Optimising labour market potential of women in STEM: From surface-level to deep-level diversity and inclusion

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Optimising labour market potential of women in STEM: From surface-level to deep-level diversity and inclusion

This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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Co-Authored by Belle Derks, Full professor of Social and Organisational Psychology, Utrecht University

Worldwide, women are more educated today than at any point in history1. While gender gaps in education are slowly disappearing, this does not translate to labour market participation and women's representation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Women's underrepresentation in STEM organisations is evident at every point in the professional pipeline:

The brain drain of diverse technical talent – of women and ethnic minorities in particular – forms a direct threat to the innovative capacity and sustainable growth of the technical sector2. At the same time, jobs in tech are the most available and the best paid in the world3. Therefore, creating more inclusive STEM organisations offers the potential to advance social equality and to improve women's and ethnic minorities' economic independence and status in positions of power and decision-making.

The OECD's Forum Engagement Group on the the Future of Work & Women in STEM was created in 2018 and is made up of a number of OECD Forum partners including: Aegon, AARP, Bertelsmann Stiftung, Johnson & Johnson, Google, Randstad, Uber, The University of Sydney and The University of Utrecht. The group provides a collaborative platform for key stakeholders from the private sector, academia and civil society to identify the main challenges for people in a changing labour market, outline effective practices for up- and re-skilling vulnerable groups and co-design strategies to close the gender gap in STEM.

The current contribution integrates the knowledge generated from conversations with the OECD Forum Engagement Group members and the latest empirical research from Social and Behavioural Sciences on women in STEM to address three key questions:

  1. Why do gender gaps in STEM continue to exist?
  2. What are "pitfalls" in current diversity initiatives in STEM?
  3. What are strategies to improve diversity and inclusion in STEM?

Read the Summary of the OECD Closed Roundtable on the impact of COVID-19 on women: Spotlight on women in STEM on the Forum Network

Why gender gaps in STEM continue to exist

Socio-psychological research shows that gender stereotypes act as gatekeepers for women in STEM and manifest at all levels of organisations4,. For example, company cultures in STEM are coined as "chilly climates"5 unwelcoming to women6, where women are seen as a liability7, where sexist jokes are made8, and where family-unfriendly employment conditions exist9. Regarding the work itself, STEM professions are stereotypically seen as materialistic, individualistic, lacking a sense of community, and lacking broader concern for society and sustainability10. Finally, there is a strong biased belief that women lack the cognitive ability and are less innately gifted to succeed in STEM careers (e.g. "women can't do maths"). Despite mounting evidence to the contrary – gender difference in math ability is either non-existent or negligible in OECD countries11,12,13 – cross-national research in 66 countries shows that the belief that women have less cognitive ability than men is strong and that across nations this belief is correlated to women's underrepresentation in STEM14.

Thus, gender stereotypes at different levels of organisations act as a vicious cycle that sustains a narrowly-defined, masculine, male-dominated image of STEM15,16, which in turn forms a barrier for women's career interest9,17, choice18 and persistence in STEM19,20.  A multi-level approach is needed to debunk gender stereotypes about the culture, the work, and women's ability in STEM and to create a more inclusive image of what it entails to be a STEM professional21 and to broaden the scope on what it is like to work in tech.

What are "pitfalls" in current diversity initiatives in STEM?

From a synthesis of a large collection of diversity initiatives that were shared among the partners in OECD's Forum Engagement Group, combined with a review of the latest scientific insights and analyses on diversity programs, it is evident that organisations are highly dedicated to invest time, money and resources in programs targeted to attract more women in STEM. Yet despite these efforts, over the past 20 years companies have not become significantly more diverse or less biased22,23. Below we identify four pitfalls in current STEM diversity policy and suggest strategies for improvement.

Pitfall 1: Focus on diverse recruitment, but relatively little follow-up on inclusion and promotion

An often-heard statement from tech companies is "We do manage to get more women in, but we can't get them to stay". This fits with the fact that most diversity policies focus heavily on influx with recruitment programs to attract women into STEM. Yet once women are in, the follow-up initiatives to ensure that women feel included in the male-dominated tech culture are scarce24. Over half of female newcomers in STEM leave the field within the first year25,26 and lack of inclusion and loneliness due to the aforementioned gender stereotypes are often the reason25.  

More on the Forum Network: Towards a Woman-Powered Recovery in MENA: Now is the time to break remaining barriers for women’s empowerment by Juan Yermo, Chief of Staff to the Secretary-General, OECD

Women in STEM also rarely get promoted from mid- to senior level careers27,28. The first reason is that conversations with women about their work and performance are often biased due to gendered role expectations. For example, women get assigned more unpromotable tasks (administrative, supportive)29, are less often acknowledged for their contributions, are less visible30, and are given less voice31. Also, critical feedback about women's work is more often "sugarcoated" to avoid a scenario where women might get "too emotional"32. Such belittling and paternalistic treatment33 withholds women from opportunities to excel, to learn from mistakes, and to showcase their work.

