A recent survey showed that Stem degrees are among the most lucrative for graduates. When you look at the gender breakdown of students entering these fields, it’s about 60% male and 40% female, and at the PhD level the numbers are closer. But what happens as people’s career trajectories progress? Over time, those talented Women with their PhD in STEM start to drop out of technical and industrial careers. By the time careers reach leadership levels, as few as 15% of those talented women remain, according to some estimates.
There are a number of reasons these women are dropping out of the workforce. Sexism in STEM fields takes many forms, including derogatory comments, stereotyping and harassment, opportunity gaps, and biases about what women should look like. What’s more, women in these fields are paid less, promoted less, and have less access to prestigious work. Losing female talent in STEM is a detriment to research and innovation, especially because the supply of STEM cannot meet demands, and can lead to female customers being neglected by technological and social innovation.
Some organizations are trying to fix this issue. For example, the EU Research and Innovation program has allocated 80 billion euros of funding to focus on gender analysis in the research process, to increase the representation of women in scientific roles, and to strengthen gender-sensitive research and innovation. But despite the billions in investments, the number of women in leadership continues to stagnate, and women continue dropping out of STEM at a fast rate.
In order to get to the root of the problem and discover innovative ways to fix it, I spoke to 20 leading women in the university sector in Australia. These women included professors in STEM, researchers, managers and directors of biomed companies, HR personnel, project managers, and administrators in hospitals and for-profit research centers. Throughout a daylong workshop, we came up with three solutions for the problems in women’s STEM careers and leadership.
Set up women for success early on. A usual practice that organizations follow to develop future leaders is using organizational programs. For example, international projects such as the Athena Swan project recognize a range of organizational and personal factors that impact STEM women, and the project sets organizational goals for change. But these programs are optional, and often too general to impact the working lives of STEM women.
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Rather than creating an organizational charter that outlines equitable practices, create an individualized regime that would support and groom talented women for success. This includes identifying aspiring female leaders early on in their careers to prevent them from dropping out, and doing so as early as their first appointment. Match these individuals with coaches who understand and have expertise in different areas of business — leadership, management, gender, organizational behavior, and even politics — so she can influence gender equity across the organization. After all, after equity comes empowerment.
And then build a team around her. Give her access to sponsors, mentors, and subject matter experts, so she can build her network and prepare to lead. Getting women to the next level should not be left up to luck or change; it requires major professional intervention and support.
Use input from the tribe. Most work in STEM fields relies on a team and a team-based workplace. Look at any research paper or discovery, and you’ll see a list of names contributing to the outcome. Developing a skilled team requires the soft skills that build team affiliations. The collaborative and consultative leadership that builds teams draws on the kind of leadership where women often excel.
So if the best work is done with and in a team, why not get the team involved in decisions about development opportunities and promotion? Using input from the “tribe” will play to women’s established strengths and showcase their talents. Research shows that more joint evaluations of individual performance overcomes the gender stereotyping that happens in individual evaluation. Those that have most benefited from an individual’s work and efforts would be able to present to a panel about her capacity, the quality of her work, and her relationships.
A tribe can also help women directly in their self-promotion. Women often struggle with the discourse of promotion and with creating the images of power and identity. Constructing a narrative of power and capability can be more difficult for women, especially when the achievements are team-based. For example, women have been deemed poor leaders because they spoke about team achievements by saying “we did…” rather than “I led the team…” Such slight language preferences can be the deciding factor in being promoted or not. But by allowing a team or tribe to advocate for a woman and her talents, others have the opportunity to help “sell” the individual.
Promote based on trust, not on burden of proof. Employees are hired because they are qualified do the job. Once hired, there is mutual contract of trust between the employer and employee to do the job and do it well. Studies show the importance of trust in high performance.
Yet when it comes to promotion, trust is replaced by metrics and measures that focus on proof of merit, leaving women and other minorities at a disadvantage, due to factors like unconscious bias. In fact, for women in STEM, that largest drop rate is from mid-career to senior levels because these metrics for promotion work against them. For example, when women take a career break to raise children, they can’t make up for the drop in publications when they return. And this is a metric that can’t be replaced by even the most excellent performance. Why continue with a system of promotion that is flawed?
Instead, when facing an opportunity to promote, continue the reciprocity of trust. Building a promotion process based on trust not only affirms the contractual relationship between the work and the employee but also continues to establish conditions for high achievement. Especially if you’re using the organizational mentoring, learning, and development measures described above, there is little reason not to trust the quality of previous performance to continue to the next level of challenges. Change the requirements for promotion from jumping over obstacles to having mutual trust and an understanding of continued high performance.
It’s time to change the ways women in STEM grow and develop in the workplace. Standard norms of operating are creating unfair expectations and holding women back from the leadership opportunities they deserve. But by focusing on these three changes, we can keep these women in the careers they’ve worked so hard for, and reap the rewards of having female leaders in STEM.