Introduction

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