It takes no more than a cursory glance at most tech startup teams to see that the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) professions are heavily male-dominated. Year after year, statistics show a staggering gender imbalance in STEM, with women making up a mere 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce.
Experts agree the keys to getting more women into these career tracks are early exposure and awareness, but those are harder to achieve than you might think. Primary schools rarely emphasize STEM extracurricular activities, and parents may not expose kids to STEM learning at home. Without access to programs that will keep her on track — school clubs, summer camps, hackathons, etc. — a girl’s interest in STEM may diminish as she grows up. By the time she reaches the formative high school and early college years — the stage at which young adults begin thinking about their careers — the window of opportunity to build her interest in STEM has passed. The result is fewer women choosing to earn STEM-related degrees, and even fewer entering the STEM talent pool upon graduation.
How do we fix this “leaky pipeline” of female STEM talent? Whose responsibility is it to keep young girls on the paths to promising careers in STEM? Parents and education professionals obviously play key roles in developing initial STEM interest, but employers must eventually pick up the baton with early, proactive recruiting efforts and strong, diversity-focused company cultures.
Reaching STEM Talent Before They Enter the Workforce
University programs can only do so much to prepare students for the “real” world of work. There’s a huge difference between learning theories and concepts in a classroom and executing day-to-day tasks as an entry-level professional.
This is where employers must step in. If companies are truly committed to hiring diverse STEM talent, they need to take proactive steps to reach future employees long before they’re applying to their first full-time jobs.
There are a few things you, as an employer, can do to accomplish this early outreach:
- Attend high school and college career events and job fairs to nurture curiosity about STEM; hold conversations with students about what it’s like to work in the field.
- Offer bridge opportunities like part-time assistant roles and seasonal internships to students who aren’t ready for full-time work.
- Partner with women-in-STEM organizations to highlight and spread the word about opportunities at your company.
Fixing Broken Company Cultures
Recruiting efforts are only half the battle. Employers that hire women for STEM roles also have a responsibility to keep those hires happy enough to stick around. Our own research at Geeky Girl Reality has found that more than a quarter of women who enter careers in STEM are likely to leave their jobs within the first year.
What’s happening here is the classic boys’ club company culture problem that has plagued so many industries. The young women responding to our survey were aware that STEM careers might be “unwelcoming” and not particularly female-friendly — and that perception isn’t unfounded: Women who work in STEM jobs are more likely to say they’ve experienced gender discrimination and harassment than women in other fields.
On top of that, many media portrayals of women in science are shallow and superficial, focusing on their appearances and mannerisms rather than their scientific skills and accomplishments.
When you consider the realities of being a woman in STEM, it’s no wonder there’s such high turnover among female professionals in these fields. To combat this, STEM employers need to explicitly show female workers they are welcome and valued contributors. Send female employees to be your representatives at career events. Highlight women on your staff through your blog and social media posts. Make it clear to prospective employees that you’re a champion of diversity and that women who join your team will never be treated differently because of their gender.
Then — and this is the hard part — follow through. Review harassment and discrimination policies with your staff regularly, and publicly enforce the consequences if someone breaks policy. Promote women within your organization and trust them to take the lead on major projects. Strive for truly balanced teams that support and respect one another. Set the example for your entire organization.
As is the case when addressing societal gaps of any kind, bringing more women into STEM fields will require a long-term social movement. There’s no quick fix, no one-size-fits-all solution. STEM itself is diverse, so we need multiple programs and opportunities — and employers that are willing to reach out to underrepresented candidates — to actually move the needle.
Andrea Lewis is the strategic advisor for Geeky Girl Reality.