousands of students, parents and educators across the state of Utah and beyond. Carrie is also the author of Digital Citizenship: Teaching Strategies and Practice from the Field, just released by Rowman & Littlefield and is also the author of the upcoming Routledge title in early 2021: Becoming a Digital Parent. She regularly writes and researches on technology and has been a regular tech contributor to KSL News Media, ISTE and other outlets. Carrie is also a mother and practices what she preaches at home with her child.


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

Istarted Digital Respons-Ability because of gaps I saw in my old career working with young people. There was talk about the what of technology, but not the WHY. I saw a push for STEM, but not a push for soft skills. I saw more technology coming into homes, schools and organizations, which is something I’m supportive of. But I didn’t see enough discussion about that technology and long-term implications. Technology is changing rapidly, but the human brain has been the same for thousands of years. I wanted to help address the gaps in education and our silicon society with Stone Age brains.

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

When I began my company I was thinking more about growing, filling gaps, replacing my old salary — -not how it would affect my parenting. But the more I dived into the topic of digital citizenship, the more affected my family life. I started adjusting my expectations and rules around technology in the home, and talking to my child more about their online behavior.

For example, from a young age I had a rule that there were no devices over dinner. As my child grew and got more verbal now they are the one that enforces that rule. My kid reminds the family that it’s dinnertime, and there’s no phones — -sometimes to my spouse’s chagrin. It’s fascinating to see the words I’ve written on pages or spoken in classes — -now coming out of my kid’s mouth!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I’ve taught business as an adjunct the past few years and I tell my students the best classes for entrepreneurship are: basic business, marketing and accounting. I should take my own advice. I went into entrepreneurship knowing next to nothing about accounting and particularly taxes. I had filed my own personal taxes but didn’t know much about the wide world of business taxes. I got hit real hard the first year in payroll taxes, not understanding how they all worked. My mouth dropped open when I saw my bill from the IRS. I don’t know how “funny” I would describe accounting mistakes but I can chuckle a bit now about the irony of lecturing on accounting with the mistakes I’ve made!

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

Before I started Digital Respons-Ability I taught STEM to young people: chemistry programs, basic circuitry and robotics, graphic design and more. This was about a decade ago and everywhere you looked there was a new gadget, think piece or more about encouraging students to get more involved in STEM education and careers. I do firmly believe STEM careers are a great option for young people; but I also believe that STEM education was missing something: the WHY. I felt like we were getting students into STEM through flashy ways: virtual reality! Chemical explosions! Robots! But we weren’t delving deeper into WHY things worked, WHY students should pick this as a career and WHY should be doing it at all? I felt we were dismissing the humanities, ethics, communication etc. for these technical fields. Hard skills were being placed higher in importance than soft skills.

It’s the soft skills that can help students succeed in STEM, or any field. And that’s where my company came in: bringing those social, emotional learning skills to technology. We teach our entire program to students with no technology, no gadgets but lots of markers and talk. Technology may change, but our human brains have been the same for thousands of years. We teach to concepts like communication, self-regulation, psychology, empathy and more. It’s not flashy what I do, but you don’t need flash to educate.

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

I’m excited about our research in this topic. We’ve taught tens of thousands of hours of students and are working hard on figuring out what can influence digital behavior and how educators can teach this concepts. Some of those findings and research were in my book, Digital Citizenship: Teaching Strategies and Practice from the Field. There’s a lot of talk about how important it is that young people are using technology safely and responsibly, but not a lot of consensus and research on HOW to do that.

We did a pilot research study last summer with a co-investigator looking at social emotional learning skills and digital behaviors. We’re doing another study this spring and delving more into the topic. We train educators on digital citizenship and hope our research and work can influence education for years to come.

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?

We do need more women in STEM and there’s been some great work in this area. This is a topic I’ve written on for years. I remember as a kid the only girl-centric programs I participated in was “Take your Child to Work Day.” My Dad took me to his work, a chemical plant, and I really enjoyed seeing the process of things. But that was it, no other initiatives or programs and I didn’t see STEM as something I was real excited to get involved in.

Like I was mentioning in my earlier interview I feel like lots of STEM education is focused on the BANG and FLASH and missing something. I think that style over substance is great for getting initial interest, but not really keeping it. You need a deeper interest, feeling you’re making a difference and an understanding of why you’re doing what you’re doing. I feel there needs to be some better connection between the STEM fields and humanities and that young people understand that getting an English or Arts major can make you even better at technical fields. I feel like there’s this either/or choice young people feel like they need to make. Like they have to decide between technical and non-technical and there is no in between. This can also lead students, especially girls, to feel like they can’t do a STEM field at all because they don’t excel in some specific technical areas.

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 feel we need to change the conversation from “encouraging” or “mentoring” women in STEM to “sponsoring” them. Women are over-mentored and under sponsored. There’s a big difference between mentoring and sponsoring. When you mentor someone you bring them up to your level, but when you sponsor someone you put them above you. To put someone above you, you need to have a close affinity to them. People are more likely to sponsor someone like themselves, someone that reminds them of who they were in their young years, someone they really admire. In addition, if you are to sponsor someone, you already need to be in a position of authority.

When there are less women in positions of authority, there are less women to sponsor others. And men don’t always sponsor women because they may not feel similar to them. Women need more sponsors, people to pull them up from middle management to the C suite. But in order to get more sponsors, we need more women in the C suite. It is a bit of a Catch-22 but something that we can do something about.

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

One myth of being a person in STEM is that you need a technical background. Just because your degree isn’t in a STEM field does not mean you can’t be successful in that field. My bachelors is in history, but through that degree I learned critical thinking skills, how to research and much more.

