Gender Parity: Career Advice for Women in STEM
When it comes to gender parity in the workplace, the business case is clear: diversity is good for the bottom line, and most see it as an important objective. So why do women still have so much trouble making headway in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM)? Though they graduate university in higher numbers than men, women continue to have difficulty advancing in STEM fields; in areas like computer science, we’ve even lost ground in recent years! It is a huge waste of talent that employers simply cannot afford.
In the staffing industry, we tend to view structural workforce issues like this as a pipeline problem, a culture problem or a combination of the two. So which is it? And what can women do to overcome it?
At Experis, the professional resourcing and workforce solutions arm of ManpowerGroup, we see the issue up close every day. Most companies recognize that diversity is important, and many want solutions for improvement. Still, we often see women stalled at lower levels of STEM fields, or dropping out of these industries altogether.
Even in the best-intentioned organizations where we solve the pipeline challenge, culture too often remains a stumbling block. It’s expressed in unconscious habits that have gone unchallenged forever and are hard to fix. Many women simply get fed up with fighting it and leave.
As a recent ManpowerGroup report found, the biggest obstacle to gender parity in the workplace is breaking down an entrenched male culture found in many organizations. Responsibility sits with leadership, not the HR department, to promote a culture that includes women. Leaders need to genuinely want change and demand a level playing field. Otherwise gender parity becomes just another paper exercise, and the problem never gets solved.
They say “change starts at home”. At our Experis office in the Twin Cities, we recently joined with leaders from other large employers in the area to share best practices and see what we could do to help the next generation of women find their way into STEM roles. In talking with these highly successful women who have managed to cultivate extraordinary careers in heavily male-dominated STEM industries, I keep hearing three big themes (included below with select anonymized comments):
Take Time to Know Yourself and What Drives You
As is true for any career path, the first step is to really understand what kind of work motivates you. What energizes and excites you? At the end of the day, if you aren’t passionate about your work, you won’t be driven to keep learning and improving, and your progress will stall.
“I think one of the reasons I’ve managed to succeed in a STEM field, despite various obstacles and setbacks along the way, is that I love what I do. I learned early on that I enjoy building organizations that leverage emerging technologies. That passion has been a powerful motivator for me, inspiring me to make the most of each new role and help others do the same.”
Seek Out a Sponsor to Give Your Career Traction
Mentors are a great resource for support and career guidance, but mentoring does not lead to promotion. If you find your career stalled, it’s time to look beyond your immediate network of mentors and find a sponsor. Sponsors are individuals inside your organization who take a vested interest in your success, provide critical feedback and publicly support you to help advance your career and enable you to thrive.
“Find a professional in your company who you admire and would like to emulate. It doesn’t have to be someone doing the exact job you aspire to; instead look for someone you respect who can help take your career to the next level.”
Play to Your Strengths
As ManpowerGroup’s research found, the biggest barrier to gender parity is entrenched thinking and unconscious bias. To succeed and overcome stereotypes, women in STEM often have to work twice as hard to prove themselves and get a seat at the table. But changing who you are (or acting like a man) isn’t required to get there. Instead, have confidence in your skills, and seek out opportunities that allow you to take what comes naturally to you and apply it to your work.
“Creativity has always been a strength of mine, but it wasn’t always celebrated in my industry. But in today’s IT world, doing business is so different. Developers are no longer sitting in basements programming. IT professionals need to be agile, collaborative and innovative. I bring these creative skills to the table and it’s part of what’s helped me succeed.”
We recognize that there are challenges ahead, which leaders must address if they are serious about gender parity. As ManpowerGroup’s CHRO Mara Swan says about the underrepresentation of women, “it’s not bad luck, it’s bad management.” But ultimately, we are hopeful. We’ve seen that everyone can help create change by addressing this issue locally — in your network, organization or area – as Experis and our partners are doing in the Twin Cities. I’m surrounded by women leaders already making significant inroads in STEM careers, and I’m confident we will inspire others to follow in our footsteps.