Secondly, reward and promotion systems in STEM are gender biased34. For example, men are often promoted for their potential, while women have to prove-it-again and perform against more and higher standards35,36. Also, investors in STEM start-ups ask women questions about potential pitfalls, while men are asked questions about potential profits, and men get more investment money as a consequence37. Moreover, during negotiations women do ask for promotions or pay raises as much as men do, yet their propensity to get it is significantly lower38. The reason is that assertive women are considered "bitchy" and "unpleasant to work with", while men are considered "bold" and "tough" when they show the same behaviour39.

Finally, the role of parenthood is a key driver in gender biased conversations about pay and promotion in STEM, with women facing economic and psychological penalties when becoming a mother40,41 or even before, because they are expected to want to become a mother42, while fathers, on average, start earning more when they become a parent43. Indeed, 43% of new mothers leave fulltime STEM employment after their first child, compared to 23% of men44. Traditional role expectations of women as caregivers and homemakers clash with the masculine, competitive cultures in STEM and steer conversations with women away from ambitious career paths37 with a lower salary attached26.


Strategy for improvement pitfall 1: Follow a chain-approach in designing diversity programmes.

In designing diversity policies and programs, don't stop at the entrance by focusing solely on recruitment. Follow-up systematically and with a chain-approach with programs for inclusion, retention and promotion to ensure that women's entry to the STEM labour market is sustainable. In doing so it is important to take a multi-level approach:

  1. Focus on individual development, with programs and tools designed to support individual career trajectories of women in STEM from junior, to mid-level, to senior level. For example, female role models, buddy systems and mentor programs at all career stages in STEM fit very well with the chain-approach to individual career development and can provide women and ethnic minorities with support, belonging, and confidence to identify with one's future professional self. Having female exemplars can debunk the stereotype that "women can't make it to the top in STEM" and help women to envision a future career in STEM. See also, Johnson & Johnson's WISTEM2D program on nurturing a STEM identity for an example of a diversity program following the chain-approach.
  2. Focus on the organisational system and culture and take a critical look at the definition of career success in STEM. When you think about the successful STEM professional in your organisation, who do you see? How much does this person work, and what competencies does this person have? In STEM, a narrowly defined masculine "ideal worker" norm often shapes answers to these questions (i.e. "A white man, fully devoted to work, a fast thinker, cognitively gifted, innately brilliant, performance-driven and entrepreneurial"). Such superhero standard of the ideal STEM professional is not only systematically excluding women from pursuing a career in STEM, it is also not an inclusive and appealing culture for many men to work in. In order to nurture careers of STEM talents with a diverse demographic background, it is crucial to broaden the scope of what success means, to define multiple career trajectories, and to create inclusive organisational cultures.


Pitfall 2: "Fixing the women"

A majority of gender diversity programs and initiatives are targeted specifically at women, and for women only. Special offerings like "Girl Code", "Pump your Career" or "She Negotiates" aim to empower women to become better programmers, networkers, leaders, and negotiators. Yet indirectly, these programs communicate that women "need help", "need fixing"45 or "should become more like men"46 to become better STEM professionals. This unintentionally re-confirms the stereotype that "women are just not as competent as men" in STEM. Moreover, a "fix the women" approach places the onus on women and makes them responsible for resolving issues with gender inequality. Indeed, research shows that when topics of social inequality are discussed, people more often look at minority group members for answers because they are seen as the "experts" on the topic. This "minority spotlight" effect leads to great discomfort and exacerbated feelings of being discriminated against47. Also, diversity programs, networks and committees to improve gender inequality often require women to invest extra time, energy and money to service activities related to their gender at work; time that their male colleagues can invest in their actual work and career. In STEM, this effect has been coined the "minority tax", with women and ethnic minorities being overburdened with requests to be part of diversity committees and services at the expense of their time to conduct research and to publish48. Finally, majority group members typically do not feel very involved in diversity initiatives targeted at demographic minority groups, and associate such diversity messages with exclusion rather than inclusion49,50. This underlines how women's underrepresentation in STEM and the initiatives taken to improve their inclusion are often considered of little concern by a white male majority, which explains their relatively low support and effectiveness so far.


Strategy for improvement pitfall 2: Don't fix the women but develop all-inclusive diversity programmes.