We learn through doing, tinkering, making and although I am an educator myself, I admit that education only goes so far. Women who come from different backgrounds should not feel like they can’t succeed in a STEM field. There is a myth of right brain/left brain and creative vs. technical people. We often put people in boxes: STEM or arts where people from either area can succeed in the other.

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.)

  1. Read constantly. I am a bibliophile and always have a stack of book by my nightstand. I have regular tech blogs I read and am always trying to learn something new. Right now I have on my nightstand Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch, as well as a constant stack of graphic novels!
  2. Have a cut off time and get to sleep. I push back against this trend I see of constantly working. We should not be bragging about how little sleep we get! This hyper capitalist culture is not helpful to our families or our physical health. I’ve learned to put work away at a certain time at night so I can decompress, be with family, read and get a regular and full night’s sleep. I think we need to start bragging about how much sleep we get — not how little!
  3. Talk people up. When you’re in meetings, conferences, sending emails — -talk others up. Whenever you can praise your staff or colleagues, do it. Sometimes we put others down to lift up ourselves in others eyes — but it takes a real leader to step aside to lift others up. I remember I had a boss like this and I never forgot the lesson. He would talk me up and I remember meeting a colleague at another location who already knew much about me. They felt they knew me before they met me because he talked me up. I’m not as good as he was doing it with my staff, but I’m working to get there!
  4. Take responsibility. When you’re a leader you will be blamed for things that aren’t your fault. But even if they aren’t your fault, you apologize, and take responsibility. Your product, services or staff are all your responsibility. Once I had to deal with an angry customer who had been told something incorrectly by someone else. It would have been easy to throw this person under the bus, blame them for dropping the ball. But although part of me had to bite my tongue, I did it. I apologized and took full responsibility and offered to make it right.
  5. Become a better communicator. One of the best skills you can have in any STEM or technical field is communication. You will need to be able to communicate your product to other teams, work with others, interview well, present on your accomplishments, receive feedback and much more. I feel like public speaking and debate classes should be mandatory in high school and college. Those type of skills are vital for any career, even ones where you may think it’s not as important like STEM.

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

Try to meet one on one as much as possible. My staff are spread out and we don’t have a traditional office setting. It’s hard to always manage or know what’s going on when my main communication with them is text or email. Lots of workplaces are like this with virtual employees and remote offices. Digital communication is a great tool, but it can’t replace face to face meetings. I try to take the time to meet one on one with all my staff, and when we meet we don’t just talk business. Take time at the beginning of each meeting to ask questions, catch up, small talk. These face to face meetings do take more time, but they are so important.

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

I have another business who has had some rocky times. My co-founder left and there was misinformation, gossip, toxicity that was spread through that process. I was talked about behind my back and vague booked about online. There was divisiveness with people picking sides. It was extremely stressful, my sleep was affected, I lost my appetite and I had a lot of anxiety.

I learned many things from that experience but one was that teams need to understand the concepts of change management. Team members interpret stress=negativity and change=bad. Change management helps people understand the cycle of change, that there is always stress and divisiveness when a shift happens. It helps people step back to look at the larger picture, not the individual squabbles but in general the direction of where things are going. If we can accept that change creates anxiety and stress — -it’s either to push through it and see it for what it is. Change it hard, but it passes.

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?

Earlier in this interview I mentioned a boss that would talk positively about me behind my back and set a great example. He was the best boss I ever had and the one who initially hired me in my first career.

One thing I really admired about him is that he would rarely say no. Becoming a boss myself I’ve learned it’s easier to say no to people, then make space for new projects and ideas. It’s easier to just create rules, then loosen them.

This boss allowed me to try some new projects that pushed the bounds of my job description. One of the projects was expanding services to those with disabilities. It took additional time and sacrifices on his end to adjust schedules and budgets — -but he made it happen. I’ll always appreciate how his answer was rarely no but, “Yes, and what will you do first?”

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

As Digital Respons-Ability has grown and expanded I’ve been able to reach more and more young people. We’re finding great outcomes on digital behaviors, attitudes and knowledge that can affect these students the rest of their lives.

By youth at these pivotal times in their lives, all of us can create a bigger impact of change. Happy, healthy and empowered young people influence those around them in their careers, they create new norms, raise families and that influence trickles down. If you can impact one young person’s life, you spread that impact over a lifetime and to many others.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’m hoping to inspire that movement now with Digital Respons-Ability. We have changed the way that much of digital citizenship/online safety is taught. We’re incorporating research from multiple disciplines like prevention science into our teaching — -and finding an impact. I’m hoping to help people reframe the concept of online safety to something more holistic and nuanced. We can’t just focus on the dangers of the Internet without addressing the positives too. There’s so much fear around the Internet, but it’s here to stay. I half-joke that I hope one day I’m out of a job. That what we’re teaching is adopted and incorporated into classrooms from a young age. I hope this can inspire a movement that helps young people — -and means I need to find a new career!

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

I find inspiration from the words of Stoic philosophers, Seneca, Cato and Epictetus. One quote from Epictetus is “Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.” It’s another version of “practice what you preach.” I keep that in mind every day; I don’t teach anyone anything I wouldn’t do. I don’t ask staff to do something I wouldn’t do, or haven’t already done. I’m a big believer of jumping in and DOING, not philosophizing, not talking, not thinking. We learn by doing. We are who we are through our actions.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

This is tough to answer! But one person I admire is Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft. I love how he does not adopt the typical “tech innovator” attitude of “breaking things” and egotism. I admire his quiet and humility and feel we need more leaders like that. I also appreciate how he’s open to work with other companies and openness to learn more.

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