EQUALITY AND THE STEM PIPELINE
How companies can contribute to closing the gender gap in STEM: Part 1
Inspired by the multistakeholder collaboration with our partners and the research conducted alongside our Women4STEM Daring Circle over the last four years, the effects of technology have been on our minds recently. At the Women’s Forum Global Meeting which recently came to a close, a number of speakers and participants reinforced our sense that there are key challenges which must be addressed to improve equality in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
A number of key insights have emerged. First, it is increasingly clear that all jobs are becoming STEM jobs. And as jobs take on a greater technological component, requiring analytical and problem-solving skills, and the boundaries between STEM and non-STEM jobs become increasingly blurred, diagnosing and addressing this inequality grows more urgent. Second, a whole pipeline approach is needed to address the gender gap in STEM skills. In an ideal world, creativity, effort and talent would be sufficient to enter, progress, and excel in STEM fields. Unfortunately, for many women, that remains insufficient. This is not a challenge, however, that can be addressed by actors in any one part of the pipeline from schools to companies: all must work together. Third, it is clear from the insights gathered at our meetings and events that part of the solution is to emphasise the potential for positive impact in STEM jobs, and to highlight the work of so many incredible women already doing well by doing good to help inspire the next generation.
The challenge and the opportunity of STEM equality
Precisely because it afflicts the pipeline as a whole, the challenge of equality in STEM is profound. Only 28% of STEM graduates in tertiary education across G7 countries are women, a number that falls to a fifth when considering engineering, manufacturing, and construction. Women are still only 25% of the STEM workforce around the world, and the gender gap is even more pronounced in the C-Suite, with women representing just 9% of IT CEOs.
Closing the gender gap in STEM represents a huge opportunity to combat glaring societal inequalities. STEM, after all, offers excellent prospects for long-term job creation; jobs in STEM occupations are projected to grow at twice the rate of other fields over the next ten years. It is also an opportunity for companies and economies. Addressing this gap would help companies boost revenue, bring more talent to important sectors of the economy, and help to drive growth and wealth creation in the medium term at a time when the global economic outlook is darkening. And, to address global challenges that would benefit from a more diverse pool of talent driving inclusive design and innovation.
From intention to action
So, what can be done? For the last few years, the Women’s Forum for the Economy & Society has worked hand in hand with some of the most forward-thinking employers in the world to share experience and explore how to make progress on this question. We have organised global and regional conferences, conducted research through large-scale surveys and interviews alongside our Knowledge Partner Boston Consulting Group (BCG), and worked in partnership at Daring Circle meetings to share insights.
It is already clear that, in the words of Eric Labaye, the President of the Institut Polytechnique de Paris at our recent Women’s Forum Global Meeting, “the problem is not performance. It is social factors.” There is, after all, no gap between men and women in terms of ability or ambition. In fact, recent Women’s Forum and BCG research shows that in Europe, women are slightly more likely than men to say they will seek promotions in the next 1-3 years (47% vs. 42%). Nor is there a gap when it comes to risk taking. Women and men are equally comfortable taking risks such as applying for a position without meeting all the criteria.
There is, however, a big difference in the challenges men and women face in their journey to the top in STEM careers. Women face challenges that men do not. They are more likely to take on disproportionate responsibilities for caregiving, resulting in longer or more frequent leaves of absence. They perceive a greater pressure to prove their skills in technology than men, which means they must work harder for the same recognition. And compared to men, they find too few role models and peers to support and guide them, despite relying more on their networks than individual confidence in seeking opportunities to progress in the workplace.
Fixing the pipeline
Fixing the pipeline starts with school. As the 2022 Women’s Forum barometer revealed, three quarters of G7 citizens are in favour of measures like including an equal number of female and male role models in STEM textbooks, teaching coding from the very start of the secondary school curriculum, and funding national campaigns to raise awareness of the importance of STEM education for girls and women. Becomtech is an organisation set up to support girls to find their path into STEM careers. They work in schools to train girls in computer programming and digital communications and offer high-school work experience, apprenticeship programmes for 18–21-year-olds, and internships. They also offer a year-long programme in which selected candidates learn through workshops and develop leadership skills.
Companies can be proactive in this area as well. They can develop programmes for hosting high-school girls for short internships, apprenticeships, and mentoring opportunities in parts of the company that use STEM skills. These can inspire young people about the potential of STEM and its applications, give them access to people who can serve as role models, and help them start to build networks that will help them as they grow and seek bigger opportunities.
In the second article in this series, we’ll look at other actions that can be taken later in the pipeline to contribute to greater equality in STEM and begin to fix the pipeline.
How companies can contribute to closing the gender gap in STEM: Part 2
In the first article in this series, we looked at steps that can be taken to address inequalities in STEM early in the pipeline. In this piece, we will look at how companies and others can increase the representation and leadership of women in STEM further along in their careers.
