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A New Report Uses Data To Drive Diversity In STEM Fields

Corporate boardrooms in the worlds of finance and law have made strides in recent years in terms of opening their doors to women and people of color. Yet, as we have seen recently in the news, Silicon Valley and other STEM-related fields like biotechnology remain largely boy’s clubs.

A new report released by the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) called “Revolutionizing the STEM Entrepreneurship Ecosystem” seeks to address this issue head-on, using real-world data and actionable advice. The report identifies and addresses three critical points for women and women of color tech and science entrepreneurs: the myth that there is a “pipeline problem,” the fact that traditional accelerator programs are not working for this population and how investors can fix the funding gap.

While an impressive 45% of U.S. companies are headed by women, according to the report, only a small fraction of those are in STEM-related fields. Women, and in particular women of color, entrepreneurs in these areas continue to encounter bias and roadblocks at every step of the process. Melinda Richter, the AWIS Leadership Award recipient and Global Head of Johnson & Johnson Innovation, JLABS, explains, “I see that many women's voices are often overlooked or not heard because of the package it comes in. It has been a mission of mine to ensure that we're creating systemic change to make that difference.” To that end, Johnson & Johnson has put metrics behind that change. Richter explains, “In our network, 23% of our CEOs are female-led, as opposed to the industry average, which is less than 1%... We partner with a lot of different women’s organizations to ensure our content helps to lift those women up so that they not only have the skills and the capabilities and the knowledge and the networks to do it, but they get the confidence to do it. They are inspired to have the courage they need to speak up and be sure that they're heard.”

Diversity not only advances team performance but also improves stockholder value and increases job creation, the report states. Dr. Rachel Haurwitz, the president and CEO of Caribou Biosciences and AWIS Next Generation Award recipient, explains, “The data is clear that diverse teams are more successful across all the metrics, whether it's early-stage technology, innovation or profitability.”

Why, then, this persistent gap? The first problem is that there is a misperception that there are simply not enough qualified candidates coming through the pipeline. However, the report states that “the ‘pipeline’ problem is a fallacy. Women of color STEM entrepreneurs are ready for advancement and funding.” AWIS suggests five ways companies and organizations can attract more diverse candidates, including intentional outreach and networking and attending new conferences with different populations.

The second critical area to be addressed is the failure of traditional entrepreneur accelerator programs to promote diversity. According to the report, these programs tend to be “rigid and exclusionary,” embedded with largely unconscious biases that lead them to accept and reward people who resemble the existing stereotype of a successful entrepreneur (typically, a white male). In fact, AWIS was so dissatisfied with existing programs that they decided to launch their own accelerator called STEM to Market (S2M), which is specifically aimed at supporting women and women of color. S2M seeks to counter bias from the outset. Flexible and virtual, it provides a training program built around a community of entrepreneurs and mentors who provide guidance and takes a more holistic look at a business and an entrepreneur’s life. It also helps train entrepreneurs to deal with the bias they might encounter as they navigate their way through the STEM ecosystem. The report offers actionable ideas for existing programs that are looking to attract and maintain a more diverse cohort, including suggestions for supporting employees through life challenges or dropping gendered and stereotyped language from existing curriculum and content.

Finally, the third area to be addressed is the crucial funding gap. In the last two years, only 2.2% of total venture capital dollars and less than 15% of angel funds went to companies led by women. According to the report, unconscious bias makes up a large part of the reason why it is so difficult for women and women of color to secure funding for their ventures. Instead of mere scolding, however, AWIS again offers five simple action steps investors can take to increase the diversity of their holdings.

The fact is that the current lack of diversity in the STEM entrepreneurship ecosystem hurts everyone. “How can we be in the innovation business and be so behind?” says Dr. Bahija Jallal, President of the AWIS National Governing Board, President, MedImmune and Executive Vice President, AstraZeneca. “Innovation is about diversity. You cannot innovate if you're surrounded by people who think exactly like you.” Opportunities are lost, ideas are left untested, talented contributors and innovators are left out of the discussion. The AWIS report offers a strong clear voice that says: STEM has a problem.”

Thankfully, we finally have the data to show exactly what’s wrong and the leadership to show us how we can fix the underlying problems.

Source: Forbes