Opinion | Keeping the STEM woman in STEM

Opinion by Rebecca Wang
Feb. 9, 2022, 8:17 p.m.

When I finally had my first big-girl engineering job, the paltry number of immediate colleagues who looked like me was a huge culture shock. As a student, I haven’t been in industry long enough to experience the effects of the perpetual recurrence of these feelings, but by the end of three months, I had drawn my own conclusions. If I wanted to have a long, shining, successful career in this field, I needed to know my role models, mentors and about acceptable work culture (at least in my immediate team). I also needed to solidify my motivations and confidence in the field, and in myself, in order to survive the barriers produced by this gender disparity. 

Women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields have long been subjected to sexism in the workplace. They face stereotyping, harassment, opportunity gaps, derogatory comments and are paid less, promoted less and given less access to work opportunities. Despite women earning 35.1% of undergraduate degrees and 34.5% of Ph.D. STEM degrees between 2008–2015, the drop to 27% for female STEM workers and 5% for females in top executive positions isn’t entirely shocking. 

Several measures can be taken to improve the work environment for women. A 2016 study published in the Harvard Business Review found that in a hiring pool of four candidates, increasing the number of female or minority candidates from one to two significantly increased their chances of being hired. Specifically, they found that the likelihood of a woman getting hired was 50% in a candidate pool of two men and two women, but dropped to 0% in a candidate pool of three men and one woman. Thus, implementing gender-blind hiring policies could help women overcome the barriers of these types of biases. Furthermore, even though 50% of American jobs are performed by women, women make up only 6.6% of Fortune 500 CEOs. To address the bias that has led to this statistic, companies can implement directed programs providing training, mentorship and exposure to leadership opportunities for women, with clear articulations such as end-goals of promoting participants to senior managerial roles or C-suite positions.

Nevertheless, women face additional difficulties outside of the workplace. For example, having a family disproportionately affects women: 57% of new mothers work full-time compared to 78% of new fathers. At the same time, the U.S. is the only nation among the 36 member-nations of OECD that does not have a government-mandated maternity leave. Mandating these policies can give women equal decision-making opportunities when considering starting a family.

But uniformity in paid maternity leave doesn’t resolve consequences at the workplace for women after they have children — the current reality that mothers do the majority of child-rearing pulls women out of the race early on and prevents them from accessing work-related opportunities, such as promotion. The longer a woman’s maternity leave, the less likely she is to be viewed as equal to men for salary raises or promotions. Policies such as mandated paternity leave can help combat this bias.

These are only a few examples of the biases women face at work that have the potential to influence their growth opportunities; both the federal government and private corporations can continue to address other biases women face, starting with implementing more — and more nuanced — policies.

A prominent policy that has surfaced recently is pay transparency. There is no doubt that this move would quickly display the very real way in which women in STEM face unfair treatment. Companies can now close pay gaps and women can better advocate for themselves, instead of relying on being anonymously informed of this discrimination once the opportunity for negotiation is over. One such example is the NYC wage transparency law, which was passed by the New York City Council in December 2021 and goes into effect in May 2022. Opponents argue that this transparency could lead employers to retain fewer employees (due to decreased ability to pay talented staffers lower rates), and that it could have detrimental effects on employees due to salary tensions and the possibility that employees will take pay differences out of context. Ultimately, how a company treats these considerations will hugely reflect how serious they are about their company culture, especially when it has the potential to affect the company’s business model. Yet, in order to keep female professionals in STEM, a similar or modified policy should be considered.

In addition to implementation, better publicization of these policies can help shape workplace culture, allowing women to feel more accepted. Changes can include collecting and publishing statistics at the end of a performance cycle, reinforcement of company DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) goals by higher management and regular communication about these initiatives and culture amongst teams. Mandated sex-disaggregated data in areas such as pay, new hires and promotions can both increase gender diversity awareness amongst employees and drive better policy decisions. In 2019, 97.3% of venture capital (VC) funding went to male-founded companies. Publishing gender-disaggregated data on funding within VC firms can help bring awareness to their investment choices. Leader inclusiveness, which refers to “words and behaviors displayed by leaders that encourage others’ involvement and appreciate others’ contributions,” is another strategy that can help employees feel that it is safe to express their concerns, especially since “a lot of companies are early in diversity, equity and inclusion,” according to DEI consultant Melinda B. Epler.

Personally, leaders who embody these initiatives weigh largely when I assess my work experience. At my previous company, my manager made it extremely clear to me that it was important for me to report anything I felt uncomfortable with, after I once skirted around a description of unfair treatment. Later on, one of my teammates told me that, in the past, my manager had asked HR to be more mindful of the candidates they sent over for interviews after noticing the homogeneous resumes he came across during interviews. Although I never personally asked my manager about this, I became much more trusting of the fact that my manager really could serve as my advocate after hearing about his emphasis on promoting diversity. 

While these are all important action items, we must be cognizant of how this work is being executed — and, more importantly, who is doing the executing. Efforts towards implementing these standards should be shared equally, yet this work has fallen disproportionately on women. In academia, the unrecognized work performed by underrepresented faculty members has been termed “invisible labor.” Based on survey responses by 469 faculty members, a significant number of individuals who claimed to engage in DEI work self-identified as non-white, non-male or first-generation college attendees. By publishing gender-disaggregated data on who is attending or organizing DEI workshops and committees and engaging in diversity-focused recruitment and peer-reviewed work, among other initiatives, we can help close the gap of this unequal burden and perhaps change the culture in which most underrepresented individuals feel that they value diversity work more than their peers. 

We can certainly make significant improvements to the work environment for women. By retaining the amount of women who enter junior-level STEM roles, and eventually increasing the percentage of women in senior roles, we can start a cycle of increasing the number of women in STEM. With the increase in the number of female role models, younger girls with STEM interests will have a better chance at achieving their future career goals.

Rebecca Wang '22 is one of Vol. 260's columnists for the Opinions section. She is a graduate student studying aeronautical & astronautical engineering. A Texas native, she enjoys reading, frisbee, and spending time with friends. Contact her at [email protected].

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