The talent drain of women in STEM industries worldwide

by Allyson Zimmermann, Catalyst Europe
Friday, 1 July 2016 08:32 GMT

A reporter looks around a display of Microsoft China Center One during a media tour in Beijing April 14, 2015. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

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It’s no secret that women who work in STEM fields face significant challenges and are severely under-represented, particularly in senior leadership roles

Technology-intensive industries, such as high-tech, oil and gas, and energy, have experienced rapid growth in the 21st century, far outstripping other industries. In the United States alone, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) jobs are growing faster than any other sector with 13% more jobs predicted between 2012 and 2022.

Yet, it’s no secret that women who work in STEM fields face significant challenges and are severely under-represented, particularly in senior leadership roles. This lack of representation will have negative repercussions for the industry's long-term growth. Research shows that diversity leads to increased innovation and group performance, which are crucial to the success of STEM industries, whether they are creating life-saving medical devices or finding new ways to harness renewable energy.

The 'education excuse' is often used to explain the lack of women in STEM industries.  More men study these topics than women, leaving the pool of talent skewed toward men.  However, this argument does not hold water the world over, as some countries like India have begun to close the gender gap of men and women studying in some STEM fields, including engineering. 

A McKinsey survey, for example, found that while just 4 per cent of U.S. women, identified as high performers, study STEM subjects, in India it is 57 per cent.  Commenting on this difference, Shachi Irde, Executive Director, Catalyst India, WRC said: "I recently became aware of a stereotype that is apparently quite prevalent in some Western countries - the widespread belief that women are ‘bad at maths.  Luckily, this stereotype does not exist in India.” 

In contrast to many countries, high-potential women and men in India’s technology sector start out on an equal footing, with equal pay, similar job levels, and comparable high ambitions to reach the top.  Yet, Catalyst found that a gender gap emerges over time with Indian women missing out, for instance, on crucial development opportunities, which soon leave them trailing their male counterparts in seniority and pay.

What factors are holding women back in these industries? In a global study, Catalyst found that women working in business roles in STEM industries - such as marketing, finance, legal, and human resources - faced the same challenges to advancement as their women technical colleagues. 

The study found that women in business roles started out on unequal footing from day one.  Despite having the same qualifications, women were significantly more likely to start out in entry-level positions and experience a gender pay gap due to these lower paying, lower level positions.  The study also identified significant barriers to advancement including feeling like outsiders from the beginning, an absence of female role models and vague evaluation criteria. 

Women working in STEM business roles (53%) were also far more likely than men (31%) to leave and take a position in another industry, the research found.  Importantly, these women are not opting out of the workforce, they are opting out of STEM industries. 

The author of the report, Catalyst Research Director, Anna Beninger, points to a toxic culture at tech companies, which do not do enough to cultivate environments that are inclusive to women. She said the image of the ‘brogrammer’ culture reigns in technology, while the ‘old boys club’ is alive and well in oil and gas companies.

"Women feel like outsiders from the start," said Beninger.  "They feel like they have to act like one of the guys to have a shot at being successful and, as our research shows, they have to outperform men to get the same amount of respect and opportunities in order to have a chance at career advancement."

Beninger knows all too well the obstacles that lie ahead for women in STEM.  A senior female executive at a prominent oil and gas company told Beninger that the best advice she would give to up-and-coming women in her industry is to use a black coffee mug in the office because it doesn’t show lipstick marks. And a female Chief Technology Officer at a leading technology company’s advice was to not bring a notepad into meetings because people would assume you were taking the minutes. 

Steps that organisations can take, according to Beninger, to create a more welcoming environment for women and elliminate barriers hindering their advancement include:

  1. Ensuring that job descriptions are not laden with masculine language. For instance, stereotypically masculine adjectives like ‘superior’, ‘competitive’, and ‘determined’ can lead women to perceive that they would not belong in the work environment.
  2. Requiring that equally qualifed men and women are starting out on the same level with the same pay.
  3. Evaluating the organisation’s culture to ensure hostile behaviour towards women is not tolerated, and eliminating events held outside of the office that exclude women.
  4. Recruiting senior male executives to sponsor up-and-coming female talent.
  5. Making performance standards crystal clear.  For example, ensure that women aren’t being held to a higher standard than their male peers, or that men are being evaluated and promoted on ‘potential’ while women are evaluated and promoted on ‘proven performance’.

“It pays organisations to invest in attracting, developing and retaining female workers,” said Irde. “And nowhere is this more true than in India, where we found that women workers are more likely to stay with an organisation and to remain loyal in the long term. At the time of our study, 36% of the women were still at the same company, where they had started their career, compared to just 21% of the men.”

STEM industries are a key engine of growth for the world economy, creating products and services that support development and can save lives, however their failure to  represent society should  serve as a powerful wake-up call to the industry.   The onus now needs to be on fixing the culture of STEM organisations so they can maximise the full talent pool.

Allyson Zimmermann is Executive Director at Catalyst Europe