By: Danika Wong
It's no secret that there is a serious problem regarding gender diversity in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), but many organizations in academia and industry have begun implementing steps to work towards gender balance. This has included investing in local community programs to encourage girls to engage in STEM early on and offering internships when young women are preparing for graduation. It has also included revising the hiring process by watching for gendered language in job postings to increase the number of applicants who are women and including more women as interviewers to highlight the talent and opportunities within an organization. However, despite these initiatives to recruit more women, gender disparity still persists because of the rate at which women are leaving STEM.
"The pipeline isn't the problem," Kieran Snyder, co-founder and CEO of Textio, writes for Fortune. "Women are leaving tech because they're unhappy with the work environment, not because they have lost interest in the work."
In her years in STEM, Snyder surveyed 716 women who left the tech industry and noted the marginalization they faced not only due to gender but also race, age, and motherhood, among others. She quotes Dinah, a front-end developer, who said, "I'm pretty sure for some of them I'm the only actual black person they've ever spoken to. Everyone was the same, and no one was like me. How could I stay in that situation?"
In our blog post, #MeToo and a Call for Intersectionality, we talked about the harassment and discrimination that persists in STEM fields on an intersectional front. Two studies by Dr. Kathryn Clancy highlighted the disappointing numbers in which women experienced sexual harassment and the times in which sexism and racism contributed to a loss of career opportunities. 3 out of 5 women in the first study had experienced sexual harassment and almost 90% of the 474 participants in the other had witnessed sexist, racist, or other disparaging remarks in their workplace. While there is an increased focus on recruiting more women into STEM, the hostile environment they find themselves in is the reason why so many leave. Efforts to recruit women go to waste if the workplace culture does nothing to help retain them.
According to a study by Dr. Isis Settles, psychologist at the University of Michigan, mentoring by women specifically was positively attributed to voice, which was defined as women's "sense of personal agency and human value". By providing three types of support—career development, such as work opportunities and coaching; psychosocial support, such as friendship and counselling; and role modelling—this system promotes feelings of belonging and gives women the ability to speak up and be heard. But for mentorship programs to actually be effective, it means women need to already be in senior leadership positions to provide the service. Thus, when organizations hire and actively promote more women into these higher positions, it becomes a win-win situation. Women in established leadership roles become an aspiration to other women entering the field, and organizations flourish as a whole due to their diverse perspectives and new capacity to problem-solve. "Women at senior and executive levels serve as beacons to other women," Elizabeth Ames, Senior Vice President of Programs, Marketing, and Alliances at the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, says in The Globe and Mail. "They become visible symbols of the ability for women to succeed at the company."