A New Threat to Gender Diversity STEMs from the Pandemic
How to support women in STEM positions and preserve your talent pipeline
The pandemic has challenged us all, but women are especially feeling the weight. Studies show they shoulder the burden of the responsibilities for schooling, caregiving, and domestic duties with a full house of children, partners, and pets. And what’s about to give may be their jobs.
According to the McKinsey 2020 Women in the Workplace Report, one in four professional women is considering exiting the workforce or downshifting in their careers due to the stresses of the pandemic.
Already in significantly fewer roles than men, women in STEM positions may soon become an even scarcer sight, especially in leadership positions.
Even in 2020, women still only make up 28% of the science, technology, engineering and math workforce broadly, 13% of engineers and a fraction of STEM leadership. In the tech sector, men outnumber women at every level, with the starkest difference being at the top: only 21% of executives in tech are women—this is despite the evidence that more women lead to greater innovation and enhanced profitability.
To retain the women in your workforce, let’s look at what women say were barriers to their advancement, even before the pandemic, and solutions to support them and keep them in the workforce.
Lack of Role Models
The two biggest barriers women say they face in the technology workplace are lack of mentors (48%) and lack of female role models (42%). According to a survey conducted by ISACA, women are eager to learn and benefit from the presence of other women in technology, however, there are scarce opportunities to connect with prospective female mentors and role models within often male dominated firms. Additionally, traditional networking programs – mentors, coaches, etc. – often fail women because they aren’t designed for women, who thrive with a close inner circle of peers. And the opportunities are much worse for women of color in math and science.
One solution is for companies to introduce a trusted network of coaches, peers, and role models to aid women in building those networks and navigate pathways to success within their own organization:
- Provide women the peer groups to build connection and inspiration
- Offer dedicated guides for one-on-one sessions, and
- Develop cohort social and work supports
Measures such as these demonstrate a corporate commitment to employees’ growth and provide that much-needed community that women crave, especially during this time of isolation.
Before COVID, we were making strides in creating change around equal pay and gender diversity, but with work remaining. When a family makes a choice to have one partner remain home to manage the disruption of schooling, caregiving, and household responsibilities, the decision often comes down to finances. So with many women still at a wage disadvantage, they are the natural partner to step back in their careers.
But it seems many firms are slowing their actions to close the pay gap. During the pandemic, women are seeing wages slow to 0.2% year-over-year while men are seeing wage growth of 1.2%. The ongoing, inequitable pay split between men and women means that men will continue moving up the ranks, while women will continue to fall behind. As long as companies postpone efforts to close the wage gap, those economic-driven decisions may affect women’s talent leadership opportunities for decades.
Male Direct Supervisors
Since there are fewer women in STEM positions, naturally there are fewer opportunities for women to advance to leadership positions. Again according to the ISACA survey, 8 out of 10 women reported their supervisors are male and 92% report experiencing gender bias in the workplace.
Bringing more women into leadership positions requires investment, especially early in women’s careers. Providing training and support to all women during the first two to five years on their career journey, allows companies to grow more women into high potential employees. The results won’t be immediate, but creating a culture of inclusivity with more female role models and direct supervisors provides inspiration and identifiable routes for women to pursue their careers.
Lack of Commitment from Employers
A survey of technical women in junior and mid-level executive roles found that women expressed strong leadership ambitions. More than 85% of these women aim for career advancement in the next three years, and 62% are seeking a C-suite or senior management position in the future. However, despite these ambitions, only 1 in 4 of the women reported that their organizations support their leadership aspirations. This disconnect leaves many women skeptical about whether their companies are committed to advancing qualified women into leadership roles.
By investing in programs that provide support systems, leadership skills, and career navigation guidance, not only will companies grow their next generation of leaders, they demonstrate a commitment to advancing women in their company. Programs that contribute to women’s long-term engagement, boosts retention and also your firm’s reputation for being a great place to work for women.
Industries reliant on STEM positions often have cultures where women say they feel like outsiders forced out by talent management structures that don’t benefit women.
While there are efforts to encourage more women into STEM fields, there is still work to be done to support women once they are in the workforce, especially to keep them in the workforce during the pandemic. Gender diversity improves innovation and maximizes the bottom line, so organizations seeking to lead their industries should take action to become employers of choice for women.