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'Bottom up' or 'top down': breaking the cycle for STEM women

A lack of women in STEM continues to be an issue, particularly as a shortage of STEM skills is a reality across many sectors. But is it a "bottom up" or "top down" problem? And what can recruiters do to overcome shortages in STEM women?.

Much more has been written about the problem of women being underrepresented in STEM professions than has been written about how to solve it.

Is it a 'bottom up' problem or a 'top down' issue? To listen to industry, it's the former, and the government should be doing more to churn out the required number of STEM graduates they need. Conversely, the government says industries should also play their part as it tries to tackle the gaps, not so much in education itself, but the gender perceptions that are rife within the education system.

It might be fairer then to say that this is an overall societal problem related to how women are perceived, and not just in STEM employment.

An interesting US study carried out in 1957 found that children up to the age of five, asked to draw a scientist, didn’t picture a middle-aged man with a beard and glasses in a lab coat and in fact had no preconceived idea of what a scientist 'should' look like. This shows that the perceptions today of male and female gender stereotypes are not inherent, but learned.

Swimming against the tide

While it seems then a 'bottom up' issue for government requiring generations of time to correct - if that is the route that needs to be taken right now - the shortage of STEM women is also a 'top down' problem for industry.

If young women heading to university are looking at a sector that appears to be male dominated with a 'boy's club' mentality and culture, like IT, they will think twice about pursuing a STEM career. Even if they do forge ahead and graduate, they may not stick it out on the job.

If employers and recruiters don't take on some of the initiative instead of waiting for the government to 'fix the problem', female STEM graduates will always feel they are swimming against the tide. It's not surprising then that most women will opt for a less combative career, and it's got nothing to do with a lack of abilities but rather with their own peace of mind.

Revolution or evolution?

While all this angst continues over enticing more women into STEM careers, and gender battles sweep through various sectors to bring about forced change, it's quite possible that the problem will eventually resolve itself through evolution or more likely, a combination of both.

Organisations that see the next generation (Gen Z= semi transformative) coming, and the one after that (Gen Alpha = transformative) might find themselves, unless they are prepared, dealing with people who don't view gender the same way at all and it may have a lot less to do with educational policies and more to do with emerging technologies and the reach of social media. Girls exposed to technology from the minute they can walk and talk, and who can handle smartphones and tablets as well as any boy, could be a real game changer for the future of STEM women in the workforce.

Be the sheepdog, not the sheep

Unless STEM sectors show there is a place for women, they won't be inclined to want to go and work there and won't see the benefit of pursuing STEM studies. It's up to employers and recruiters to get ahead of the game and as an added bonus improve their organisation's bottom line, not to mention being able to avoid looking overseas for talent, which can be an expensive and cumbersome procedure.

Recruiters can:

  • Go out of their way to recruit STEM women and become known for providing equal opportunities and pay, thus boosting the employer brand and attracting more STEM talent, not only female but also other minority groups and even men who might not be comfortable with the 'boy's club' mentality. They do exist.
  • Provide more apprenticeship programmes to entice both young women and men who can work and study together. This can help neutralise gender bias, changing the system from within and encouraging women to move forward and 'stick with it' in the long term.
  • Provide flexible working arrangements. Particularly important for women, a culture that values employees enough to offer that, will be an attractive proposition and it's a strong retention tool. Avoid making a woman feel she has to work twice as hard as a man in order to move up the ladder.
  • Watch the language. Women can be put off by the wording of job ads that make a brand or culture sound as if an organisation is a male domain. Tech companies might use phrases like 'ninja' which can appear aimed at men and dissuade women from applying. Ads that make a job sound vague, unexciting or lacking in opportunities are also a no-no. If your organisation welcomes women, spell it out but be ready to prove it as well.
  • Have a woman from a leadership position on the interviewing team. A group of 'suits' can be intimidating. Having a female leader there can provide assurances that opportunities do exist for women within the organisation. A survey of female employees and how they feel they are treated couldn't hurt either.
  • Re-think your recruitment process to include parts that can be done ‘blind’. This will ease any worries recruiters may have about unconscious hiring bias.
  • Chase down former female STEM employees who might be eager to re-start their careers. With a little training they might be a better option than a newly-minted graduate with no experience.
  • Make sure what you're offering in terms of culture and values is reflected across the web. Don't gloss it up. Candidates will research you. If the culture indicates that a lot of pool is played or a lot of nights in the pub follow the workday, it could imply a male-dominated organisation.
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