Tech organizations have carefully constructed policies to drive gender equality in the talent process, but they are not enough. Bias continues to express itself in more subtle ways. New approaches are needed to tear down the barriers once and for all.
— By Debra Jenkins
Women continue to be under-represented in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce, despite the public attention this issue gets. It proves once again that eliminating long-term embedded biases is extremely difficult, but it can be done.
Some of the obvious strategies for improving the ability to attract and retain women include things like offering flexible schedules, remote work programs, maternal and paternal leave policies, employee resource groups (ERGs), mentoring programs, and recruiting men as supporters of gender equality. Many companies have already adopted these strategies, and in many companies, they are still not working.
Recognizing the continued difficulties in attracting and retaining women in STEM positions beyond the traditional software development segment, it is clear other actions are needed.
Where are the Women?
The Department of Labor (DOL) published some eye-opening statistics, projecting the occupations with the fastest projected growth by share of women in the occupation for 2016-2026. Click on the top job – solar photovoltaic installers – and learn women hold 2 percent of the jobs. Here are some more statistics and the percent of female employees: Statisticians (48 percent), mathematicians (8.3 percent), and information security analysts (16.8 percent).
Here is an interesting historical perspective. Women have been computer programmers since the 1940s when the new technology emerged. Though this sounds like women should have already proved their intellectual and problem-solving abilities, decades ago bias was already embedded in the young tech industry. Hardware skills were considered more valuable and more difficult to master, so the hardware segment was dominated by males.
Per the DOL, women currently make up 18.7 percent of the share of software development jobs, and the median annual wage has risen to $103,620. As wages went up and software development became more valuable than hardware, the sector became dominated by men.
Where are the female robotics engineers, mathematicians writing algorithms, and computer and information research scientists?
Approximately 26 percent of women who earn university degrees in STEM disciplines work in technical careers. After landing STEM jobs, women have an attrition rate that is 45 percent higher than the attrition rate for men. Clearly more needs to be done to attract and retain women in STEM jobs.
Traditional strategies are important and need to stay in place. Pay equity, unbiased recruiting and hiring tools, policies and procedures with a gender focus (like women returning to the same job after maternity leave), on-site daycare facilities, flexible schedules, mentoring and sponsorship programs, ERGs, and accountability metrics for managers are just some of the strategies tech companies have implemented. Many of these are quite affordable, too, meaning smaller companies can utilize them to close the gender gap and to get needed skills.
Non-traditional strategies represent the next phase of effort. Well-intentioned policies and procedures will not overcome bias if recruiters and hiring managers only find new ways to express bias. It is partly to explain for the lack of progress in the tech industry. Publicly stating women are treated equally is not the same as being treated equally. Implicit bias may be eliminated from interview questions, but is it eliminated from the interviewer and management attitudes? Changing attitudes is very difficult to address.
Only for Women
In the Workplace Bias chapter of the extensive research report "Why So Few" written by Catherine Hill, Christianne Corbett and Andresse St. Rose and published by the American Association of University Women, it is noted that STEM fields are "masculine fields," and this perspective drives attitudes.
The chapter reviews a study by NYU organizational psychologist Madeline Hellman who said the results indicate that "whereas there are many things that lead an individual to be disliked, including obnoxious behavior, arrogance, stubbornness, and pettiness, it is only for women, not men, for whom a unique propensity toward dislike is created by success in a nontraditional work situation."
In other words, when women succeed in a masculine field, some men continue to harbor an attitude of resentment. This is why holding managers accountable for results is critical.
A Chill in the Room
Though tempting to think "things have changed since 2010" (when the paper was written), companies a decade later are recognizing that negative gender stereotypes persist. A woman walks into an interview for an analyst's position and finds only men who then proceed to technically follow the anti-discrimination policies, but their attitude makes it clear a woman is not welcome. This has a "chilling effect."
One of the strategies companies implemented to mitigate some of this risk is to only use structured interviews, ensure one or more women are included in the interview, and make sure it is not only a woman pouring coffee or talking about culture while the men talk about the job's technical aspects.
To understand the difficulty in retaining women in STEM, research published in "Frontiers in Psychology" found that prevailing social identity threats continue to harm women's careers. Women working in a male-dominated sector often feel they are devalued or stigmatized just for being women. They may feel uncomfortable because of sexist remarks or believe they are judged solely on gender rather than professional competence.
It is not just the number of men. Normative male dominance persists in which the STEM sector is portrayed as having masculine traits – competitive, task-focused, individualistic, high in status, high compensation, and only for those who are innately talented or brilliant. A multi-country survey found that people associate STEM abilities more strongly with men.
Women working in a male-dominated sector often feel they are devalued or stigmatized just for being women. They may feel uncomfortable because of sexist remarks or believe they are judged solely on gender rather than professional competence.
No Compromising Allowed
In the final analysis, women are discouraged by the interview process, and if hired, further discouraged by the organization's culture and manager attitudes and biases. Women continue to be judged by the hours they put into work, rather than results. This hampers career growth opportunities, and if promoted, they are viewed as being even more "masculine" or worse, "a waste of promotion because she will get pregnant and quit."
Non-traditional strategies include offering hard-hitting leadership development opportunities that address the lesser recognized biases – like specific behaviors reflecting a poor attitude – and establishing monitoring of everything from the gender makeup of project teams to documented career goals of women and their progress toward reaching the goals.
Business leaders must also establish communication systems that enable women to express their challenges and management to provide feedback.
Above all, define the culture as based on a set of inclusive values and compromising them is not an option. Question everything, from the language in recruitment programs, interview questions and job descriptions to the criteria used in hiring decisions that exclude women to the reasons women leave a job. Do not make assumptions that you know what each woman is thinking because chances are you don't.