Five Things STEM Companies Can Do to Attract and Retain Women

October 23, 2014Catalyst’s new report shows that the male-oriented culture of STEM industry companies is unwelcoming for women in all roles—whether they’re working on the tech side or the business side. But company cultures can be changed!

1985 called. It wants its cause back.” Almost 30 years after IBM published an ad calling for gender equality in engineering, a significant gender gap remains. And this gender gap persists in other STEM fields, including technology and oil and gas. If the recent release of workforce statistics from top technology firms Facebook, Twitter, Google, Apple, and others isn’t enough to hammer home this point, Catalyst’s new report, High Potentials in Tech-Intensive Industries: The Gender Divide in Business Roles, shows a pervasive cultural problem in STEM industry companies  that makes it particularly challenging for women at all ranks—whether they’re working in tech roles or on the business side.  A senior female executive at a prominent oil and gas company recently said 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.

Despite this dismal picture, there is good news: the attrition of women in STEM fields is not inevitable. There are many things these male-dominated organizations can do to successfully attract and retain women. Here are five to consider.

1) Pay women and men equally.

Women in STEM industries are more likely to start out in an entry-level position and experience a gender gap in pay from day one. A small pay gap early in one’s career grows exponentially over time, leading to significant consequences for lifetime earnings. While a gender pay gap also exists in other industries, STEM organizations can go a long way in attracting talented women away from competitors from the day they leave school by starting them out on equal footing with their male counterparts.

2) Create a culture where women feel they belong and are equals.

Women remain in the minority throughout the pipeline in STEM organizations today, and overwhelmingly report feeling like outsiders. Research shows that feeling excluded has a detrimental impact on performance and leads to turnover. It is critical to make women in your organization feel included and valued, even if they are sometimes the only woman in the room. Evaluate the culture of your organization. Is hostile or demeaning behavior toward women tolerated? Do you hold events outside of the office that exclude women? Put a zero-tolerance policy in place for this type of behavior, and ensure that senior leaders are serving as role models for inclusive behavior.

3) Recruit senior male executives to sponsor up-and-coming female talent.

Women working for STEM companies have fewer female role models than those in other industries, and there are fewer senior women to serve as sponsors for junior women. Engage with senior men in your organization and encourage them to champion high-potential women rising through the pipeline. Ensure that they put women’s names forward for large, highly visible projects and mission-critical roles that will lead to advancement. This will, in time, create more women role models.

4) Make performance evaluation standards crystal clear.

Understanding the path to promotion—both how individuals are evaluated and requirements for advancement—is critical to retaining top talent. But women working in STEM industries lack these transparent standards for evaluation. Examine your talent management systems and ask yourself if vague performance criteria allow for men and women to be evaluated differently. Is it possible that women are being held to a higher standard? Are men promoted on potential and women on proven performance? You’ll be surprised by how small adjustments to the language and processes in your talent management system can make a huge difference for retaining and advancing top female talent in your organization.

5) Provide a flexible work environment.

More than 20% of high-potential women left their first job in a STEM industry for a job outside of the industry due to personal reasons including child rearing and other family responsibilities. These highly educated women are not opting out of the workforce; they’re opting out of STEM industries. Consider whether your organizational culture is supportive of people with priorities outside the workplace. Are excessive time demands pushing women out? Think creatively about how you can provide your employees with a flexible work environment—it will go a long way in retaining the talent you fought hard to attract.

For additional information about the barriers holding women back in STEM industries and how the gender gap can be addressed, see High Potentials in Tech-Intensive Industries: The Gender Divide in Business Roles, The Gender Divide in Tech-Intensive Industries.




The views expressed herein are solely those of the guest blogger and do not necessarily reflect those of Catalyst. Catalyst does not endorse any political candidates. The post and the comments are presented only for the purpose of informing the public.