Tackling the Gender Diversity Gap — Recommendations for Employers to Attract Women in STEM

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Nov 29, 2016
This article is part of a series called Wake-up Call.

For many of the employers we work with, gender diversity is a high priority on the corporate agenda — especially women in STEM roles. Employers are often tasked with achieving diversity targets, but are faced with high competition for the same talent and few ideas of where to begin to achieve this.

It’s unrealistic to pretend that you can “fix” the gender diversity issue by yourself — these issues are complicated and systemic, and require slow and steady progress from multiple stakeholders. That said, despite the limitations to your influence, there are ways employers can begin to address this issue.

Our recently published Women in STEM report highlights opportunities for employers to establish a more gender-diverse workforce.  Here are a few key recommendations:

  • Conduct research: Fund internal research to identify hot spots and determine where the hurdles for women are highest. Are fewer women applying for jobs than men? Do fewer get invited for interviews? Are they promoted at the same rate? Paid equitably compared to their male colleagues of similar experience and competence? Identify those areas of need, where your organization can make the biggest impact. Interrogate your data. Also, look at differences by region and by role.
  • Develop an action plan: Develop a short- and long-term plan to address those findings. Ensure each action has an accountable person responsible for execution, with a clear timeframe to deliver results. Also, develop country-level approaches where needed. Avoid one-size fits-all approaches that look good on paper but fail to deliver results. 
  • Focus on meaning: Address women’s search for meaning. One of our biggest findings globally was the extent to which women in STEM are looking for something more than a paycheck. Find out how your company can address this need, both in how it recruits young talent, as well as how it inspires them to stay.
  • Plan early interventions: A recent McKinsey study shows that women experience hurdles early in their careers, not just when family issues press on them later in life. Consider creating customized programs for high-potential women in STEM. These niche solutions may not work for the entire organization, but can support women who not only have intrinsic value to your organization for their expertise, but have potential to rise to management roles and have even more influence inside your organization.
  • Analyze turnover: Pay close attention to turnover of women in the STEM fields. Multiple research studies say the rate of turnover among women in STEM fields is not due primarily to family pressures — including a 2013 study from Cornell University that found an inhospitable work environment was the biggest driver. Examine closely what drives turnover of women in the STEM fields inside your organization and set up strategies to ameliorate it.
  • Redefine the narrative: Think about the role (and value) of women not as a social good or cause célèbre, but as a mission-critical issue. Our study finds that women express a greater preference for corporate ethics — a finding supported by external studies as well. Supporting and promoting women is a way of supporting different ways of thinking, including more awareness around ethical decision-making.
  • Create the right “abrasion” balance: The concept of “creative abrasion” was developed by Jerry Hirshberg, founder and president of Nissan Design International, and it has had a profound effect on technology companies, including Apple and WordPress. The idea is that organizations want some healthy amount of friction and conflict on teams to support innovation. Too little “abrasion” and insights aren’t questioned and challenged. Too much abrasion and teams never make progress, as they offer up competing visions. The right amount of creative abrasion, however, ensures the ideas are tested and honed in a healthy way. For teams in the STEM fields, supporting diversity, including gender diversity, is a critical form of creative abrasion. Women’s ideas and outlook often differ from men’s, and this divergence is healthy for organizations to advance and compete. This is particularly important as organizations grapple with fast-paced advances in fields that require clear, ethical thinking — fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, neuroscience, and biotechnology.
  • Make people accountable: Behind every announcement to support women’s initiatives, ensure there are measureable outcomes and accountability. Among the most troubling aspects of McKinsey’s recent research study was the finding that while companies say they are committed to gender diversity, and even take actions to support it, sometimes those actions are too superficial to make meaningful change. For example, it found 73 percent of companies recruit candidates from underrepresented groups, but just 46 percent require a diverse slate of candidates for open positions — something that’s harder to achieve. And 93 percent of companies say they “use clear and consistently applied criteria to evaluate performance,” but employees report differently. Fifty-seven percent of employees say managers use consistent criteria in practice.
  • Invest in more employee training, but make it specific to your company and culture: Where are the most serious hurdles inside your organization? Are you not recruiting enough women to interview? Is the bigger problem early-career promotion of women? Or are women leaving our company in higher proportions than men? (Or some combination.) Ensure training matches on-the-ground problems your organization faces. How employee training and development are designed and delivered are massively diverse. Solutions should be tailored to cohorts based on internal research. Younger employees often prefer on-demand solutions, for example. And mentoring — a strategy that lost favor for some time — is seeing a resurgence among women professionals, particularly in some STEM fields where women find the barriers to entry/promotion higher.

The gender diversity gap is a complex issue, and there is certainly no easy solution. Hopefully these recommendations have provided a few steps in the right direction for employers to truly begin addressing the challenges.

This article is part of a series called Wake-up Call.
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