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June 29, 2017

When it comes to getting more women in STEM, we must rethink everything

Learning and applying what works in a way the permeates culture and technology-enabled policy and processes is the only way forward.

By James Nunns

Patti Fletcher, Leadership Futurist & Solution Management, SAP SuccessFactors

This week, I spent some time in London talking with HR technology customers, press and industry analyst about the state of diversity and inclusion in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

There is a talent shortage problem in the technology industry – and in technology roles across all of these regional markets – and we all know it. In the UK, for example, the Women’s Engineering Society reported that women represent just 10% of female engineers and just 15.8% of engineering and technology undergraduate degrees with little sign of an increase.

When it comes to the dearth of women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) roles and the technology industry, the challenges leaders face is complex but not impossible. Material changes in gender representation require a mindset shift that values a culture of “and” instead of “or” at every stage of the talent lifecycle, from how success is defined to how women are trained and supported throughout their careers – all without changing the goal posts that have enabled men to thrive in STEM roles.


Challenging the success status-quo

Women hold different definitions of success, career paths and expectations from employers, peers and bosses. Let’s start with one big difference: not everyone wants to be a CEO or the star engineer. That means programs that focus solely on enabling women must include enablement toward positions that drive big impact and allow for alternative definitions of success. As women, we know that positional power may be good, but there is power in the person as well; thereby enabling anyone to have an impact.

Managers are trained to ‘empower’ female staff. Yet, women do not need empowerment; they own their own power, and it is not something that is granted or taken away. What women need is to be enabled, including access to mentoring, as well as coaching and advocating by influencers and decision-makers for all stages of technology careers. Attracting and keeping women in technology roles requires protean career paths – often referred to as jungle gym career paths – that offer multiple opportunities for exciting work and maximum contribution to innovation and growth. It also requires equal access to power-makers, influencers and earning potential.

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Rethinking engineering education

We have a problem in the technology-intensive industries. Many of us know it. Some of us talk about it. Some try to be sensitive while others like to pick fights. Yet, there is no debating that the facts are the facts. Fifty-three percent of employers in the UK have open requisitions for new engineering positions and well over half (64%) are concerned about the shortage of qualified engineers in the UK. The number of women entering STEM bachelor programs has remained stagnant since 2012.

There is good news on the horizon. According to a twelve-month study by Tara C. Dennehy and Nilanjana Dasgupta at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, when paired with female mentors, female engineering undergraduates felt more confident, driven, experienced less apprehension, were more likely to stay in STEM studies and pursue engineering careers after graduation than their peers who either had a male mentor or no mentor. Businesses can engage their existing female engineering workforce to partner with undergraduate women as part of CSR and university alliance programs. Senior female engineers can contribute to their profession in a meaningful way while budding engineers are able to see a clear path before them.


Restructuring business for the success of all, not just some

While recruiting early-career female engineers remains a challenge, retaining highly skilled and experienced female engineers is equally worrisome. Women hold most professional roles across most industries yet the Anita Borg Institute found that only 25% of technology jobs worldwide are held by women and they leave those jobs at twice the rate of men. That is a lot of capable, educated and experienced talent not working in an industry and in roles where diversity has been proven to catalyse innovation and financial performance.

Most leaders would agree that diversity is important to have but difficult to achieve. It requires intentionally inclusive practices where all talent can thrive. Knowing where in the talent lifecycle to start is often an overwhelming challenge. There is power in using actionable analytics to assess a starting point by understanding at what stage women leave and why. However, analytics is not enough. New practices and tools must be embedded in recruiting, talent development, data collection and organisational structure decisions. Using analytics to then determine what is working and what is not is key. HR technology embedded with inclusive practices such as using machine learning to identify biased language in job descriptions and performance reviews, for example, can help. But it’s only the beginning.

No one has figured out how to solve the challenge of women leaving STEM roles. Trying is half the battle. Learning and applying what works in a way the permeates culture and technology-enabled policy and processes is the only way forward.

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