How far have we come and how far have we got to go?
There have been many initiatives made by governments across the globe and corporations worldwide to encourage more females into the STEM workforce.
So where does that leave us in 2021? Is this still an accurate association? How have employer incentives and women in STEM schemes fared over the last decade?
How far we’ve come:
With women making the largest percentage gain in board seats in both the Fortune 100 (34 seats) and Fortune 500 (209 seats), than any other group or gender, we wanted to evaluate whether this trend is reflective within STEM-related disciplines.
Without a doubt, women have made strides forward in STEM:
Females accounted for 27% of STEM workers in 2019, compared to just 8% in 1970 (research from the U.S. Census Bureau).
35% of STEM students in higher education in the UK are women (according to recent UCAS data provided by HESA).
There are nearly 12,000 more female professional engineers than in 2016, whilst the number of men in engineering professional roles dropped by 36,000. (Women in STEM (WISE) Campaign)
Nearly 5,500 more women are working in management roles in science, engineering, and technology than in 2016. Women make up 15% of the total workforce. The number of men in SET management fell by 32,800. (WISE Campaign)
Data shows that year-on-year, core STEM subjects have seen a small increase of around 1,000 female students. This shows that efforts to encourage women to enter into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields are, quite possibly, starting to take off.
Organisations such as The Female Lead have pledged their ambition to turn public attention to working women in 2021 - helping create clearer, better paths for girls and women seeking inspiring, ambitious careers and fulfilment.
Furthermore, large corporations such as the UK’s Network Rail have promised to help improve pathways back into work after a period of leave - most commonly for maternity leave. They have introduced a ‘Returners Programme’ which includes a period of reinduction and shadowing by another staff member to help employees relaunch their careers after taking leave from work.
Participants’ of a recent Women at Work survey reported that “we are at an exciting time when firms (generally) have a genuine desire to embrace diversity, and when there is no longer a “pack mentality” that magnifies sporadic individual biases”.
How far we’ve got to go:
The pay gap is a historic issue that stems from outdated views about female job commitment and roles within the workplace. Certainly, this is changing, but perhaps not as quickly as we’d like.
Despite these steps forward, the Workplace Gender Equality Agency’s (WGEA) latest national gender pay gap figures saw the pay gap increase for women over the last six months to 14.2%. But, with initiatives in place, why is this the case?
1) Bias in early years disrupts future educational routes for girls
Before employers, boards of directors, and fortune 500 are even dreamt of, “Girls and women are systematically tracked away from science and math throughout their education, limiting their training and options to go into these fields as adults”.
Teachers and parents often underestimate girls' mathematical abilities. These lower expectations cause bias. The reverberating effects of these biases are estimated to contribute to around half of the gender achievement gap in maths.
As a result of this, many girls (and their parents) are ill-informed when making important life decisions, causing a domino effect. For example, they choose subjects during high school that limit future course choices or degree options and sometimes, even limit the institutions that will offer places - some are unwilling to accept certain qualifications. More often than not, women who want to get into a STEM-related field are already behind their male peers as a result of this process.
This suggests that even if employers pledge DE&I workforce targets to include 50% women in senior roles (for example), there simply aren’t the candidates.
The lack of girls choosing scientific studies my mean there is no critical mass of candidates prepared to access leadership positions, resulting in the exclusion of the feminine perspective in creating and developing solutions (World Economic Forum, 2020).
2) Imposter syndrome and internalised bias:
Imposter syndrome can be defined as an internal thought process leading to sufferers believing that they are not as competent as others may perceive them to be.
“Impostor syndrome describes a difficulty in internalizing one's accomplishments or abilities, and instead, attributing their success to other factors. Factors such as luck, timing, "someone helped me", "I had connections" are common examples.” (Dr. Valerie Young)
It has been suggested that people working in STEM suffer more from imposter syndrome due to the rapid rate of change and advancement. No human could ever keep up – but we feel we should.