Underrepresented groups are not responsible for fixing their own low status position. In fact, an active role of majority groups – the people in power – is crucial in order for diversity programs to be leveraged and to be effective. As such gender inequality in STEM is not a "women's issue" and men have a crucial role to play in promoting gender equality at work. In terms of communicating diversity messages, research shows that when majority members are explicitly mentioned as part of diversity policies, this leads to stronger feelings of inclusion and support for diversity initiatives among majority members. Moreover, field research shows that when men are deliberately engaged in gender-inclusion programmes, 96% of women in those organisations perceive real progress in gender equality, compared with only 30% of women in organisations with diversity programmes without male engagement. As such, a point of action is to make diversity programmes and initiatives more all-inclusive and have both minority and majority members take an active role in resolving inequality gaps in STEM.

Note that involving majority groups in diversity programmes and making them "part of the problem and thus the solution" does not mean "victimising majority groups for privileges lost" nor turning a "colorblind eye" to facts and figures regarding women's underrepresentation and other gender gaps in STEM.


Pitfall 3:  Merely raising awareness may raise resistance

Diversity programs to target gender bias and stereotypes through education such as diversity bias training are highly popular. The goal here is to raise awareness on how gender biases subtly disadvantage women relative to men. Unfortunately, empirical evidence shows that this type of training rarely makes companies any more diverse and sometimes even results in backlash51,52.  A mere awareness of one's own gender biases without proper tools for action tend to induce threat and resistance - among both men and women. Among men, because they feel unjustly portrayed as "the bad guys" for keeping the women out, or because they fear that they will lose out when organisations start promoting opportunities for women53. Among women too, because diversity training that reconfirms existing gender biases and stereotypes cause a drop in professional confidence54, or cause opposition to gender equality initiatives out of fear that others may assume that women were hired as a token, not because of talent.


Strategies improvement pitfall 3: Don't change biased individuals, but eliminate the contextual cues that cause the bias

Implicit bias tests activate heuristic information-processing systems in our brain through unconscious awareness of social categories (e.g. women versus men, white versus black, old versus young). Implicitly, we are all slightly biased because of the gendered social roles we learn throughout life. Given that we all hold some level of unconscious bias, and that there is little we can do about it as individuals, is best to take a critical look at what cues in the social context, such as in language, objects, physical spaces, and symbols are likely to activate that biased heuristic system, and remove those cues in order to give our "biased brains" as little opportunity as possible. Cues that induce gender bias can be tangible (e.g. vacancy texts with biased language, safety clothing sized for men-only, no nursing rooms available, posters with all-male STEM prototypes) but also more intangible (e.g. the evaluation standards we use, the type of questions we ask, the tasks we allocate, the pay raise we deem appropriate). For tangible cues, there are tools available to detect biased language, and gendered objects and spaces can be replaced. Actions to remove intangible biased cues are often more challenging. As for biased judgement in women's performance and reward, it is crucial to eliminate ambiguity in performance expectations and standards. The more specific and concrete performance expectations are formalised, the less likely gender biases are to fill in the cognitive blanks of our judgement. Also, gender balance in committees helps to circumvent biased performance appraisal of female candidates.

Steer diversity trainings from surface- to deep-level diversity

Diversity training that emphasises or even polarises male and female professionals as two different breeds ("having women in our work force adds the human touch to tech") do not do justice to the high versatility in different types of STEM professionals, regardless of their gender, ethnicity or age. Therefore, instead of focusing on visible forms of diversity (surface-level; gender identity) that polarise people into simple categories of "us" and "them", we suggest a shift to invisible forms of diversity (deep-level; professional identity) that activate elaborative information-processing and learning from multiple perspectives, expertise and ideas. Research shows that at work, feeling included and accepted on the basis of deep-level differences (e.g., personality, skill, values) is more important than surface-level demographic differences. In recent research, we applied such a professional identity approach to steer conversations from surface-level to deep-level diversity in STEM and designed a tool called The career compass; an evidence-based, data-driven tool to make deep-level diversity visible and showcase the versatility in professional identity profiles among STEM talents.


Pitfall 4: Lack of accountability and effectiveness measures

When asked about the "success" of diversity programmes and how this success was measured, it was clear that the programmes are not sufficiently evaluated on their effectiveness. How can we define best practices if we do not know whether diversity initiatives have worked, in that they increase representation of women in STEM, increase inclusive work climates in STEM or close promotion and pay gaps in STEM? Like any good business plan, when companies invest large amounts of money in diversity programmes, proper insight in what the programmes do, what the desirable outcomes should be, and whether the programmes succeed seems evident yet appears mostly absent. Also, STEM companies are often reluctant to show their "hard numbers" when it comes to gender gaps in representation, pay and promotion, out of fear for reputation loss. As a consequence, the mere presence of a diversity initiative may serve as "window-dressing: a signal that everything is fair and equal on the surface, while unintentionally the mere presence of diversity initiatives without accountability measures make it difficult to identify and litigate discrimination and disadvantage that is going on beneath the surface55.


