August 3, 2018
Two of the most discussed problems in U.S. corporations today are how to get more women involved in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers and how to solve the U.S. STEM worker shortage. Yet it is rarely, if ever, noticed that solving one problem would address the other.
We often hear the problem is that more women need to get involved in STEM. But it’s clear from the data that girls have gotten the message that STEM careers can be profitable. Girls are entering STEM in equal numbers to boys, and there are many excellent programs in programming, robotics, and science to help girls begin STEM studies. In both high school and college, girls make up half or more of STEM students. This is a wonderful situation, and credit should go to all the STEM nonprofits, teachers, mentors, and others helping girls and young women.
Although the overall numbers look very encouraging, a deeper examination reveals gaps in the learning of certain skills desired by corporations. These include engineering and computer science. Girls should be provided with career advice by late middle school or early high school on the current job situation for STEM careers. Some may choose to shift from more crowded STEM areas, such as life sciences, to less populated fields. Girls also need family and educator support to confidently learn and excel in challenging subjects like advanced math, physics, and chemistry.
While the pipeline going from colleges to the workforce for women in STEM is reasonably strong, many women fall out between college and work. What could be happening? The problem has multiple parts. One is that college and early career women are not receiving the message about salaries and careers. Through cooperative employer and academic efforts, the connection between college majors and salary and current job availability could be more clear at the time a field of study is chosen.
Another issue is that women do not choose jobs based solely on salary concerns. Many tend to rate corporate culture and family-friendly policies (such as flex time) highly. Younger women also consciously or unconsciously look for role models, which are in short supply. Plus, they read the news about harassment and negativity toward women in tech. If they perceive that the culture in a career area is less than hospitable for women, they will turn away to other areas where they can work and advance without daily friction at work or between their work and personal lives. Thus, as employers and as a society, we need to examine whether jobs in the areas of lack are structured as welcoming and family friendly.
We can resolve our two most urgent work problems—getting more and better STEM employees and keeping women in STEM in the workforce—if:
Growing the women-in-STEM pipeline solves the problem of not having enough STEM workers. In fact, employees may already be trained and ready to work, but they’re walking away due to the less than welcoming environment. All companies need to do is be innovative enough to put out the welcome mat and make it feasible and pleasant for women in STEM to work in their organizations.