Moreover, when we look at environments where there are gender imbalances or people who feel they are in the minority, feelings of imposter syndrome become more prevalent. For example, if you are one of a few women working in a STEM-related field, you may feel added pressure to represent ‘all women’, which can contribute to impostor syndrome. Many sufferers also feel like the odd one out, or that they don’t belong there- typical characteristics of imposter syndrome.
As a result of this, many women do not put themselves forward for progressive opportunities (often paying more) as they think that there could be someone better for the role, doubting their own abilities.
This lack of confidence can be seen rather clearly when looking at how men and women approach job vacancies. Men typically apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women (typically) apply only if they meet 100% of them. (Sheryl Sandberg, ‘Learn’, 2013)
A more recent study by LinkedIn found that women are 16% less likely to apply for a job and apply for 20% fewer jobs than their male counterparts.
Women in the Workplace found that women could combat their own internalised bias through determination and belief in personal capability. Not deterred by their imposter syndrome instead, they worked through it by taking up the challenge to learn new skills. One participant told of her first day at work on a construction site.
Her male boss “went above and beyond” to make sure that “I felt comfortable and part of the team”, highlighting the important role that men can play in bringing about equality in a male-dominated industry. Change comes through strong, committed leadership and positive action.
Indeed, mentors, coaches, and employers play a vital role in supporting women by focusing on a capability mindset and highlighting pathways to confidence.
3) Passion vs Pay packet: A shift in values between genders
According to The Female Lead, participants of their research reported that they “valued job satisfaction more than an increased income”. Participants went on to define job satisfaction to include two things:
1. The ability to grow in a job
2. The sense of being effective or useful.
These values were held across a range of careers, from police officers to sales analysts. As one woman said, “Don’t chase the pay, chase the passion.” Suggesting that women are more likely to settle for a role that they feel good doing, rather than a role for monetary gains.
This highly specific internalised bias (often referred to as the ‘unentitled mindset’) can impede a woman's salary progression greatly. Many described a reluctance to negotiate pay increases and promotion, stemming from an ‘unentitled mindset’, whereby they felt unsure of their entitlement to promotion.
Indeed, while many women are confident in their ability to negotiate generally, and to negotiate pay increases on others’ behalf, women expend a great deal of energy considering whether their own case was watertight. (The Female Lead).
Often, when women spoke for their own benefit, they were unsure of the rules of negotiation or the parameters of success.
According to a recent National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, women consistently rated their performance lower than men did, even though both groups had the same average score. Where men on average gave themselves a 61 out of 100, women gave themselves a 46 out of 100. Even when told that an employer would use their self-evaluation to decide whether to hire them and what to pay them, women still self-promoted less than men.
In STEM-related fields, this “unentitled mindset”, combined with feelings of imposter syndrome in an already male dominated workplace, can cause a huge disparity in mid-level roles. Previous research and initiatives has largely focused on and considered increasing the numbers of women at entry-level or at the very senior level of organisations. The crucial midstage phase of women’s careers has been ignored, yet this is precisely the phase at which firms tend to lose (and cry out for) female talent.
In order to combat this issue, organisations must clarify procedures in which promotion and pay raise are discussed. This may require internal training or a greater focus on staff progression. The solution to internalised bias lies in changing the environment rather than women themselves.
4) The cycle of Lack: The lack of female role models causes a lack of female interest in STEM
Alongside the idea of making one’s passion their career - why is there a significant lack of women making a career in STEM their passion?
Despite a 10% growth in the number of women studying at university (46% in 1985 to 56% in 2017) Gender equality in the workplace still prevails. This labour gender gap is especially acute in professions that tend to be male dominated, with a high technological and mathematical component - STEM.(Kahn and Ginther, 2017). Furthermore, drawing on the UK as an example, the ‘’UK’s future pipeline of technology talent is also heavily skewed towards men, with women accounting for just 15.8% of the UK’s current generation of engineering and technology undergraduates”(According to research by Spring.com). This is one of the major hurdles currently reducing gender equality in STEM roles in the UK. So, what is it that makes studying STEM subjects so much more attractive to men?