Strategies for improvement pitfall 4: Accountability: evidence-based initiatives and effect-measures

One of the reasons that there is so little insight in why diversity programmes do or do not work, is that companies often indicate that there is insufficient expertise "in-house" on how to measure effectiveness of diversity programmes. This is where building bridges between academics and practitioners becomes of crucial importance. At Utrecht University, the interdisciplinary Gender and Diversity Hub is an initiative to build these bridges and to set up research collaborations and knowledge exchange between academics and stakeholders, for example at the OECD Forum Engagement groups on Gender Inequality and the Future of Work in STEM. A first important point on the agenda is that companies should be held accountable for their gender gaps and the ways they plan to close them. One way to do that is to track personnel data and publish diversity reports. As academics, we would say it is better to have a "crappy" baseline measure (and thus room for improvement!) than no measure at all (see also Google's 2020 diversity report). A large-scale framework to hold higher education institutes accountable for gender equality is the Athena Swan Charter in the UK (known as the SAGE Program, in Australia). Such programs can serve as a blue-print for STEM companies' systems of data collection, action plan development and accountability to drive real change in building inclusive organisations.

Apart from "hard" quantitative data and diversity quotas to evaluate and improve representation of women in STEM on a macro-level, another way to get to a more "deep-level" analyses and evaluation of the success of diversity programs is to apply micro-level qualitative and experiential evaluation criteria. These are particularly important in relation to the goal of inclusion, to understand what drives minority groups' thoughts, attitudes, behaviours and eventually career choices in STEM. Do mentoring programmes really lead to feeling more included and increase professional confidence among women in STEM? Are women's experiences with sexism declining due to interventions to change the culture and removal of cues that may legitimise such behaviour? Do career tools really lead to women's stronger identification with their STEM profession? Evidence-based, theory-driven tools, interventions and effect-measures allow for answering these questions.


Solutions:  From surface-level to deep-level diversity & inclusion programmes

There are no silver bullets to design effective diversity programmes to improve women's representation in STEM and dissolve gender gaps in pay, promotion and leadership. From our synthesis of pitfalls and points of improvement it becomes clear that inclusive diversity programs require a systematic, all-inclusive, evidence-based approach targeted at both women and men, targeted at individual careers and organisational cultures, and including both quantitative and qualitative effectiveness measures to which organisations can be held accountable. This means moving beyond a surface-level and snapshot approach to fix the underrepresentation of women in STEM, towards a deep-level, systemic chain-approach, where conversations and actions focus on diversity in professional STEM identities, on inclusive work climates, multiple career trajectories and flexible work-family arrangements. It means STEM companies need to have the audacity to be vulnerable. Collaborations between academics and stakeholders can be of crucial help in this process, to design deep-level diversity and inclusion programs in an evidence-based, sustainable way.


Gender Inequality in STEM and Covid-19

The Covid-19 pandemic has unfortunately highlighted that diversity and inclusion initiatives receive low priority in times of crisis, with budgets for diversity programmes being cut and gender gaps and social inequalities in the STEM labour market quickly exacerbating. The analyses above clarify that as long as gender inequality is considered a peripheral part of business, and diversity and inclusion programmes a "luxury product", financed with temporary project money, structural changes in gender equality and effective diversity programmes are still out of reach (see also contributions of Prof. Belle Derks and Renae Ryan at the OECD roundtable on Gender & Covid-19).


Related topics

Tackling COVID-19 Future of Education & Skills Future of Work Gender Equality

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Go to the profile of Horváth Ágnes
about 3 years ago

Great article, I really enjoyed it. I absolutely agree that surface-level inclusion is not only not enough but can even cause an even more hostile environment for women than before. An interesting aspect of this topic is the connection between HQs and subsidiaries. To what extent can the culture of the HQ shape the culture of the subsidiaries? In my opinion, there is the potential danger, that a historically male-dominated workplace will try and sabotage inclusion incentives ordered by the HQ. As the last part of the article mentioned, a crisis like COVID can push back these programs but also, it will be essential to take a closer look at layoff rates among women due to budget cuts and dropouts due to the increasing need for women's household participation as caregivers and mothers. Once we can finally leave COVID behind our back we can see clearer, but I'm afraid we will not like it.

Go to the profile of Ruth van Veelen
about 3 years ago

Thanks for your compliments on our article. I agree that there can be quite a difference in inclusive culture between HQ's and subsidiaries. Therefore, inclusiveness cannot be achieved if local managers don't support and enact it.