Last month, General Electric announced that by 2020 the company would not only have equal numbers of men and women in its entry-level technical programs, but would also increase the number of women in its science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) positions from 14,700 to 20,000.
The news came as a welcome surprise. In many countries, women are, and always have been, under-represented in STEM fields, but few companies have made measurable commitments to address the issue. This is despite the powerful business case for gender diversity: More than two decades of research suggests that organizations with stronger female representation enjoy major benefits, including increased profits, improved governance, more independent thought and greater innovation.
It’s even been estimated that achieving gender parity would increase Canada’s GDP by more than $100 billion.
So why is the gender gap in STEM taking so long to close? A recent study analyzing more than 1,200 papers about gender disparities in STEM concluded that “masculine cultures” are the main reason for the larger imbalance in engineering, computer science and physics.
Disparities also persist in chemistry, math and the life sciences. Until women feel that STEM fields are places where they can fit in and succeed as easily as men, the statistics tell us that many will continue to pursue education and employment in other fields.
So what can organizations do? For a start, follow GE’s lead and prioritize gender diversity and make those priorities public. Hire more women for technical positions. Offer leadership, mentoring and networking programs. Feature more images of female employees, including women of color, on company websites and other communication materials. Publish more stories about these women, emphasizing how the work they do is creative, collaborative and improves people’s lives.
Those actions would signal not just that the organization values diversity and inclusiveness, but that STEM fields more generally are places where women can thrive. This perception must be the reality: All students or employees should feel equally respected, appreciated and supported from the top management levels down.
It seems that whenever there is a push for greater gender diversity in STEM, a segment of the population believes the initiative is motivated more by a sense of political correctness or a desire for positive PR than a need to fix an actual problem. If women are under-represented in STEM fields, this view suggests, it’s because women freely choose not to pursue careers in those fields for personal reasons.
But this perspective downplays the fact that a person’s interests and choices are shaped to a large extent by his or her environment. Ask the average person to picture an engineer, and odds are that person will picture a man — probably because engineers predominantly are, and are usually portrayed by entertainment media, to be male. Gendered associations like this tend to weaken women’s science and engineering aspirations.
If I don’t see it, they think, I can’t be it.
Increasing female representation in the STEM workforce would help create relatable role models, combat gendered ideas and negative stereotypes, and reduce the possibility of bias and discrimination. Parents and teachers need to encourage girls to engage in STEM-related experiences, and tell them that they can become whatever they want to be. Those in management and hiring positions should receive appropriate training to guard against the dangers of implicit stereotypes and biases.
What’s more, organizations should collect data on salary, recruitment, promotion, retention and leadership, and use this information to identify internal gender imbalances and correct them. After all, what is measured can be managed.
At the University of B.C., inviting women students to study engineering increased female enrolment in first-year undergraduate engineering programs by 60 per cent between 2010 and 2014. By participating in workshops, presentations, tours and mentorships, women discovered that these programs are more inclusive and exciting than they might previously have assumed.
Many women won’t seek out STEM opportunities if they suspect they won’t feel welcome. GE knows this and has taken action. Other organizations should follow suit.
Elizabeth Croft is a mechanical engineering professor and associate dean at the University of B.C.’s faculty of applied science. Nanon de Gaspé Beaubien-Mattrick is president and founder of the angel investment firm Beehive Holdings, which supports women entrepreneurs. Allison Sekuler is a professor of psychology, neuroscience and behaviour, and strategic adviser to the president and vice-presidents on academic issues at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.