Certainly, this is not a case of ability, as girls nearly always outperform boys in engineering fields of study:
In the UK: In all STEM A-levels, except chemistry, more girls get A*-C grades than boys, and this pattern continues at degree level. Almost 80% of female engineering students will get a first or an upper second-class degree, compared with 74.6% of male students. (Spring)
In Australia: Analysis of grades covering 1.6 million elementary, high school and university students shows that girls outperform boys at all ages. This includes science, technology, engineering and math subjects, the Australian researchers said. (nbc news)
In the US: As noted above, the STEM pipeline starts at a young age, and in short, not enough girls are interested in, or encouraged to choose STEM subjects. As a result, the percentage of women majoring in STEM fields at California State University, for example, has remained a steady 37% since 2007, even though women make up 55% of all undergraduates. (edsource.org)
At the University of California, women make up 52% of enrolment, but only 24 percent of those studying for engineering degrees are women. Still, the numbers have improved - In 1999, only 21% of those studying engineering at UC were women.(edsource.org)
In PWC’s ‘Women in Tech’ 2017 report, 53% of girls asked in their survey also said their preferred career was a factor in their choice of subjects, compared to just 43% of boys. This suggests that girls are thinking ahead –but can’t envisage a career in STEM roles for themselves.
Indeed, the lack of girls choosing scientific studies may mean there is no critical mass of candidates prepared to access leadership positions.
Much research has been devoted to identifying the beliefs of students about STEM competencies and gendered motivational factors that influence their educational and career decisions, many of which signalled towards the importance of female role models championing and inspiring girls to consider a career in STEM.
However, due to the lack of female representation, there are a lack of role models - and the cycle continues.
The importance of cheerleaders and mentors
“Sometimes parents squash students’ interests because they are afraid of science or maths. So they don’t participate. You don’t have to know the answers to engage kids; you just have to let them know it’s important”. (Mae Jemison, First Black female astronaut to travel in space).
Women who witness more senior women thriving in a firm, without suffering bias, are inspired to seek promotion themselves - fact.
Research conducted by The Female Lead discovered that women spoke about the importance of cheerleaders or champions frequently. They defined cheerleaders to include but also extended beyond formal mentors - sometimes parents (either a mother or a father), sometimes a group of friends, sometimes a partner, and sometimes a co-worker or boss (either a man or a woman) who “believed in them” or encouraged them to apply for a more demanding position, or provided a sounding board for career queries, doubts, and dissatisfaction.
Many of the women participating in the Women at Work project reflected on the impact cheerleaders had on their careers, wanting to fill that role for other women in the future. Indeed, studies show that if girls had as many role models of women inventors as boys do to male inventors, the gender gap in innovation could be cut in half.
Gayatri Shenai, a partner in McKinsey Digital and founder of the annual Women in Technology and Operations conference commented: “I work a lot with women who talk about how stressful and challenging the experience of being the only woman in a work setting is,” says “You can’t be what you can’t see.”
Of course, we still have a way to go. Statistically, women must work 61 extra days (from the end of last financial year) on average, to earn the same annual pay as men.
But, having female role models, mentors and the significant role social media can play will have a huge impact on empowering and encouraging women to get into STEM. The digital world makes mentors and role models more accessible than ever before. For the budding female STEM leaders of tomorrow, they can now view, follow and consult with influential female VP’s - online and in person, through social media. As a result of this, we may be heading for an exciting shift in the way women perceive a STEM-related workplace to be, signalling to a new generation of female talent in the coming years.
Without a doubt, there has been tremendous progress in correcting biases about women’s abilities, goals and needs, yet often this progress is ignored. Many reports that note the persistence of bias try to address all forms of bias, as though starting from stage one. Efforts to avoid abuse of women’s talent would be far more efficient if they focused on correcting those specific remaining biases.
We are ready for change. Are you?
Written by Simon Gillibrand and Chloe Hampson
At The Female Lead, we want to make sure every child has access to positive female role models. If you want to read and share the stories of 67 remarkable women from around the world, you can purchase our NEW BOOK, or nominate a school to receive a copy for free.