How to solve the STEM gender equality equation

It's common knowledge that women are underrepresented in STEM careers. What's less clear is what businesses can do to better attract and retain women in their fields.

How to solve the STEM gender equality equation
Credit: Thinkstock

It wasn't until Christianne M. Corbett began working as an industrial designer that she gave serious thought to the lack of women in computing and engineering. The desire to explore the underlying reasons for the underrepresentation of women in these fields was fueled by her master's degree in cultural anthropology, prompting her to pursue a Ph.D. in sociology in an effort to get to the bottom of these issues.

Corbett, American Association of University Women (AAUW) senior researcher and Catherine Hill, AAUW vice president of research, co-authored a paper based on their findings, titled "Solving the Equation: The Variables for Women's Success in Engineering and Computing," which Corbett discussed at a session at last month's Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference.

Not surprisingly, the research revealed that women remain drastically underrepresented in the fields of engineering and computing, but Corbett's research also highlighted best practices and recommendations for increasing the proportion of women in STEM fields.

"We not only wanted to know why there are so few women in STEM, we wanted to actively work to find out what can be done to address this. Women make up approximately 26 percent of computing professionals; Black women are just 3 percent and Hispanic women are just 1 percent. It'd be one thing if these numbers accurately reflected women's representation in society as a whole, but they don't. Women are about half of the overall population -- so these numbers are only about half what they should be," says Corbett.

Prime the pipeline

Significant efforts have been made to increase the pipeline of women in high school and college and to encourage them to pursue STEM careers, but that's not enough, says Corbett. In 2010 alone, the U.S. spent $3.4 billion in federal funds to address Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education talent shortages, and to help improve representation of women and people of color in these fields. Programs like Girls Who Code are also trying to address the underrepresentation of women in computing through intervention and education-focused initiatives.

[ Related Story: 6 reasons your business needs female leadership ]

Acknowledge bias

What else can be done? It begins with greater acknowledgement of the problem, Corbett says. "Effective solutions require that we first acknowledge that we're all affected by gender bias. While overt biases have declined, unconscious biases still remain, whether or not we endorse those biases - even women have them about other women," Corbett says. Don't believe it? Check out the Gender Implicit Association Test available from Harvard University to see how ingrained these biases can be, Corbett says.

Unconscious gender bias is extremely common, even among those who consciously and vocally reject outward biases and stereotypes, she says. Unconscious biases are not an indication of what you might consciously, logically believe, but are more a reflection of the cultural norms that surrounds us from birth, Corbett says.

"As early as first grade, research has shown that students are already making a correlation between 'math' and 'male' and 'verbal' and 'female,' and those implicit biases are only strengthened by the time women enter the workforce," Corbett says. These biases can then impact how women are assessed and evaluated when they're applying for jobs, she says.

Change your evaluation and screening processes

"Businesses must change their evaluation processes to mitigate the effects of these biases and stereotypes; removing information about gender, race, age and other factors can help make sure hiring decisions are based on objective information -- though you can't remove these for an in-person screening, but it's a start," Corbett says.

There also must be an effort to hire and retain women at all levels in the workforce, Corbett says, not just a few here and there. Beware, too, of only positioning one or two women at high levels of the organization so that they aren't approachable or accessible to other women with in the company.

"Girls and women have to be able to relate to these other woman as role models and mentors. Positioning female 'superstars' might look and sound good, but it doesn't do much to impact technical biases," Corbett says.

Businesses should also focus on how they're testing and screening all applicants to make sure the process is fair to everyone; women in particular can be hindered by "stereotype threat," according to Corbett. Stereotype threat occurs when an individual fears being judged incorrectly because of the group they belong to or identify with, and it has real-world impacts. "When women in academic settings are told about the stereotypes associated with their sex, their test scores drop. That happens in the workplace, as well," she says.

[ Related Story: Is your company culture driving away women tech workers? ]

Be welcoming and inclusive

Beyond the screening and hiring process, businesses should pay attention to subtle cues in their existing work environment that may signal to women that they're not welcome, Corbett says. Male-oriented posters, a "wall of fame" that includes only male employees, even the language used in job postings and in corporate communications can be exclusionary, she says.

"Managers also should be held accountable for hiring decisions and making diversity a priority. Sometimes it's easier to fall back on stereotypes when we're trying to do something quickly; 'Oh, I didn't hire her because women aren't as good at math and computing,' isn't something you'd ever say out loud, but that's an unconscious bias thing again. If you're consciously thinking about it, though, you can be more thoughtful and careful in the process," she says.

Zero tolerance

And stick to a zero-tolerance policy for discrimination, Corbett says. Executive leadership must ensure that the entire organization understands that uncivil, discriminatory and biased behavior will not be tolerated, she says. Men within and organization can use their positions and privilege to help the efforts, she says.

"Men play an important role here, as allies. Be supportive, be friendly and gender-inclusive. If you see something, or hear something, speak up. If you're in a meeting and realize there aren't any women represented, mention it. Talk about your female colleagues' accomplishments. Actively look for ways to get involved and help," she says.

None of these approaches are necessarily new or novel, Corbett says, but taken together, along with advances in attracting more women to the STEM pipeline, can ensure more full representation of women in the workplace.

This story, "How to solve the STEM gender equality equation" was originally published by CIO.