Companies can make progress on gender inequality in STEM by how they communicate the purpose of their activities. The key is to articulate the work and their roles in terms of the social and environmental ideals to which it contributes. As Ariane Thomas, L’Oréal’s Global Tech Director for Sustainability, said at a recent Women’s Forum Global Meeting, “technology is social and environmental. From eco design metrics such as energy consumption to technology for sustainability, from supporting the circular economy to inclusive technology, technology has a key role to play in addressing the major environmental and social issues of our time.” And as Eric Labaye, the President of the Institut Polytechnique de Paris said at a recent Women’s Forum event, “if you aspire to have an impact on health, climate, or peace… the most impactful ways of doing this are through engineering and STEM. Work needs to be done to send this message”. In fact, Women’s Forum research with our Knowledge Partners Boston Consulting Group shows that doing so has an outsized potential drive women’s motivation to reskill and upskill, in turn supporting their advancement.
Deploying STEM skills for positive impact includes steering emerging technologies away from gender biases. The metaverse, for example, has the potential to become a new norm for online activity. At present, however, its development is being driven by the world of gaming, a traditionally male-dominated industry. Women are underrepresented in the metaverse’s designers, and it is already showing signs of gender bias and inequalities, including incidents of gender violence in virtual realities.
But as Maria Berrada, lawyer at Jacob Avocats, recently pointed out at a Women’s Forum session, the experience of the gaming sector shows that this need not be the case. She points out that today, 50% of gamers are women, a significant increase on the sector’s early years. Ensuring that sexist mechanisms are not reproduced in the metaverse is exactly the kind of social objective that may motivate women and girls with STEM skills to find their way into this early-stage sector.
There is a great deal that managers and companies can do to help women overcome the challenges they face in advancing to leadership in STEM.
Take the issue of role models. Managers and organisations can actively help women build and nurture networks to support their careers in tech. They can help women find mentors and role models. Companies with effective programmes can make a difference. Sokuntheary En from Bayer, Lead Partner of the Women4STEM Daring Circle, argues that “leadership and mentorship programmes across geographies have been very effective at Bayer.” She points to the opportunity to connect with senior leaders as a key factor in their success.
Our research finds that this is particularly important, because when making career decisions, women tend to rely on strong networks of support such as recruiting firms, peers, mentors, sponsors, affiliation groups, and household members more often than men, who are more likely to rely on self-confidence. As a result, organisations where men are the majority may underestimate the centrality of role models and networks to women’s career development.
Organisations can address inequalities by nurturing and emphasising these networks. As Labaye says, this must be a priority for male managers too. Creating a culture where women’s skills are recognised and there are mentors and role models “is part of what it means to be a good manager.” As Ariane Thomas, L’Oréal’s Global Tech Director for Sustainability, said at a recent Women’s Forum event, L’Oréal sees its unconscious bias training as a key part of its talent acquisition strategy, and has a 100% participation rate. “For us,” she says, “it’s an incredible opportunity to say to young women, ‘we’re constructing the new L’Oréal here. We are building the world and the businesses of tomorrow, and we want you to be part of that journey.”
One good way companies can start is by being proactive about encouraging women to apply for roles and leadership positions. For many companies, this idea often remains easier to agree with in principle than put into practice, but a number of organisations have emerged to help bridge that gap. One is 50intech, an organisation that helps companies attract top talent, focusing precisely on the roles women tend not to apply for. BNP Paribas have also shared details of their initiatives to equalise their hiring.
There is plenty more that companies can do to address these inequalities at the top of the pipeline. They should set a diversity strategy, show the CEO is committed to it, set meaningful KPIs against it, prioritise flexibility. Women in STEM rank flexibility programmes as the top intervention to support their success. Enabling all employees to manage professional and personal commitments through a focus on when, where, and how much they work over a career will help keep women in the leadership pipeline.
Childcare as infrastructure
Infrastructure is a major issue too. A key driver of gender inequalities in STEM is childcare. Women are more likely than men to shoulder caregiving responsibilities resulting in longer periods away from work. This is a massive driver of inequality; 60% of women have declined a role due to their caregiving, compared to only 45% of men. It also makes work less worthwhile. The average cost of childcare across OECD countries for a middle-income, two-earner couple amounts to 16% of a woman’s median full-time earnings. In many countries, it is significantly worse. In the UK, for example, about 38% of woman’s income are spent on childcare.
Companies that want to close the gender gap in STEM skills should provide or subsidise it. Companies that do this retain their talent. Patagonia, for example, provides onsite childcare for all employees at its US headquarters. 100% of new mums return to the company. This compares well with the US average of 79%.
Ariane Thomas articulates the role of L’Oreal in addressing gender inequalities as follows: “our role as a company is to support you. If upskilling is part of that, it’s on us too. We must give you the safety and the mentor ecosystem to succeed. Try. Dare.” Sokuntheary En reiterates the point, encouraging younger employees to seek mentors. “Take that leap,” she advises. “Reach out to a leader. They are people too, and they’re often responsive.”
These are motivating words not just for women looking to advance their careers in STEM, but also for companies looking to go to the next level in supporting the tens of thousands of qualified women into entry level, mid-career, and leadership roles. With a little ingenuity and the spirit of multistakeholder collaboration, more companies might dare to take action to address inequalities in the coming years.