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A Shift in Focus: Retaining Women in STEM

February 06, 2018

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." 

Dr. Maria Klawe (Photo via Harvey Mudd College)

The shift in focus from recruiting to retaining women in STEM can be an intimidating project, but we can all learn from Dr. Maria Klawe. A renowned computer scientist, Klawe was the first NSERC Chair for Women in Science and Engineering in the BC/Yukon Region from 1997 to 2003. She served as the dean of science at the University of British Columbia from 1998 to 2002, and from then served as the dean of engineering at Princeton University. In 2006, she was appointed the fifth president of Harvey Mudd College and made it her mission to increase the diversity of the school and engage women in STEM. In just five years, Klawe increased the percentage of women who were computer science majors from 10% to 40% by reducing what made it intimidating. 

This meant eliminating everything that discouraged women from studying it. The first step was to redesign the introductory course on computing to replace Java with Python, a coding language that was more forgiving, and make it more exciting by assigning creative team-based projects that had real-life applications. It also became a required course for all first-year students, but Klawe made a point of separating those with computing experience and those without into different sections so those without wouldn't feel intimidated. The next step was to eliminate what Klawe called the "macho effect". This meant that the extra vocal students in class were invited to speak with professors during office hours instead of dominating classroom discussion. This helped facilitate a more collaborative environment. Finally, these efforts were topped with a trip to the Grace Hopper Celebration, an annual conference for women in computing, to encourage first-year students to enroll in another computing course and eventually major in it. Coming out of the introductory course that was half female and half male, it became possible for women at Harvey Mudd to see themselves in fields like computing, engineering, and physics where women had previously been underrepresented and marginalized. 

While Harvey Mudd is a small private college of only 800 students, it is a microcosm of what is possible with enough effort and commitment to diversity. As a woman in STEM herself, it is important that we learn from Klawe's efforts and continue to amplify the voices of women in STEM and learn from their experiences. There is power in numbers, so when there is a critical mass of women studying together, women are able to lead a career any field. 

Learn more about Dr. Maria Klawe and retaining women in STEM in our interview, Best of the WWEST: Episode 11. We also helped organize the Fall 2017 SFU President's Dream Colloquium on Women in Technology, where you can watch Klawe's talk and six others for valuable insight on attracting, retaining, and promoting diverse talent.