How to attract more women to the STEM industry

Women are everywhere in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) industry — at least on the academic level. According to the UNESCO Science Report, women actually account for 53% of the world’s bachelor’s and master’s graduates in STEM. In the US, for example, the number of STEM-related degrees and certificates awarded to women have also been steadily increasing over the years, from 143,018 in 2008–2009 to 212,471 in 2015–2016. 


With that said, more work can be done to level the playing field. For example, even though there are now more female STEM graduates than ever before, the same UNESCO Science Report above claims that just 30% of researchers are women. Moreover, while the gender balance has improved for specific fields such as math, life sciences, health sciences and physical sciences, the number of women in engineering and computer science has actually decreased over the years. 


The best example of this in recent times is when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) cancelled its first-ever all-female spacewalk mission back in March 2019 because there was a ‘lack of spacesuit in the right size’. While NASA have since rectified the issue and accomplished a first-ever all-female spacewalk mission in October 2019, the incident did highlight the fact that, while women have been going into space since 1963, spacesuits have largely been designed by men and for men. In fact, speaking of gender imbalance in space, in the 58 years since humans have been travelling there, only 11% of them have been women. 


The case for women in STEM

There are many reasons why more women need to join STEM-related professions, and the first is economical. According to the Association of Women in Science, a minimum investment of US$1 million is required to train scientists and engineers at the PhD level. However, while more than 40% of STEM degrees are awarded to women, less than 30% remain in the fields’ workforce. Letting talent slip through the cracks, no matter the industry, is a bad investment. 


Investment aside, hiring women in STEM is good for business also. Research shows that companies that hire more women consistently perform better than those who don’t. Take the traditionally male-dominated venture capital firms, for example. Firms that increased their proportion of female partner hires by 10% saw, on average, a 1.5% spike in overall fund returns each year and had 9.7% more profitable exits. The research, which was conducted by Harvard Business School, believes that this is partly due to ‘homogeneity of thinking, which is self perpetuating, since people tend to hire other people like them’. 


Finally, if nothing else, having more female representation also means that future generations will have a more diverse cast of role models to look up to, showing them that it is indeed possible to succeed in fields traditionally dominated by men.


However, beyond the economics, lives are literally at stake. 


The prime example of this is in car designs. Men and women are built differently in a physical sense, and statistics show that women are at a higher risk of injuries in rear-end collisions, since they have less muscle on their necks and upper torso. However, a Swedish research has shown that modern car seats tend to be too firm to protect women against whiplash-related injuries. 


The reason this design flaw has been allowed to perpetuate is simple: according to this report, cars are largely tested using crash-test dummies modelled after the ‘average male’. 


Here’s what happened: when crash-test dummies were first introduced in the 1950s, engineers looked at the 50th-percentile male. This so-called ‘average male’ weighed 76kg and measured 1.77m tall. Furthermore, the dummy’s muscle-mass proportions and spinal column were also modelled after the average male. And since men and women are dramatically different from a physiological point of view, car seats were primarily designed to suit the average male.


Attempts to correct the mistakes were made. It wasn’t until 2011 when the US finally decided to use female crash-test dummies. With that said, gender biases quickly emerged despite the best efforts. For one, instead of designing brand new crash-test dummies based on the average female, many tests used scaled-down male dummies instead. Pregnant women, too, were seldom, if ever, factored into the design of car seats. 


Crash-test dummies and spacesuits are just two reasons why women need to be better represented in STEM fields. Aside from making good health and business sense, it makes common sense, too. 


Adding women to the equation

So how exactly do we attract and retain women in STEM? According to one World Economic Forum article, it comes down to ‘changing the narrative at a policy level’ in order to facilitate ‘how we change minds’. 


In May 2019, the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) gathered some of the world’s leading women in STEM to explore potential recommendations for policymakers in science, technology and innovation to promote equality and the status of women in research. These recommendations focused on ‘participation and promotion of women in the research workforce, on social norms, on research design and on funding agencies’. 


However, all of that is supposed to happen at the policy level. In the recruitment space, businesses and employers, too, can play a part. For example, businesses can consider better work-life integration policies to accommodate people with different priorities and lifestyles, supporting returnees — including mothers after maternity leaves — as a talent retention strategy, as well as boosting workplace flexibility to increase engagement. 


At the end of the day, hiring qualified young women and putting her on a STEM team is only the beginning. The real challenge is often related to corporate culture and team dynamics. One of the best practices is to measure and report on diversity, training to recognise unconscious bias, as well as reviewing processes, such as promotion, to ensure there is no unconscious bias involved. 


Naeema Ismail, GM & Senior Partner, PR at Ying Communications, has worked in and around technology extensively for the last 20 years. She says that while filling the pipeline at both entry and senior levels is important, equally critical will be how we widen the lens for the industry and its possibilities. “At top levels, we started seeing a shift in the last few years, not just in the boardrooms of enterprise technology vendors, but also among digital-first businesses and startups,” she says, noting that Melinda Gates in particular was a personal inspiration in terms of broadening the impact and voice of technology leaders.  


"But it’s not just about making STEM jobs more attractive to women, it needs to start with education and the mass media,” she says. “Too often, STEM is portrayed, even among parents and educators, as more masculine in its appeal — and therefore not fields that female students could do well in.” This stereotype is often propagated further in popular culture. “If we want more girls to go into STEM, we need to address this perception bias and look at how we can help make STEM more appealing to girls.”


Michael Page will be holding an exclusive invitation-only Women in STEM event on 15 November 2019. The discussion panel, which is happening at the Michael Page Singapore office, will discuss diversity & inclusion policies, mentorship for women in STEM and much more. Watch this space for further coverage of the event. 

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