How to fill the gender gap in STEM?
With demand for tech talent massively outstripping supply, the lack of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) roles is no longer just a diversity issue – it’s a crisis.
One recent study found that only 30% of researchers and engineers were women – and that this figure had grown by just 4% in the past 15 years. Yet companies across the board are making strenuous efforts to recruit more women. Why isn’t this having more of an impact?
Nupur Mehta, global HR business partner at fintech start-up Nium, says it’s a matter of time: today’s workforce reflects career choices made ten years or more ago. Today’s STEM professionals were choosing their GCSEs at a time when diversity was much less of a priority and most people had never heard of unconscious bias. With more and more STEM initiatives reaching out to girls, Mehta hopes the picture in another ten years will be very different.
However, it’s also critical to tackle unconscious bias in recruitment to ensure that we aren’t then turning away the diverse talent we’ve worked so hard to attract. Hiring managers are not always aligned with HR diversity initiatives and may balk at being “accused” of unconscious bias unless leaders take care in explaining that it’s something we all have and need to be aware of.
Besides formal training, regular conversations have a vital role to play in helping individuals check their bias before interviewing or shortlisting candidates. That includes moving past familiarity bias (the tendency to hire people who look and sound like you) and preconceptions of what the stereotypical high-potential employee looks like in your field.
One practice that can help here is “blind reviews” of CVs, in which info like name, age, gender, and candidate photos are excluded so that the hiring manager can choose on the basis of experience and skills. Another great way to cut down on unconscious bias is to go for a more structured, qualitative interview process rather than an unstructured chat.
Job descriptions should also be reviewed for terminology that might put women off. This is a difficult one, because terms like “dominant and competitive”, or, as one ad put it, “a hunter”, are not inherently sexist. Women can be those things. But in an industry where women are often made unwelcome, this kind of machismo in job ads can read as “we’re looking for a man – or at least a woman who can make it in a boy's club.”
Even women with very aggressive personalities, who excel in competitive fields like sales, often experience alienation in male-dominated workplaces, and consciously or unconsciously, they recognise the language associated with those workplaces. Studies in word association also show that internalised misogyny runs very deep, and women are less likely to identify themselves with male-coded adjectives even when they perform the same in objective tests of those traits.
Finally, it’s important to track progress by carrying out regular reviews of internal data to work out what needs improving.
● What proportion of the CVs you’re looking at are women?
● What proportion of those women make it to interview?
● How many of those are hired?
● Are they getting promoted at the same rate as your male employees? If not, at what level do they seem to get stuck?
● How’s your employee retention for women versus men?
● At what level do women leave the company (is it the one where they stop getting promoted)?
Asking these questions can be a real eye-opener and help you understand the most effective action you can take to increase gender diversity in your company now – not in 10 years.