Optimising labour market potential of women in STEM: From surface-level to deep-level diversity and inclusion
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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:
- Why do gender gaps in STEM continue to exist?
- What are "pitfalls" in current diversity initiatives in STEM?
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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