Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) jobs remain one of the fastest-growing fields with some of the best pay. The Bureau of Labor Standards predicted that overall STEM employment would grow by 13% between 2012 and 2022. In other words, there are plenty of jobs in the field to go around. But even now, in 2020, there is little diversity among those who fill these roles.
Women in STEM are dramatically under-represented. Less than a third of female students are likely to pursue STEM subjects in higher education, and when they do, they often receive lower pay. Even international bodies like the United Nations are calling for greater inclusion of women in the pipeline of science and technology jobs.
The lack of women in the field has nothing to do with ability or even desire. It says far more about society and employers than about women themselves. That’s why it’s so important not to just say you’ll hire women for STEM jobs, but to actively recruit females and give them paths to career development.
It’s Time to Change the Cultural Perception of Female Scientists
The gender gap in science persists despite women outpacing men in the attainment of higher education. In the U.S., female students earn more PhDs than men on average, and that’s not new. In 2017, female doctoral graduates outnumbered men for the ninth consecutive year. Despite that, the scales tip towards men in science degrees like engineering and physics, and less than 30% of researchers in the world are female.
Entrenched gender stereotypes combined with gender bias keep girls away from science education in school and then drive them away from STEM subjects in college. These stereotypes are complicated, and they come from every direction. That’s why it’s so important to not only break-free of stereotypes, but show how wrong they always were by highlighting the incredible roles women have played in science over the past century.
Companies need to do more than just say “we celebrate diversity.” They need to recognize how crucial women have been to current science. Without women like Katherine Johnson, Neil Armstrong would not have walked on the moon in 1969. If Rosalind Franklin hadn’t taken Photo 51, Watson and Crick would have struggled to identify DNA’s double helix structure.
It’s time for an attitude change. Female scientists have already changed the world, usually from the shadows. By recognizing this, we can create the culture needed to encourage more women into tech and allow them to flourish in ways that are absolutely possible.
Start by Showing Off Women’s Achievements
Visibility is a key part of representation, and even though there is a growing number of women in fields like engineering, it’s not always visible to those who need to see it, particularly young girls up to college-aged women. One way to promote visibility is for companies to showcase women’s achievements and put women in the spotlight, both inside and outside of the office.
Why is it so important for companies to take the lead? Because many women who have tried to achieve have found that it did them little good without the support of their employers. In 2011, Catalyst, a non-profit that aims to create more equitable workplaces for women, released a report that showed that even when women did “all the right things” including using self-help books, participating in mentorships, and networking with leaders, their actual advancement still fell short of their male counterparts.
Studies show that promoting self-efficacy for women in STEM generates supportive workplaces and drives greater public engagement. What that looks like in practice differs for each company, but it can include the following practices:
- Sending female staff to speak at conferences
- Promoting STEM education from primary school to college
- Using women in company advertising
- Sending female scientists to career fairs
- Participating in events like International Day of Women and Girls in Science
By participating in activities like these and changing recruiting tactics to address shortcomings and to attract new types of talent, you can start pulling in the best women for the job.
Keep Women with Clear Discrimination and Harassment Policies
The #MeToo movement set the tech industry alight when it became clear that tech was second only to media in the number of sexual harassment reports. Surveys show that more than a third of industry workers experience or witness sexism at work. As the work begins to shift STEM workplaces from male-dominated to diverse spaces, there need to be clear and defined policies that warn against and punish bad behavior while also protecting those who find themselves on the receiving end of sexism and harassment.
Stories of overt sexism and near-criminal harassment are ever-present, but what do the policies that protect women look like? First, it needs to go further than “be nice” and “don’t harass women.” A strong workplace harassment and discrimination policy includes a long list of procedures:
- Tailored training policies and plans
- Documentation of retention policies
- Compliance procedures
- Reporting policies of both the company and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)
All of these need to be communicated thoroughly and often. They also need to come with real teeth; there needs to be consequences for violating them.
The big focus, however, must remain on prevention. Research has found that the training most typically used (handbooks, seminars, and lectures) only teaches basic information and in some instances can damage company culture or make harassment worse. Additionally, those who are most likely to be harassers are least likely to benefit from reactive training.
Another focus needs to be on workplace culture: creating a place where everyone feels safe at work. It should also empower employees to stand up for each other when they see something wrong. Training should not focus on “bad behavior,” but rather on strategies for stepping in and shutting the behavior down, including bystander training and how to confront problematic behavior.
The EEOC is already doing great work in the area of designing respectful workplaces, and companies should follow their lead. Especially when it comes to bringing more women and more diversity into STEM fields across a number of industries, ensuring the proper procedures and open-doors are in place are the only sure-fire ways to invite new ideas and new experiences to the table.
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