From education to workplace hiring and retention, the barriers that prevent women from successful careers in STEM are well-documented. For example, only 39% of STEM university graduates in Canada are women, and unfortunately, those graduates still struggle to find work in the field. In fact, women with STEM degrees are more likely to be unemployed and have lower median salaries than men with STEM degrees. In order to address these barriers and promote diversity in STEM, the Institute for Gender and the Economy (GATE) hosted the event, “Women in STEM: A Panel Discussion,” in March 2018.
The panel was moderated by Sonia Kang, Associate Professor of Organizational Behaviour and Human Resource Management at Rotman. The four panelists were Huda Idrees, Founder and CEO of Dot Health; Andrea Stairs, CEO of eBay Canada; Marisa Sterling, Assistant Dean, Inclusivity and Diversity at the Lassonde School of Engineering, York University; and Jessica Yamoah, Founder of Innovate Inclusion.
How to help close the gender gap in STEM
There are several ways companies, organizations, and academic programs can help close the gender gap in STEM. The items listed below were outlined by the panelists during our “Women in STEM” event.
Create more innovative, inclusive messaging
The panelists explained that a career in STEM is more than just programming the next mobile application or building new algorithms, it’s also about human impact. Particularly the impact on groups underrepresented in STEM, such as women and visible minorities. Thus, in order to become more appealing to these groups, it may be beneficial for STEM companies to focus on the human impact of technology. Further, STEM can involve and influence fields as varied as the arts, sports, and politics, however STEM organizations and university programs do not always demonstrate this when they are recruiting. STEM can also appear elitist and unwelcoming for many underprivileged communities. As one panelist stated, tech companies are often founded by people who have a lot of privilege and/or money. Therefore, to increase inclusiveness and accessibility, STEM companies should take concrete steps to engage with these communities through local organizations and leaders.
STEM companies are often founded by people who have a lot of privilege and money, and the messaging often reflects that.
Place a higher value on “soft” skills
Recruiting by STEM companies tend to focus on technical skill requirements (e.g., coding, machine learning, etc.), therefore their employees often lack important soft skills (e.g., teamwork, flexibility, communication, empathy, etc.). These companies should diversify their talent-pool by recruiting for a broader set of skills that may not have been deemed “valuable” in the past. For example, even though someone may be able to use computer programming to create a successful product, this does not mean they can effectively lead or manage a team. Therefore, more diverse and inclusive recruiting might result in attracting candidates who are mid-career managers with work and education experience outside of STEM.
Further, panelists recommended that “soft” skills be called “transferable” skills instead, as the skills often regarded as “soft” are historically gendered: women are associated with having soft skills, while men are viewed as having more valuable technical skills. This difference in terminology and thus, value, exacerbates the gender gap that already exists within STEM.
Actively cultivate a more inclusive workplace culture
Many believe that there is a lack of women in STEM because there aren’t enough women in the pipeline. However, research shows that there are other, more significant, factors at play. In particular, workplace socialization in many of these fields, such as engineering, perpetuate sex-segregation and ultimately, lead many women to exit due to discrimination and bias. Therefore, even though women graduate with STEM degrees, women are not retained in STEM careers. Many people describe this as a ‘leaky pipeline,’ but evidence would suggest that diverse people do not ‘leak’ out, they are pushed out by the culture and practices of organizations. One panelist noted that because tech companies tend to be dominated by men, it is common for them to have a “frat house” culture. If workplaces do not become more inclusive, then people from all genders and backgrounds, including women and minorities, may not want to work there.
Workplaces should be aware of microaggressions and how they impact retention.
Workplaces should also be aware of how microaggressions impact retention. Microaggressions are seemingly small acts of hostility or prejudice that make women or other minority groups feel like outsiders, and over time, these microaggressions can force workers to leave. An example of a microaggression is if someone mistakes a woman engineer for a receptionist because of the gendering of these roles. Education and training on systemic bias and discrimination coupled with accountability for progress could help address this issue.
Encourage allies in leadership and on boards to help move the dial
It is crucial to have leaders in STEM who are champions for diversity. When executive teams are all white, heterosexual men, it can be more difficult for women and minorities to breach a discussion about diversity. Therefore, leaders should take the responsibility to identify who is not at the table, make space for them, and amplify their perspectives. Another way leadership can help move the dial is by refusing to participate in situations where there is a clear bias or lack of representation. For example, one panelist stated that she will not be on a corporate board unless other women are also on the board or up for board appointments, indicating that the company takes diversity and inclusion seriously. Ultimately, these types of actions will push companies to think more critically and holistically about what qualifications they are looking for in their board members and leaders.
While there has been some progress made in diversifying STEM over the last few decades, STEM companies still have work to do in order to become more accessible to women and other minority groups. As one panelist noted, STEM companies are just like every other business: they need people who can communicate well, be convincing, sell, and lead. Yet STEM hasn’t made itself appealing to everyone, and often appears exclusionary or elitist. As a result, many people are not aware that they could succeed in STEM. Therefore, it is important that STEM companies change how they represent themselves, look beyond narrow qualifications or educational backgrounds, and be proactive in shifting their cultures to be more inclusive.